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Long Voyage Back by Luke Rhinehart (1983) 495 p.

A 1980s apocalyptic thriller of nuclear war survival, Long Voyage Back makes a good companion piece to David Graham’s Down to a Sunless Sea. Both novels – which are very much of the drug store paperback genre – follow a group of survivors in the immediate aftermath of a nuclear war who find themselves in a more fortunate starting position than the average joe: Graham’s characters aboard a jumbo jet flying between New York and London, and Rhinehart’s aboard a well-equipped trimaran. This stroke of good luck might at first appear to be the solution to all their problems, and indeed they’re far better off than 99% of Americans; but, of course, their ordeal is only just beginning.

Long Voyage Back‘s protagonist is Neil Loken, a former US Navy officer who now skippers the trimaran Vagabond for an investment banker named Frank Spoor, and has just sailed it up from Florida with Frank’s son Jim for a weekend of sailing in Chesapeake Bay with some family friends. When the war breaks out – the first sign of which is the nuclear obliteration of Washington D.C. just to their north – Neil’s first instinct is to get them out to sea, away from the radioactive dust raining down on the land and the desperate refugees beginning to flock to the seaside towns and harbours, and merely escaping the bay takes up the first quarter of the novel. From there the story develops into a long voyage to reach some safe haven further south, contending with fallout, limited food, conscription orders from the rump of the US military, and power struggles within their own group. Down to a Sunless Sea has an obvious immediacy to its survival situation – a Boeing 747 needs a runway within a matter of hours – but Long Voyage Back is telling a story about the weeks and months that follow the initial war, as the last remnants of landborne civilisation continue to crumble.

Rhinehart manages all this pretty well. He has absolutely no illusions about how the nation-states of Latin America and the Caribbean would react to a flood of refugees pouring out of the nuclear-stricken United States, nor about the kind of situation they themselves would be in: simply surviving the war itself does not mean life in the Global South will blissfully roll on unimpeded when the global economy collapses overnight. When Vagabond docks for a time in the U.S. Virgin Islands, there’s an hallucinatory end-of-days atmosphere among the locals; part drug-induced carnival, part purgatory of fear and violence. (It’s also explicitly said that the entire Caribbean – majority black with a population of wealthier native whites joined by the kind of white Americans who owned private boats – is simmering on the brink of a race war; this probably could’ve been handled with a little more sensitively than Rhinehart writes it, but it’s hard to deny that’s probably how things would go down once the food started running out.) As Vagabond continues to sail further south in an increasingly fruitless search for a place where her crew of American refugees might be welcome, it becomes more and more clear that what might seem like an idle prepper fantasy (“if you had a boat and knew how to sail it, you’d be set”) would by no means be a clear ticket to long-term survival.

Long Voyage Back certainly has its flaws. Rhinehart occasionally leans too far into his own sailing knowledge, leaving the unfamiliar reader all at sea; he’s also not particularly good at writing the sort of run-and-gun action scenes which become more common in the novel’s second half. It also has the typical sort of thin characterisation, clunky dialogue and sexism that you’d expect from pop fiction of the 1980s – though less so, it should be said, than many of its contemporaries. But on the whole I really enjoyed it. It’s rare to see an American novel about nuclear war which spares much thought for what might happen to other countries, and Long Voyage Back mixes that with a solid, page-turning adventure of survival.

The Yellow Admiral by Patrick O’Brian (1996) 262 p.

More than any of the series’ installments in quite some time, The Yellow Admiral beaches us back in in England. Jack is no longer a commodore, that having been a temporary rank, and while awaiting a fresh assignment he’s cooling his heels at his inherited family estate at Woolcombe. Stephen’s family soon joins his own, along with a number of other secondary characters the series has accumulated at this point, giving the opening chapters a rather festive feeling.

