Wednesday Book: Home on the rolling deep

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IF C S FORESTER was the Navy's Mozart, Patrick O'Brian is its Beethoven. Better or worse are irrelevant comparatives. Nor is there any need to deprive oneself of the pleasure of the latter out of a misplaced loyalty to the former. Certainly, the dozens of British and American admirals, ambassadors, novelists, musicians and secret service agents who recently toasted O'Brian at a 370-strong celebration dinner in the Painted Hall at Greenwich saw no reason to qualify their adulation.

O'Brian's hugely celebrated epic of the British Navy between 1800 and 1815 has brought together perhaps the most unlikely combination of admirers in the annals of reading. At the dinner, William Waldegrave compared him to Homer, Mark Knopfler rubbed shoulders with the heads of MI5 and MI6, Danielle Steele and Rose Tremain tapped feet to the Beating of the Retreat. Go into any bookshop come publication day and the queue panting for their copy of The Hundred Days will include young and old, male and female, dreamers and sportsmen, philosophers and explorers.

Some have grown up with O'Brian - the first in the series was written in 1970. Others, myself included, came upon him more recently and read them in a tidal wave of energy. Most have returned to read them all through again. What we're talking about with a new O'Brian is a kind of Father Christmas letter about a much-loved and ever-growing family of characters in an unerringly authentic and gloriously patriotic setting. High endeavours alternate with everyday grinds, subtle dilemmas with love affairs, tragedy with comedy. Why wouldn't we like them?

But if you are an O'Brian virgin, beware of trying to jump aboard in mid-voyage. The Hundred Days is better described as the 19th chapter than the 19th book in his 6,300-page long series. Although its publishers insist that it can stand alone, to start here would be like listening to a cello with a duster stuffed in its sound-box. You will miss the echoes and resonances, the variations on a host of themes, that stretch back through the last 18 books. Worst of all, you will fail to understand why, on arrival at page four of The Hundred Days, there will be all over the O'Brian world great wailing and gnashing of teeth, and a general donning of sackcloth and ashes, as his hundreds of thousands of fans absorb the most unjust literary shock since Part VI of Jude the Obscure. Go and buy the first in the series (Master and Commander) and leave me to commiserate with the converted.

How can I soften the blow (the nature of which I have no intention of revealing, although crasser critics will do so)? I could tell you that it is, for all that initial shock, worth reading on. That we are back in the vessel Surprise and in the Mediterranean. That this is a much meatier book than The Yellow Admiral. That Aubrey fights some splendid actions and teeters between glory and ruin. That Maturin almost meets his match among the wily Arabs, but also adds to his formidable collection of natural phenomena. That there is promise in the book's sunset of a new dawn.

And finally, having lured you thus far, I can, sadly, promise that its recurring leitmotif is one of the subtlest sketchings of deep, deep grief in literature.

Now for comfits. How about a CD of Musical Evenings with the Captain (Morr Music, 13 Bank Square, Wilmslow, Cheshire, SK9 1AN), a compilation of the sort of pieces that Aubrey and Maturin played together in their cabin, complete with an essay by the Master on the music in ordinary people's lives at the time? Or you could get stuck into recipes for Drowned Baby, Archipel Flottant and Soused Hog's Face from Anne Chotzinoff Grossman and Liza Grossman Thomas's Lobscouse and Spotted Dog, "Which is a Gastronomic Companion to the Aubrey/Maturin novels" (Norton). Never mind "first catch your hare", we're talking syllabubs in which you milk the cow into the bowl and fritters made from the swordfish which happened to pierce the True-love's hull.

Or you could buy the recently reprinted The Golden Ocean and The Unknown Shore (both HarperCollins), the first two books O'Brian wrote. Both about Anson's circumnavigation of the world in 1740, they star a couple of midshipmen who, by all accounts, bear a striking resemblance to Aubrey and Maturin in youth. Or you could go down to "Woolcombe, or Woolhampton as some say", and leave a bunch of lilies at Maiden Oscott bridge.

Christina Hardyment