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I confess to not having paid all that much attention to the latest NASA rover to set down on Mars, so it was only today as I’m catching up that I learned the thing is named “Curiosity”.

What the hell kind of a name is that?

“Curiosity” is what gets cats killed.  It’s what leads to small chimpanzees being captured by Men in Yellow Hats.  It’s what one goes to see at Ripley’s Believe-It-Or-Not Odditorium.  It has about it a kind of vacant frivolity, as if the thing is meant to simply putter around, flipping over the random rock as the whim takes it.  And, if challenged by Martians to explain what the devil it thinks it’s doing there, the probe has its explanation ready-made: “Oh, hey, just curious.”

Have we really reached the point where we can’t even come up with a name for a space probe that reflects the boldness and romance of interplanetary exploration?  No follow on to Voyager and Magellan and Viking?

Perhaps that’s the idea.  Wouldn’t want anyone to get the idea that the probe’s name is in any way threatening, or else that it could be taken as an approving reference to the tradition of Western exploration, which we all know now to be so hateful and hurtful.

They should just name the next one “Cuddles” and have done with it.

In a moment of weakness, ol’ Robbo volunteered to spend part of his last day off in touching up the paint on the portico which overshadows the front door of Port Swiller Manor.

Not having a sufficiently tall ladder at my disposal, this operation necessitates that I climb out a bedroom window onto the roof of the thing and hang over the edge to get at the trim.

I never expected to enjoy the job, but it’s turning out to be even more uncomfortable than I imagined.  I’m not a’tall fond of heights to begin with.  Hanging over the edge means the sweat runs directly into my eyes. The heat radiates directly off the shingle and soaks into me.  The shingle itself scrapes mightily as I drag myself about on it.  Then there’s the unsettling question at the back of my mind as to whether the whole shooting match is going to collapse and take me down, too.

All this because Mrs. R promised to be nice to me if I got it done.  We men are morons.

Ah, well.  Primer is nearly dry.  I suppose I need to get back up there.

UPDATE:  Done and done.  If I may make a suggestion, if you ever find yourself in similar position, you may want to sing this at the top of your lungs:

You may get a few strange looks from the neighbors, but the time will go faster.

Whilst away on his summah hols, ol’ Robbo of course tried to keep up with his readings.  In this, he was largely successful, polishing off three Charles Portis novels which he had already read several times, as well as tackling a series of new-to-him novels by one Edward St. Aubyn centered around the life and hard times of a figgah named Patrick Melrose.  (I’ll review those another time.  My short opinion is that St. Aubyn, although at times a clever wordsmith, is something of a wanker.)

But his main goal was to give another chance to an historickal work that he picked up a couple years back and, just as quickly, threw down in disgust, namely Noel Mostert’s The Line Upon A Wind: An Intimate History of the Last and Greatest War Fought At Sea Under Sail, 1793-1815.  The topic – the struggle between the Royal Navy and Revolutionary and Napoleonic France – is one near and dear to ol’ Robbo’s heart, the book has received all kinds of rave reviews, and in general I don’t like to give up on these things.  Perhaps I had been too hasty in my initial criticism?  Perhaps I hadn’t given myself sufficient chance to warm to the work?  Perhaps I was just flat-out wrong in my objections?

Nope, nope and nope.

I got about half way through the book’s 750-odd pages before giving up this time and am firmly convinced that my prior sense was absolutely bang on.  Why this book has received so much praise continues to baffle me, for I really think it a dreadful work.

