Welcome to the latest installment of our current Tale for Our Time - Erskine Childers' hugely influential bestselling thriller of The Riddle of the Sands. In two years of audio adventures, we have never presented a book that has so divided listeners. Following Mark Steyn Club member Eric Elsam's dismissal of this yarn as the biggest stinker in the history of stinkers, from Colorado Paul Cathey protests:
Just goes to show, 'One man's meat. . .' etc. I have been savoring this read as a a sumptuous meal. Childers' exquisite use of the English language alone, if this were nothing more than a travelogue, makes it worth, and doubly worth, the investment of time. I compare the refreshment of it to emerging from a desert of trite cliches, news-team speak, crashing non sequiturs, annihilation of grammar and syntax, and the utter disappearance of the subjunctive mood daily assaulting us, into an oasis surrounding a cool artesian spring nurtured by the Winged Messenger himself. But then my vacation begins the moment I begin the journey, not when I reach the destination.
On the other hand, Nicola Timmerman, a Steyn Club cruiser on last year's maiden voyage, is ready to jump ship:
Have to agree with Eric Elsam that this tale is very slow. It reminds me of clickbait on Facebook where it takes forever to get to the point of the story. I have sailed, but like most women I only put up with it to please my husband. So I get a lot of the vocabulary and manoeuvres.
Are you a sailor Mark? Can't see how you would have picked this story otherwise. How's your German? I habe Deutsch in Gymnasium studiert und habe alles vergessen. Geh mit Gott!
Gott und himmel, Nicola - as some German agent will surely say at some point in this yarn. Then again, First Weekend Founding Member Josh Passell blows hot and cold, and shifts as do the sands:
I confess that the Club member who declared Riddle to be rubbish aroused a hint of sympathy with me. It doesn't take much marine meandering and nautical terminology and before I turn green at the gills. (Fo'c'sles, gun'ls and mains'ls give me measles.) Yet I look forward to each episode as much or more than any serialization. Part of that is the "wellie" you give it (a favorite exhortation of Christopher Hitchens to barracking hecklers), but part of it also, I believe, is the very detail we landlubbers bemoan.
But most of all, I cherish lines like this one from early in Episode Seven: "The lack of egg cups was not in the least humorous." I think we can all relate. Cupped or cupless, let's go down to the sea in ships!
Oh, dear. Maybe yarn-wise we should have gone with "The Shifting Whispering Sands" as rendered by a far less controversial Irish figure, Eamonn Andrews:
That was Number Eighteen on the British pop charts for Eamonn in 1956. I said he was a far less controversial figure than Erskine Childers, but in fact for a few years in the early Sixties he was chairman of the Radio Éireann Authority and presiding over the introduction of television to Ireland (ie, non-BBC). And, if memory serves, no sooner had it got off the ground than Eamonn Andrews wound up quitting over some comments by my old pal Victor Lowndes. Victor was Hugh Hefner's Number Two and, upon landing in Dublin, he announced that he was there to recruit fetching colleens to work as bunnies in the Playboy Club in London. This sent a still devout Ireland into paroxysms of outrage, and Victor retreated to the fleshpots of Park Lane.
Bonus trivia question: What's the connection between Eamonn Andrews and Erskine Childers? Well, if Eamonn hadn't thrown in the towel and had hung on as chairman, the Cabinet minister he reported to would have been ...Erskine Childers' son, who was appointed as Minister of Posts and Telegraphs in the Irish Government shortly after Andrews' resignation. More on the younger Erskine Childers in my introduction.
Enough Eamonn-Erskine annotation. In tonight's episode, Carruthers, Davies and the Dulcibella bid farewell to the Baltic:
We rounded the last headland, steered for a galaxy of coloured lights, tumbled down our sails, and came to under the colossal gates of the Holtenau lock. That these would open to such an infinitesimal suppliant seemed inconceivable. But open they did, with ponderous majesty, and our tiny hull was lost in the womb of a lock designed to float the largest battleships. I thought of Boulter's on a hot August Sunday, and wondered if I really was the same peevish dandy who had jostled and sweltered there with the noisy cockney throng a month ago.
Boulter's is a weir and lock on the Thames just above Maidenhead, very popular during the late Victorian/Edwardian craze for weekend pleasure-boating. Carruthers is a long way from his "noisy cockney throng":
There was a blaze of electricity overhead, but utter silence till a solitary cloaked figure hailed us and called for the captain. Davies ran up a ladder, disappeared with the cloaked figure, and returned crumpling a paper into his pocket. It lies before me now, and sets forth, under the stamp of the Königliches Zollamt, that, in consideration of the sum of ten marks for dues and four for tonnage, an imperial tug would tow the vessel Dulcibella (master A. H. Davies) through the Kaiser Wilhelm canal from Holtenau to Brunsbüttel. Magnificent condescension! I blush when I look at this yellow document and remember the stately courtesy of the great lock-gates; for the sleepy officials of the Königliches Zollamt little knew what an insidious little viper they were admitting into the imperial bosom at the light toll of fourteen shillings...
For two days we travelled slowly up the mighty waterway that is the strategic link between the two seas of Germany. Broad and straight, massively embanked, lit by electricity at night till it is lighter than many a great London street; traversed by great war vessels, rich merchantmen, and humble coasters alike, it is a symbol of the new and mighty force which, controlled by the genius of statesmen and engineers, is thrusting the empire irresistibly forward to the goal of maritime greatness.
'Isn't it splendid?' said Davies. 'He's a fine fellow, that emperor.'.
You can enjoy The Riddle of the Sands episode by episode, night by night, twenty minutes before you lower your lamp. Or, alternatively, do feel free to binge-listen: you can find all the earlier installments here.
If you've yet to hear any of our first twenty-seven Tales for Our Time, you can do so by joining The Mark Steyn Club. Or, if you need a special gift for someone, why not give your loved one a Gift Membership and start him or her off with a couple of dozen cracking yarns? And don't forget to join us tomorrow for another episode of this Erskine Childers classic.