Saturday, 22 August 2015

Nautical Metaphors

I must go down to the sea again

As I read the Patrick O'Brian series of novels for the third or fourth time, I am astounded at the number of nautical metaphors that have passed into our language from sailing ships and the sea. I suspect that this aspect of British history is the richest source of idiom and expression after Shakespeare and the King James Bible.

As a youth I sailed through the Hornblower novels by C. S. Forester, but by and large gave lesser imitators a wide berth. Forester had left little leeway for competitors. Then I came upon Patrick O'Brian and his series about Captain Jack Aubrey and Doctor Steven Maturin, chock-a-block with nautical detail and set, like the Hornblower books, in the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars. I was committed, hard and fast.

Master and Commander, the first in the series, was no mere flash in the pan. Eighteen more novels followed, each one meeting initial expectations with flying colours, and I continued reading them until the bitter end. Elements of the stories were often unresolved, leaving me high and dry until a new novel appeared in the offing. Nothing else would tide me over. I was left in the doldrums. Without an O'Brian book to read, I was all at sea. 

Reading has always been a mainstay of my existence, and on cold winter nights on the prairies, I would batten down the hatches, tell everybody else to pipe down, get under way, and read long into the night, sipping my scotch until I was three sheets to the wind.

I was taken aback when a seafaring friend of mine, and medical man to boot, let slip that he was making heavy weather of one of the novels. These were dangerous waters indeed, and he was sailing too close to the wind. I could not turn a blind eye. He had better take a different tack! I nailed my colours to the mast and sent a shot across his bows, telling him that I couldn't fathom his attitude and didn't like the cut of his jib. I was ready to tackle him at close quarters: there was no way he could cut and run. I told him to toe the line, to get on an even keel, to steer clear of small fry, and to strive with might and main to sound the depths of this great novel, or our friendship would go by the board. He acknowledged my signal, and from then on, it was plain sailing. We were no longer at loggerheads.

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