For starters, I continue to suspect a) that Mr.  Mostert is not a native English-speaker and b) that somebody was asleep at the editorial wheel.  The language is bizarrely and irritatingly ungrammatickal, the sentences long-winded, (very often) repetitious and poorly organized.  There is a whole series of linguistic turns that had me twitching more and more each time I spotted them.  (For example, Mostert persistently refers to the English Channel as the “Narrow Seas”.  Who else on earth calls it that?  Not even the French, I believe.  He also calls ships of the line “line ships”.  He refuses to capitalize “Navy” when speaking of it as a corporate body and, more often than not, does not supply the article.  So instead of saying, “Such-and-such measure was unacceptable to the Navy,” he says, “Such-and-such measure was unacceptable to navy.”)  He also applies technical jargon most unevenly, going, for instance, to great length in describing the materials needed to construct a wooden warship, but utterly failing to give any background information on the standing and running sails and  rigging of a three-masted, square-rigged vessel before stampeding off to describe damage done to them in a given battle.  (I know what terms like mizzen-top, forecourse and spritsail mean, but how many other general readers do?)

Put another way, in terms of composition Mostert seems to have the words, but he doesn’t have the tune.

As to the substance,  Mostert seems to have a talent for getting things partly right and partly spectacularly wrong.  For instance, in a general way I found his discussion of the rise of competitive mercantilism in Renaissance and early modern Europe as the basis for a corresponding development of organized naval power to be reasonable.  (He took it straight from the great A.T. Mahon, after all.)   However, I found Moster’s assertion that the Indian Ocean, prior to the arrival of the Portuguese, was one big, happy lake peacefully shared by the Chinese, Indonesians, Indians and Arabs, to be utter nonsense.   The Chinese, in fact, had a very advanced and powerful navy until domestic policies changed somewhere in the mid 1400’s.  As to the others, they may not have had navies as we understand them, but that doesn’t mean that all was peace and love.  (Mostert remains tellingly mum on the subject of Islamic predation in the Med.)  Piracy was a way of life in those seas, and the atmosphere would perhaps best be described as Darwinian.  (Mostert apparently relied on a single source for his kumbaya assertion.  He might have done better not skimping on the research.)

In a more detailed example, Mostert foozles his analysis of the great mutinies at Spithead and the Nore in the late 1790’s, suggesting that they were influenced by a Jacobin, revolutionary spirit.  In fact, what made these mutinies remarkable was the sailors’ specific rejection of any such radical influence.  In their altogether reasonable demands for changes in a pay scale that had stood stagnant since the days of Charles II, better food and medicine and liberalized shore-leave, the tars were downright Burkean.  Mostert then compounds the error by bringing in the horrid episode of the Hermione in teh Caribbean, arguing that HM Government’s ceaseless pursuit of the mutineers there, even many years later, was a reaction to its scare over Spithead and the Nore.  This is simply false.  The reasons for HMG’s relentless quest for revenge in this instance were the facts that, a) in addition to murdering the bloody-minded Captain Hugh Pigot, the mutineers also butchered every other officer and warrant officer they could get their hands on, including a fifteen year old midshipman, and b) the mutineers immediately turned their ship over to the Spanish and scattered.  The official response to such barbarism and treachery was completely understandable.

Mostert also seems to have it in for Pitt the Younger, whom he constantly accuses of botching both international diplomacy and military strategy.  You don’t do that on my watch, buddy-boy.

Finally, I couldn’t help noticing Mostert’s in-and-out running with one of his sources, one Samuel Leech, an Evangelical young man who had hoped to become a midshipman but instead found himself an ordinary deck hand who wrote a bitter memoir about conditions during his time at sea.  Mostert applauds Leech’s evangelicalism when it suits him – in a discussion of flogging, for instance – but elsewhere sneers at it.

As I say, I made it about half way through this time before giving up in disgust.  If I got anything out of the experience, it’s that I no longer feel any lingering sense of guilt about not finishing.  I can read about these matters far more profitably elsewhere.

Greetings, my fellow port swillers!

Yes, Ol’ Robbo is home safe and sound from his week of frolicking at the beach down yonder in the Outer Banks of North Carolina (or the “OBX” as all those bumpah stickahs call it.)

You may file this under restatements of the bleeding obvious if you like, but it occurred to me again this past week that a vacation really has two components to it, the palliative and the counter-irritant.  The former is that about it which soothes, amuses, entertains, energizes, etc.  The latter is that which simply makes one wish one were jolly well out of this and back down the office.  It strikes me that any vac will share these two elements in some proportion or other.  The percentages will, of course, vary depending on the circumstances.