This return to terrestrial life is also a reminder of how well-versed O’Brian was with virtually every aspect of the early 19th century, not just the nautical arena. For example, a hot button issue in the village is that several landowners are pushing to enclose the commons – something Jack, whose say as lord of the manor counts for a great deal, is entirely opposed to. He and Stephen go hunting one morning, in one of those lovely little set-pieces O’Brian writes so well – a combination of the sensory experience of a vanished time and place with erudite, wide-ranging conversation – and Jack explains the issue in bits and pieces across the course of their walk. I had a vague idea of what a “commons” was in England, and knew that their “enclosure” was a big deal in the 19th century; but I couldn’t have told you precisely what that meant. I can say I learned more about the issue from Jack and Stephen’s conversation than I ever did elsewhere, and quite an interesting one it is too, being such a clear demonstration of the victory of capitalism over the working class (not that Jack would ever phrase it or even perceive it as such):

They talked about preserving game, poaching, keepers, and deer for half a mile, and then, when another lane branched off, winding through deep furze on either side, they followed it and so reached a white line of post and rail. Jack said, “This is the limit of the common. Beyond the fence our south pasture begins, demesne land. You have only seen a small corner of Simmon’s Lea – another day I hope to show you the mere and beyond – but it gives you an idea…”
“A wonderfully pleasant idea, a delightful landscape indeed; and in the autumn, the late autumn, you will have all the northern duck down here, to say nothing of waders, and with any luck some geese.”
“Certainly, and perhaps some whooper swans. But I really meant an idea of what these unhappy commoners are signing away. You may say they do not value the beauty…”
“I say nothing of the kind: would scorn it.”
“But they do value the grazing, the fuel, the litter for their beasts, the thatch and the hundred little things the common can provide: to say nothing of the fish, particularly eels, the rabbits, the odd hare and a few of Griffiths’ pheasants. Harding does not see them, so long as it is villagers, and on a decent scale.”
“Jack,” said Stephen, “I have been contemplating on your words about the nature of the majority, your strangely violent, radical, and even – forgive me – democratic words, which, with their treasonable implication of ‘one man, one vote’, might be interpreted as an attack on the sacred rights of property; and I should like to know how you reconcile them with your support of a Tory ministry in the House.”
“Oh, as for that,” said Jack, “I have no difficulty at all. It is entirely a matter of scale and circumstance. Everyone knows that on a large scale democracy is pernicious nonsense – a country or even a county cannot be run by a self-seeking parcel of tub-thumping politicians working on popular emotion, rousing the mob. Even at Brooks’s, which is a hotbed of democracy, the place is in fact run by the managers and those that don’t like it may either do the other thing or join Boodle’s; while as for a man-of-war, it is either an autocracy or it is nothing, nothing at all – mere nonsense. You saw what happened to the poor French navy at the beginning of the Revolutionary War…”
“Dear Jack, I do not suppose literal democracy in a ship of the line nor even in a little small row-boat. I know too much of the sea,” added Stephen, not without complacency.
“…while at the other end of the scale, although ‘one man, one vote’ certainly smells of brimstone and the gallows, everyone has always accepted it in a jury trying a man for his life. An inclosure belongs to this scale: it too decides men’s lives. I had not realized how thoroughly it does so until I came back from sea and found that Griffiths and some of his friends had persuaded my father to join with them in inclosing Woolcombe Common: he was desperate for money at the time. Woolcombe was never so glorious a place as Simmon’s Lea, but I like it very well – surprising numbers of partridge and woodcock in the season – and when I saw it all cleared, flattened, drained, fenced and exploited to the last half-bushel of wheat, with many of the small encroachments ploughed up and the cottages destroyed, and the remaining commoners, with half of their living and all their joy quite gone, reduced to anxious cap-in-hand casual labourers, it hurt my heart, Stephen, I do assure you. I was brought up rough when I was a little chap, after my mother’s death, sometimes at the village school, sometimes running wild; and I knew these men intimately as boys, and now to see them at the mercy of landlords, farmers, and God help us parish officers for poor relief, hurts me so that I can scarcely bring myself to go there again. And I am determined the same thing shall not happen to Simmon’s Lea, if ever I can prevent it.”

