O'Pinions & O'Bservations O' O'Bscure O'Briania

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Two's Company

From: Susan Wenger
Sent: Monday, October 16, 2000 6:46 AM

Before Patrick O'Brian took on his REAL name, he published several short stories for boys in the name R.P. Russ, in a magazine called "The Oxford Annual For Boys." Last year I reviewed "No Pirates Nowadays" in this forum. That was the third of the "Ross-Sullivan" stories. I haven't seen the first, which was called "Naughts and Crosses." Today I'll tell about the second, "Two's Company." These Ross-Sullivan stories established the characters that would later appear in "The Road to Samarcand."

"Two's Company" tells the story of a big broad Scotsman named Ross and a thin tall Irishman called Sullivan. These characters speak in very stilted language. I'm glad POB got a better handle on dialog as his writing skills developed.

The two are tenders in an isolated lighthouse: almost the most lonely in the world. They are "as different as any two men could well be."

"Ross was a fairly typical Lowland Scot, hard, and very silent; he had red hair and a great jaw. Sullivan, on the other hand, loved a jest, and he had the gift of a free-running tongue born in him."

Following a theme O'Brian later came to enjoy, "They were both educated men . . . Sullivan had been to Trinity, and Ross to St. Andrews, where he had lived on Homer and a barrel of salt herrings."

The men got along well enough for their isolation and boredom. One day they find and rescue two injured birds. Birds had the annoying habit of dashing against the light from the lighthouse and damaging themselves - Ross and Sullivan take in a sea-eagle and a skua. In a precursor to O'Brian's delicacy about foul language, there is an incident when the skua rips open Ross' hand with its beak:

"Oh, ye _______ye naughty fowl," said Ross.

The two men mend the birds, feed them and eventually tame them.

In time, their hitch on the lighthouse is up, but they decide to stay for another period, as they rather enjoy the lifestyle and the pay would be useful. They send out a wireless message, and arrange to re-enlist, and ask for Sullivan's violin and Ross' . . . bagpipes.

R.P. Russ deviates considerably from Patrick O'Brian at this point. "From the first they realized that it had been a mistake to send for the fiddle and the bagpipes. Neither appreciated the music made by the other, and soon their nerves were getting ragged."

Sullivan's erne, Cuchulainn, gets away one day, but returns to Sullivan's arm, to his great joy. Ross releases his skua, Lestris, to see if he will also return, and sure enough, he comes back. That night, the two men who had been getting on each other's nerves for some time talked freely: "they were human again." They play music for each other, agree to mutual tolerance, and praise one another's birds. However, the amity doesn't last long.

One day the two birds get into a fight over a fish, and the men have to separate them, each blaming the other's bird. That night they play music designed to discomfort each other, and they get into a bloody fistfight.

The fight clears the air between them, and they pitch the violin and the bagpipes into the sea.

This story did not have the word "prodigious" even once. It did have traces of O'Brian's early interest in wild birds, and the sea and wind, and the relationship between two men isolated from normal civilization; buried under a rather clumsy writing style. It's not that he was writing for young boys, it's more a technical difficulty with the flow of the action and the conveying of the dialog. The short story format may have limited his development of characters, but I don't think that's where the problem was; as his full-length "The Road to Samarcand" had the same stilted dialog and undeveloped, single-characteristic characters.

And "Two's Company" had this high point:

Sometimes Patrick O'Brian has a paragraph that seems out of joint with the rest of his tale - which I take to be something that was really significant to him, that he FORCED into the story because he was working out an issue or else it was something he'd written earlier, independently of the story, and saved because he liked it. I think I found such a piece in this little short story.

Some sharks were eating a shark that was caught on a hook.

"How very like men they are," observed Sullivan.

"Don't be sententious" replied Ross.

Sententious is an appropriate word here, but it doesn't fit in with the simple language of the rest of the story.

I believe that the boys reading this story were intended to think he goofed - "He meant 'contentious,' didn't he?"

This is the first time I've seen POB play a word-trick in the early writings - he must have giggled at this little twist.

The line "don't be sententious" is out of place with the way Sullivan and Ross talked to each other earlier and later. In fact, the line "how very like men {the sharks} are" is out of character also. O'Brian labored to work in this jest, I think - to make the readers object to a word which he actually used properly.

Ha! Ha!

- Susan: which even if I'm wrong, I'm enjoying the notion of it.

"Who wishes to be a meagre sailorman if he can be a learned and enter the government service? Why, in time you might be an official and never do anything for remainder of earthly existence. You could grow long fingernails, and become obese and dignified." -
Patrick O'Brian

From: John Berg
Sent: Monday, October 16, 2000 8:32 AM

Susan didn't mention the POB's age when he wrote the story but the POB trick she describes, accurately in my view, is typical of a teenage wise-ass, or, if you prefer, sophomoric . I think POB never stopped comparing his grasp of certain facts against the reader's, a trait that give us more information about his character rather than the stories characters. And I still think Stephen is POB's avatar.

On second thought, I am struck by how pertinent to the current "how to educate" debates this trait comes. Should no child advance to the next "level" until that child has a grasp of certain facts pre-determined by testing for that level? Do table manners determine class? Do IQ tests reveal the degree of wisdom or potential for wisdom?


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