I won’t assign hard numbers in my own just-concluded experience, mostly because I don’t feel like it.  However, I can give you a few examples of the factors contributing to each.

First, the palliative.  Well, to start there’s the whole not actually being at work thing.  It is shaping up to be a dreadfully busy fall and winter for ol’ Robbo,  with lots of travel scheduled to the back of beyond, so it was nice to unplug the braims for a bit.  Then there was the beach itself, which was really the whole point of the thing.  The beach at the OBX (if I may) is extremely nice, being both wide and surprisingly clean, and afforded Robbo numerous very pleasant walks with and without various family members.  I say “surprisingly” because of the large numbers of people camped out on it.  Despite their numbers, I saw absolutely no litter whatever.  Also, the crowds themselves appeared to be almost universally friendly and well-behaved.  The surf, too, was quite nice, affording the gels ample opportunity for boogie-boarding and body-surfing.  Indeed, even ol’ Robbo himself boogie-boarded a time or two (although not too much, as it required taking off the ol’ glasses and I have an intense dislike of not being able to see).

Then there was the counter-i part.  The fact of the matter is that the OBX is not Maine (my usual home away from home) and I missed Maine.  For one thing, the weather was beastly hot and humid, and Robbo came home with little, if any, sense of real refreshment.  For another, as suggested above, the place is terribly crowded.  Robbo doesn’t like crowds.  And yet,  he was forced to encounter them literally everywhere: on the beach itself, in stores and restaurants, on the road (there’s only one running the length of the island – it took an hour to crawl back to the mainland yesterday), and even in his accommodations, the house in which he was staying being plopped right in the middle of an intensely close-packed subdivision.  When I sit out on the porch, I prefer to be alone with my thoughts, not to be surrounded by ten or a dozen conversations being carried out (usually) at the tops of the participants’ voices.

A word on the rental house itself.  Regular friends of the decanter will recall that the port swiller family was to share this vacation with the Former Llama Military Correspondent and his crew.  Between Robbo and Mr. LMC, that’s four adults and six children (between the ages of fourteen and two-and-a-half) living together.  You do the math on that one.  One of the architectural features of this particular house was that the bedrooms were all downstairs from the living room/kitchen.  That meant, as it turned out, that Robbo’s pillow was in a line eight feet directly below the spot where all of the little “blessings” gathered at oh-dark-thirty each morning to feed, apparently requiring to kick off the proceedings with a war dance.  (Also, apparently, unable to conclude a meal without hurling large amounts of food all over the floor, but that’s a different gripe.)  On the other hand, and to be perfectly fair, Robbo quickly discovered that the local cable carried his beloved Nats’ games and several comments were made about his, ah, enthusiastic and not altogether sober hootings at the teevee late in the evening.  Turn about and all that.

So there we are.  On the whole I would say that I had a good time, but I’m not sure I would want to go back again, at least during the season.

Oh, a couple of other completely random things.

First, I managed to burn the tops of my feet.  I do not recall ever having done that before and somehow it seems ridiculous to me.

Second, a big shout out to Holy Redeemer by the Sea Catholic Church located down in Kitty Hawk, where Mr. LMC and I stopped in Saturday evening to fulfill our religious obligations.  The place is staffed by the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales, which I appreciated muchly, given that St. F de S is one of my favorites.  It’s a very large church, but was absolutely packed to the rafters.  We got there a bit late (there’s that traffic again!) and literally had to stand at the back of the cry-room.

Third, Robbo didn’t bother to shave during his time away and now has something of a beard coming in.  (I have very fine -as in thin- hair and it takes a long time for this to happen.)  It’s red in parts (I was a carrot top in my misspent yoot) and white in parts.  I haven’t yet shaved it off, nor have I decided whether I’m going to.  This has sparked something of a civil war in the port-swiller household, Mrs. R being vehemently against the thing and the gels strongly urging that I keep it.  What will happen?


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August 2012