The neatly sketched outline of the conflict here, and Jack and Stephen’s encounter with another landowner who wants the commons enclosed and is also, unfortunately, a well-connected man in the Admiralty, would in many other novels be the groundwork for the overarching plot; but I thought to myself “I bet he wraps this up within a hundred pages” and in the event it was actually done and dusted by page 75, with the committee hearing itself occurring off-screen, all in that marvellously understated O’Brian way – and with enough time left over for Bonden to get himself into a prize-fight, another glimpse of a vanished 19th century custom.

When Jack and Stephen do return to sea it’s on blockade duty outside Brest, but what sets The Yellow Admiral apart from what I think must actually end up being the majority of the series is this: normal time has finally returned. Real world events are occurring; the pages of the calendar are turning once again; the Duke of Wellington has actually pushed Napoleon out of Spain. For time immemorial (certainly across countless years of my own life, since I only read a few of these a year) the series has been permanently suspended in a vague 1812 or 1813. Careers have progressed, children have aged, relationships have developed, and yet the war in Europe which is at least nominally the cause of all these seafaring adventures has been frozen in amber. But now the clock has begun ticking once again, and while this largely impacts Jack and the Navy by resulting in peace, it nonetheless lends a deeper gravity to the story, even as they languish on blockade duty; makes it feel somehow more real again than the fantasy bubble timeline O’Brian has indulged in for so many years. Indeed, for Jack, the outbreak of peace is in fact alarming and unwelcome for his own career prospects; he is likely to be permanently stranded on the post-captain’s list, never selected for promotion to blue admiral but instead “earning” the informal term of shame which is the book’s title.

“War of course is a bad thing,” he went on. “But it is our way of life – has been these twenty years and more – and for most of us it is our only hope of a ship, let alone of promotion: and I well remember how my heart sank in the year two, the year of the peace of Amiens. But let me offer this reflection by way of comfort: in the year two my spirits were so low that if I could have afforded a piece of rope I should have hanged myself. Well, as everyone knows that peace did not last, and in the year four I was made post, jobbing captain of Lively, and a lively time we had of it too. I throw this out, because if one peace with an untrustworthy enemy can be broke, another peace with the same fellow can be broke too; and our country will certainly need defending, above all by sea. So” – filling his glass again – “let us drink to the paying-off, and may it be a peaceful, orderly and cheerful occasion, followed by a short, I repeat very short run ashore.”

The final act of The Yellow Admiral is greatly concerned with Stephen’s arrangement for Jack to serve, with the Admiralty’s blessing, in a formal-but-informal role commanding the navy of a newly independent Chile, with the help of contacts he made during their South American sojourn in The Wine-Dark Sea. Jack is uneasy about the arrangement, involving as it does his temporary suspension from the post-captain’s list, but warms to it; and indeed as they set sail for the south he even decides to bring his family, who have never been abroad, as far as Madeira. The last chapter of The Yellow Admiral is a rather lovely picture of Jack’s family gaining an insight into the pleasures of the ocean which has kept him away from them for so much of their lives:

In fact his father, knowing that George was afflicted neither with giddiness nor seasickness, took him up shortly after; up, if not to the very head of the mast itself then at least to the topmast crosstrees, going by way of the maintop and placing his feet from below: from this height, the day being fine and clear, George could see for about fifteen miles, a vast expanse of glittering sea to larboard, with some shipping, and the English coast stretching away and away to starboard. “If you look aft you will see the Wight,” said Jack, moving about with the ease of a spider – an enormous spider, truly, but benevolent. George’s look of ecstasy touched his heart: and presently he said, “Some people don’t quite like being up here, just at first.”
“Oh sir,” cried George, “I don’t mind it: and if I may I shall go right up to the very top.”
“God love you,” said Jack laughing. “You shall quite soon, but not until you are perfectly at home up to the crosstrees. There is St Alban’s Head, and Lulworth beyond. We are making about eight knots and steering south-south-west, so about dinner-time you may see Alderney and perhaps the tip of Cape La Hague in France.”
George laughed with joy, and repeated, “Cape La Hague, in France.” When at last he could be prised off the crosstrees and so down through the maintop and by way of the ladder-like shrouds, he slid the last few feet to the deck by the topmast breast-backstay like his father. Dusting his hands he looked up at Jack with a glowing face and said, “Oh sir, I shall be a sailor too. There is no better life.”

