The first world war was fought between the British and the French in the
18th century culminating in Napoleon's defeat in 1815. The decades around
1800 saw the world opened up as never before. It was a time of political,
economic and intellectual revolutions. Capitalism found in the whaling
industry its first genuinely global enterprise. This is the setting for
Patrick O'Brian's series of twenty novels about the exploits of the sailor,
Jack Aubrey and his doctor friend, Stephen Maturin. O'Brian was born in 1914
in London of Anglo-German parents with the surname Russ. After the second
world war, he abandoned his wife and two children to settle with the wife of
Count Nikolai Tolstoy in a French Catalan village, where he reinvented
himself as an Irish novelist.
He was 55 years old when he wrote the first in the Aubrey-Maturin series, Master and Commander, and was in his seventies when he became famous. He died soon after his second wife, Mary, in 1999. His example interests me because I am from Manchester and settled in France seven years ago with the aim of reinventing myself as a writer in what many people regard as late middle age. I began my first novel a year ago and saw this movie in a Paris cinema with a mainly French audience.
It's not a great movie, but the story had resonance enough for me. The protagonists represent the man-of-action and the intellectual. The author lines himself up squarely with the Irish-Catalan doctor-naturalist-spy, Maturin, whom he represents as a proto-Darwin or perhaps successor to the great scientist, Joseph Banks, whose biography he wrote. But the hero of course is Lucky' Jack Aubrey, the Royal Navy captain, whose military priorities systematically undermine his friend's pursuit of scientific knowledge in this film. I was also struck by how it echoes the themes of Moby Dick, as interpreted by the West Indian writer, C.L.R. James in his masterly Mariners, Renegades and Castaways: Herman Melville and the World We Live In (1953). James argues that whaling (an integral part of this story) was the leading sector of early industrial capitalism, the whaling ship a mobile factory whose voyages connected all parts and peoples of the world. Melville wrote his masterpiece on the eve of the American civil wat which ushered in a new phase of state capitalism. We need to gain some perspective on these antecedents of our own era of globalization and Patrick O'Brian's novels have some claim to being one of the best introductions to that first phase. Peter Weir has done us all a great favour by translating some parts of them into the medium of the movies.
The only cinema still showing Master and Commander in Paris was the Grand Pavois at the end of Métro line 8. The name has nautical connotations. The journey back home gave me time to reflect on my own first round-the-world trip in 1972. I was flying to Australia from London in order to do a job in Papua New Guinea. I'll never forget the shock when the British Airways captain announced our flying time to New York. I had assumed we would be flying east, but it turned out that our journey was the other way round, via New York, Los Angeles, Honolulu and Fiji to Sydney. A baggage truck hit our plane's fuselage in Kennedy airport and we were delayed 19 hours there. The crew plied their truculent passengers with lots of booze, especially on the Los Angeles-Honolulu leg where we were allowed free champagne.
My traveling companion was an Australian film-maker of my age. He tried to tell me how lively his country's cinema was at that time, but I was more impressed by the information that his brother was the lead guitarist in the super-group Procul Harem, whose A Whiter Shade of Pale has to be prime contender for the most pretentious and meaningless rock song of all time. We were tired, drunk and not a little rebellious. My new friend and I devised a competition to see who could fill in the Hawaii immigration form with the most outrageous address. He won hands down with `Notre Reve, Fandango Avenue, Moony Ponds, Victoria.' The flight was 30 hours late by the time we reached Australia and, as a final insult, the plane was diverted to Melbourne.
We must have exchanged names at some point, but the two of us were content to make the limbo of that nightmare journey our self-contained world for a couple of days. Later I told myself that my companion was Peter Weir.
14th March 2004
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