Hell at Sea, Volume Eight: "The Ionian Mission"
"The Ionian Mission" finds Jack and Stephen participating in the blockade of Toulon, which sounds like a good time on paper. A blockade! Oh man -- that's like a siege, and the best stories are all siege stories. "The Hobbit," "Redwall," "The Iliad," "War and Peace," that last Harry Potter book. But the reader soon discovers that a naval blockade is nothing like a siege, primarily because living on a ship is already like living under siege conditions (inventory worries, close quarters, slow starvation, rats, ticks, shrieking), and this dilutes the piss out of the grog. All a blockade signifies for ships is that they sail back and forth instead of to and fro, practicing maneuvers instead of actually fighting.

The captains of these vessels slowly lose their minds as their vices and weaknesses are magnified by the stress of repetition. Jack Aubrey's vice is mass murder; Stephen Maturin's vice is assassination. With these two jokers on board, watching the French from land is like sitting underneath a beehive with a canvas sack, waiting for the hive to fall in order to capture all of the delicious honey, slowly losing all your fear of bees, wanting them to sting your eyes blind just to break up the monotony.

You beat the tree with the biggest stick you can find, but that just makes the hive pulsate and quiver. Oh fuck, oh hell, oh land.

Jack sails the "HMS Worcester," a ship called one of the "Forty Thieves": British-made ships-of the-line that are falling apart, badly-constructed, and rotting from the inside out due to graft and corruption in the War Department. His superior at the blockade is Admiral John Thornton, a man who is literally dying from boredom according to Dr. Maturin's diagnosis. He's been at this blockade for a year doing nothing but writing memos and pacing his own deck. You don't even get fresh crosswords!

When Admiral Thornton's health finally craps out after a few wearisome false darts at blockade runners, Jack and Stephen suddenly find themselves under the command of Rear Admiral Harte, a vindictive man whose wife used to find her leaks by running Jack Aubrey's sail under her hull. The "Worcester" is traded for the "Surprise" and sent on a mission to North Africa, a mission deliberately designed to overwhelm Jack Aubrey's meager diplomatic resources.

Their mission is to visit three competing North African warlords and find the one who stands the best chance of capturing a French port from land with the aid of British cannons. Suddenly "Hell at Sea" becomes Arthurian legend! The Evil Wizard sends the Hero and his Faithful Companion out on a Doomed Journey to find the Magic Spell that will restore the Dying King!

The three Islamic warlords with whom they must negotiate represent three rough stereotypes: the dainty aristocrat, the fierce generalissimo, and the old, enervated fox. Jack has to navigate Muslim politics in order to get the cannons in the hands of the right person, drawing upon Maturin's spy networks and his Full Complement of Good Hearty British Handshakes.

The usual stuff all happens. There is a pitched battle and the book ends with one of your favorite characters getting stabbed in the face with a saber.

Who will live? Who will get promoted? It's a cliffhanger!

Back at home Diana Maturin fucks everyone with a pretty face while Stephen is away, and Stephen doesn't much care, knowing that an arrangement is an arrangement. Sophie continues to raise Jack's children and fight lawyers, smiling the same dead, disaffected smile that Jack smiles while he is cutting people's heads off with a boarding axe.

They both wear pigtails, too.


This particular volume is definitely slower than the others, but this makes room for a few rum-soaked biscuits of moody rumination on the prospects of the rank and file versus the prospects of officers. It is often damned, damned unfair: the children of the gentry are earmarked for advancement over those who are more heroic, more seamanlike, and more qualified.

Say, do you you know old your average British Midshipman is? What were you doing when you were in grammar school? Were you killing people with swords on a boat?


Let's say you are sitting at home in Gibraltar -- drunk as a firehose with each arm around a saucy, plump prostitute that you are keeping in shape at a reduced "friend" rate -- when a nine year old boy storms into your quarters wearing the full dress uniform of a British navy officer.

"Right! Drop them ta-ta's and show us yer forearm, manjack!" squeaks the pube, standing at attention with his nose running and a rash spreading along his neck from the starch in his shirt. "The HMS Hyperion is leaving as soon as the tide changes, and I got my orders and my quota."

The lovely ladies giggle at the sight of this young whelp playing dress-up so convincingly and they wonder out loud to whom he belongs. Is he the charming son of Annie Charming, sent over to earn himself a toffee and get him out of the house for a few hours? Or perhaps he's one of Betsy Bigguns' cousins -- one of that pack that pimp for her and steal sailors' wallets while they snore and bluster?