That evening hands sang and danced upon the forecastle until the watch was set, ending a day that might have been designed to steal a boy’s heart away. George had been twice to the maintop crosstrees with Bonden; and the only thing wanting for perfection was a whale. Yet an island stretching broad this side of the horizon next morning was a reasonable compensation for a whale: an island with tall mountains in the middle, tipped with snow, although down here it was shirt-sleeves weather, even at breakfast. On the larboard quarter there was another island, perhaps fifteen miles away, and on the bow some others, long rocky thin affairs that the hands told them were the Desertas. Yet though the name had its charm, they had eyes for nothing but Madeira itself, which came nearer and nearer, the coast, often sheer cliff, moved steadily from left to right…

Funchal harbour was opening, a bay full of shipping with a small fort on an island rock, and then the town sweeping up behind it, white-washed houses one above another to a great height, with palm-trees bursting green among them, then vineyards and fields of sugar-cane rising higher still, and mountains beyond them. Stephen came and stood on the forecastle too – the women were busy packing below in their usual rather disappointing way – and with his glass he showed the children not only oranges and lemons, but also quantities of bananas among the sugar-canes, and the inhabitants of the island, dressed in the Madeiran manner, wonderfully strange and gratifying to an untravelled eye.

It’s a lovely chapter, and their arrival in Funchal is worthy of Bach’s prelude; after eighteen books of war, it’s a moment evocative of the new peace.

Then at breakfast one morning, overlooking the harbour, Jack observes a xebec sail in at full tilt. A young lieutenant dashes up to his residence and delivers a letter. Someone more familiar with the precise chronology of the Napoleonic wars might not have been as surprised as me by the sentence in the dispatch, but I was as shocked as Jack himself would’ve been: “Napoleon escaped from Elba the day before yesterday.” Of course I knew that would happen eventually, but didn’t expect it quite so soon; and while for Jack it’s largely important in that it makes him a commodore once more, ordered to take command of every British ship in Madeira and sail to Gibraltar to blockade the Mediterranean, for me the thrill comes from the fact that our main characters are once again playing a key role in a history which is finally back in motion. It’s one of the series’ few true cliffhangers, but also one of its very best endings – and it only works so well precisely because of the peaceful nature of the chapter it concludes, and the fact that O’Brian lifted the needle from the record of history for so much of the series in the first place. Bring on The Hundred Days.

The Singapore Grip by J.G. Farrell (1978) 681 p.

Singapore in the early 1940s was the linchpin – almost literally – of Britain’s presence in the East Asia. Their entire strategy of naval superiority revolved around it, and its shockingly quick capitulation to the Japanese just a couple of months after Pearl Harbour was the most devastating blow to the British since Dunkirk – making it the perfect setting for the final volume of J.G. Farrell’s excellent Empire trilogy, three loosely collected novels about the collapse of the British Empire.

The Singapore Grip largely revolves around the Blackett family, a British dynasty controlling one half of the rubber firm Blackett & Webb, and led by the bull-headed capitalist Walter Blackett; when his geriatric partner Webb dies, Webb’s idealistic son Matthew leaves his post at the League of Nations and comes out to Singapore to witness colonialism first-hand. Another character who returns like an old friend is Major Brendan Archer, the protagonist of Troubles, who is spending his retirement years residing on the grounds of Webb’s estate with, as in Troubles, an “air of rather gloomy integrity.” Along with this core cast of characters are glimpses into the minds of real-life figures pivotal in the loss of Singapore to the Japanese, particularly Governor Shenton Thomas and General Arthur Percival. What these characters all have in common – from the stiff upper lip Tories like Walter to the more vaguely progressive and somewhat anti-imperialist Matthew – is a dismissive view of the potential of Japanese aggression and a rock-solid belief in the solidity of Singapore and the British Empire, no different to the bullish naivete of the cast of Troubles in the face of IRA success, or the cast of The Siege of Krishnapur in the face of a mass sepoy revolt. Pearl Harbour may have been obliterated and the Japanese Army marching on Malaya, but the Singapore of the Blacketts in the early 1940s is still a world of garden parties, tennis matches, and their preparations for a grand parade to celebrate the firm’s fiftieth anniversary:

