Thursday, May 26, 2005

23:Set sail for...

It's impossible to talk about Cochrane: Britannia's Sea Wolf without talking about Jack Aubrey as well, so I won't bother taking that approach. And indeed, on the back of the book you are warned to have read your fill of Patrick O'Brian and C.S. Forrester before you open this book, for once you look upon the deeds of Lord Thomas Cochrane, all fictions will pale by comparison.

And to an extent (a very large extent), this is true. The things that Cochrane did were truly amazing. He took on and beat French ships twice his size. He took so many prizes on one mission that he had only 23 men left on his own ship, not enough to man a gun crew, and then he took another ship by firing only the bow chasers at her, because her crew reckoned that only a maniac would come after them if he didn't have an enormous crew.

Cochrane was that maniac. A fighter in all things, a scrupulously honest man, he was also a parliamentary reformer and (sadly) a bit of a mentalist. He was an inventor and a man to hold a grudge. He was a man at sea on land, just like Jack Aubrey. In fact, many of the scrapes and escapades that Jack gets entangled in come from Cochrane's life.

But take heart, even if you've read this book and are thinking about reading some Patrick O'Brian. This book isn't funny. There is no choosing the lesser of two weevils here. There's no Stephen, no intrigue, and no real character portraits of any of Cochrane's faithful crew (well, you'd be faithful too if you were taking the kind of prizes these guys were), who surely must have been a huge help in carrying out his lunatic plans.

What there is, though, is an excellent account of the life of an extraordinary man, an interesting overview of the senseless waste and corruption that was rampant in Britain at the time, and some fantastic sea battles to re-enact with your cruet set whenever you have friends over for port.

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