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I doubt seriously whether any but the squiffiest of my fellow port swillers will remember that a few years ago I wrote about the ill-fated expedition of Robert Cavelier, sieur de La Salle to the Texas coast in the 1680’s and his attempt to found a colony on Matagorda Bay, an attempt doomed by the loss of his supply ship La BelleWell, I did.

I was prompted to write about the matter in part because of my general fondness for colonial history, but specifically because I had just then stumbled across a website discussing the archeological work being done on the wreck of La Belle, discovering the remarkable coincidence that she had, in fact, gone down very, very close to Pass Cavallo, a piece of water where I cast many a fishing line during my misspent yoot (and where my own boat almost went down once or twice).

I bring all this up because La Belle is back in the nooz.  Apparently, she’s been successfully dug out of the mud at the bottom of the Bay and is now in the process of being freeze-dried, with follow-on plans to rebuild her:

More than three centuries ago, a French explorer’s ship sank in the Gulf of Mexico, taking with it France’s hopes of colonizing a vast piece of the New World — modern-day Texas.

Like La Salle in 1685, researchers at Texas A&M University are in uncharted waters as they try to reconstruct his vessel with a gigantic freeze-dryer, the first undertaking of its size.

By placing the ship — La Belle — in a constant environment of up to 60 degrees below zero, more than 300 years of moisture will be safely removed from hundreds of European oak and pine timbers and planks. The freeze-dryer, located at the old Bryan Air Force base several miles northwest of College Station, is 40 feet long and 8 feet wide — the biggest such machine on the continent devoted to archaeology.

Researchers will then rebuild the 54 ½-foot vessel, which will become the centerpiece of the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin.

As Sam Gamgee would say, I call that neater than neat.

I note that today is the anniversary of the birth, in 1769, of Napoleon Bonaparte.

Please charge your glasses, ladies and gentlemen, gunn’ls under, and join me in toasting three times three – Confusion to Boney!

“The Corsican Pest” by James Gillray

Greetings, my fellow port swillers!

Ol’ Robbo currently finds himself working his way through two literary series, the differences of which, when he stops to think about it, make poor Robbo’s head spin.

The first is Rosemary Sutcliff’s “Roman Briton” series, of which I’ve just finished The Eagle of the Ninth and started in on The Silver Branch.  (The other two are The Lantern Bearers and Sword at Sunset.)  These are basically books about the Frontier, in this case that of the Roman Empire in Britain the 3rd, 4th and 5th Centuries A.D.  While each one is a self-contained adventure story (the common thread is a series of characters who are members of a family of transplanted Italians named Aquila), all of them concern themselves more thematically with the peculiar (I would almost say unique) clashing, blending and melding of cultures and values that was Roman Britannia.  The last book is Sutcliff’s take on the story of Arthur, and presents (so I gather) Arthur in the guise of Britannic-Roman cavalry commander valiantly seeking to keep the last flame of Civilisation burning as the barbarian darkness closes in.  To me, this version of Arthur, in addition to being quite historickally plausible, has always been far more romantick and stirring than all the biznay with wizards and dragons and damsels in distress.  (Was it Churchill who said of the Arthurian legend that if it wasn’t true it ought to be?  I agree.)

Anyhoo, although the first three books of the series were actually written for kids,  The Eagle is as well-crafted and interesting as anything by, say, Bernard Cornwell, and if not particularly taxing intellectually, is quite entertaining and (dare I say it in this day and age without attracting snickers?) wholesome.

Not so much the other set of books on which I’m working, namely the Patrick Melrose novels of Edward St. Aubyn.  These four short books, namely Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, and Mother’s Milk, follow the life of the said Patrick Melrose.  Born to the Upper Clawss of modern G.B., Patrick suffers physical molestation from his draconian father as a boy and passive-aggressive manipulation from his mother and wife as a grown man.  He responds to all of this with a series of wild, self-loathing gyrations from childhood squirreliness to heavy cocaine addiction to alcoholism to near suicide.    The Mothe put me on to these books after reading a review somewhere or other that claimed they were well written and cutting, a sort of modern version of Waugh’s Vile Bodies.

Well.  I certainly can see that the books have some literary merit.  Some of St. Aubyn’s word-craft is quite witty, although I have some larger objections about plot and character that I won’t go into here since the Mothe has not actually read them yet and I don’t want to give away any spoilers.  As to the comparison with Vile Bodies (perhaps my least-favorite Waugh novel, btb), I’d have to say that they really don’t add up.   As bleak a picture as Mr. Woo painted of the Bright Young Things, one is always conscious that he was savaging them because of his own belief in some standard of (here’s that word again) wholesomeness, of a Greater Good that exists independently even if we can’t or won’t strive for it.   I don’t get that sense at all from St. Aubyn.  Instead, I’m left with the impression that beyond the self-absorption of his characters there is simply……nothing.   (He lets the cat out of the bag, in my mind, in a snarky little passage about Jesus’ sacrifice and the redemption of Man from sin that makes it clear he, or at least his protagonist, doesn’t understand the concept and certainly doesn’t believe it.)  For satire to really mean anything, the satirist has got to, as it were, have some solid piece of ground from which to push off.   Otherwise, he’s just wanking.

To be fair, I’ve just started At Last, the final volume in the series, so I don’t yet know how it all ends.  I could be completely mistaken about Mr. St. Aubyn.  Perhaps here he finally brings some real meaning to the life and hard times of Patrick Melrose, some (I hate this word) closure that links his character to something beyond himself.  If so, I suppose I would have to alter my view of what’s come before.   Otherwise, the story is nothing more than another example of the People-Behaving-Badly-And-Then-Whining-About-It genre, one that I personally loathe.

So perhaps you can see what’s causing the bean to oscillate.  On the one hand, rayther simple idealism, on the other sophisticated nihilism.   I need hardly tell friends of the decanter which is more appealing to me.

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