“We need to show Singapore in her relationship with the other trading centres of the Far East, holding them in a fair grip. It’d deuced hard to think of anything suitable, I can tell you! All we’ve managed to think of so far is to have Singapore at the centre of the float as a sort of beneficial octopus with its tentacles in a friendly way encircling the necks of Shanghai, Hong Kong, Bombay, Rangoon, Saigon and Batavia. Of course, the snag is that the octopus does not have a very good reputation…”

They end up going ahead with the octopus anyway, for a parade which in the event never materialises. It’s not often that Farrell strays from this sort of comedic haplessness, but when he does, he’s as damn good a writer as Britain ever produced, as in this excellent passage which brings the second act to a conclusion:

When the bombs fall, as they will in a few moments, it will not be on the soldiers in their tents or barracks, who might in some measure be prepared to consider them as part of their duties, nor even on black-dreaming Walter whose tremendous commercial struggles over the past decade have at least played some tiny part in building up the pressures whose sudden bursting-out is to be symbolized by a few tons of high explosive released over a sleeping city, but on Chinatown where a few luckless families or individuals, floated this way by fate across the South China Sea, sucked in by the vortex of British capital invested in Malaya, are now to be eclipsed.

The starlight glints on the silver wings of the Japanese bombers, slipping through the clear skies like fish through a sluice-gate. They make their way in over Changi Point towards the neatly arranged beads and necklaces of streetlights, which agitated and recently awakened authorities are at last and in vain trying to have extinguished. In a dark space between two necklaces of light lies a tenement divided into tiny cubicles, each of which contains a number of huddled figures sleeping on the floor. Many of the cubicles possess neither window nor water supply (it will take high explosive, in the end, to loosen the grip of tuberculosis and malaria on them). In one cubicle, not much bigger than a large wardrobe, an elderly Chinese wharf-coolie lies awake beside a window covered with wirenetting. Beside him, close to his head, is the shrine for the worship of his ancestors with bunches of red and white candles strung together by their wicks. It was here beside him that his wife died and sometimes, in the early hours, she returns to be with him for a little while. But tonight she has not come and so, presently, he slips out of his cubicle and down the stairs, stepping over sleeping forms, to visit the privy outside. As he returns, stepping into the looming shadow of the tenement, there is a white flash and the darkness drains like a liquid out of everything he can see. The building seems to hang over him for a moment and then slowly dissolves, engulfing him. Later, when official estimates are made of this first raid on Singapore (sixty-one killed, one hundred and thirty-three injured), there will be no mention of this old man for the simple reason that he, in common with so many others, has left no trace of ever having existed either in this part of the world or in any other.

One of the reasons I think The Siege of Krishnapur doesn’t work as well as the other two novels in the trilogy is that its cast of amusingly ridiculous caricatures of the British gentry are actually put through hell and back. It’s not quite as funny to see people being paid their just desserts to the point where their ribs are showing from starvation. Farrell wisely ends The Singapore Grip on the 15th of February, 1942, as the British administration surrenders to the Japanese Army and the characters who haven’t managed to escape the island (who are also the more sympathetic among their ranks) are marched to Changi; we know that grim years lie ahead of them, but don’t necessarily want to watch that happen. The appropriate conclusion to this story is not an explanation of what happens to the characters within it – and indeed there are many whose fates are left unexplained or ambiguous – but the fall of the city itself, which was the spiritual if not quite the temporal end of the British Empire in East Asia.

The Singapore Grip is an excellent novel, and the Empire trilogy itself, even including the flawed middle novel The Siege of Krishnapur, is one of the truly great works of British literature in the 20th century. It’s a shame Farrell died so young, particularly as the themes he dwelt upon – delusionally optimistic authorities, a self-serving ruling class, and a complete obliviousness to the notion that other peoples and nations might have divergent interests from those of Britain – are as relevant as ever in the Brexit era.

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