You stand up, put your hat in your hands, and slump your shoulders.

While the lovely ladies giggle and point, your blood runs cold, because you know better.

"Aw, now, young sir," you say. "Ye've got the wrong fellow. Why, I've never been to sea in my life and wouldn't know a focsle from a spanker. I'm pure landsman. I wouldn't know the first thing about any bleeding sea-going vessels, trestles, pestles, wheezles, or measles. Don't be a prat, young gallant. I'm trying to enjoy a quiet seaside retirement."

"Show us your bleedin' arm, mate!" shrieks the squirt. "I'm an officer in His Majesty's Royal Navy, and you are a British citizen, and I will have you hanged for insubordination!"

You reluctantly roll up your sleeve and reveal the fading blue anchor tattooed along the rough blue veins of your forearm. The child starts laughing and claps his hands at such a neat game of show and tell. Only four years ago, he was playing peekaboo, and now he's been tasked by his Captain to press sailors at foreign ports in order replace those who lost their mess number in an engagement with a prize privateer in the Mediterranean.

"I knew it!" says the child, looking at your tattoo. "An able sailor. You are coming with us, sailor. No time to say goodbye or get your end in."

You luff up and shorten your tack.

"Right then, you little shit-eating pegboy," you say. "I'll tear your scrawny legs off and use your face as a drum if you come near me. It's no place of yours whether I'm an able sailor or a clockwork ballerina. Your place is bringing me hot towels to clean my marbles after I'm done fucking your mother back in Bristol; not bossing me around like you was sharing a cradle with the blessed savior. I'll pound your bottom with the fat end of a cat o' nine, and then I'll turn the lashes on you until you learn to respect your elders, young Prince Nobody."

You hover over the boy like the shadow of a mountain darkening every house in the village of a valley. Your fists clench at your sides, and the lovely ladies gather their things behind you whispering to each other that they've seen nothing and know nothing.

The young Midshipman cowers before you -- surprised and sullen -- and then suddenly he bursts into tears. You don't know what to do. You kneel and offer him your shirtsleeve to wipe his nose. Then, hearing their commander's cries, two Royal Marines run in with their rifles drawn and their redcoats flapping. They level their guns and pin your arms back.

"The first thing we'll do is press you for a decade," squeaks the Midshipman, sniffling. "And then we'll see about your insults and your jibes. We'll see who's the clockwork ballerina."

"Do you think this war is fought by pinchbeck volunteers and whistling dicks?" says the Marine to your left. "No, it's fought by prisoners chained to the cannon, the capstan, the noose, and the battery. You want to be hiding in some Turkish harem when the armies of Bonaparte march over the globe and turn us all into skirt-wearing musketeers with flowers in our buttonholes? Or do you want to go down -- blackened, cackling, bloody, and righteous -- deep in the belly of a fine British ship-of-the-line?"

The Midshipman hiccups away his last tear and punches you in your thigh.

"Now take him away and make sure he ain't walking when he gets aboard but that he can still row!" he says.

The Marines drag you away to the ship in port. Once you are aboard, your options will be to work, to be hanged, or to dive overboard and take your chances with sharks and the frozen depths. This child will have the power of life and death over you at every waking moment by virtue of his being born into a different caste with different opportunities and different lessons to learn. He must learn to remorselessly send better men to their deaths as fast as you must learn to go there.



The drizzled, poxy DNA of a Lord's son is still a Lord's son at sea, and every plank under the Union Jack is British soil, as long as the pumps keep pumping and the spars hold. British soil means kneeling to birth and privilege, and even Jack Aubrey can't send every child out on suicide missions in the dark, although in "The Ionian Mission" he does manage to leave a few behind in dark, lawless ports; where the men with big molars come round, punching their paws and flashing their knives as they circle round for sport.

"Jack! Jack! What happened to my child? Where is my youngest son?"

"Which one was he again?"

"Young Wilkins."

"Ah, yes. Regrettably, we had to leave him behind in Morocco. We sent him out to press sailors, but we had our orders and we had to leave with the weather-gauge behind us."

"How was he at sums?"

"Adequate. He showed -- uh -- promise as a sailor."

"My boy!"

Posted by miracle on Sun, 28 Dec 2008 05:24:16 -0500 -- permanent link

The Gallery at LPR
158 Bleecker St., New York, NY
Tuesday, August 5th, 2014

All content c. 2008-2009 by the respective authors.

Site design c. 2009 by sweet sweet design