A can-can over the billows with élan and espièglerie

pyratesI’ve just spent ten minutes with a Yorkshire builder, and his all-purpose “Well …” Trying to decode that extended monosyllable would tax any linguist. Similarly, was it not Judy Dench who reckoned the most difficult speech in all Shakespeare was Cleopatra’s “O!“?

Still, espièglerie had me well-and-truly bunkered.

The OED gives us:

 Frolicsomeness, roguishness.

And a citation (one of just two) from Walter Scott, which takes us to The Antiquary:

Miss Griselda Oldbuck’s … niece, the same whom Lovel had seen transiently during his first visit, was a pretty young woman, genteelly dressed according to the fashion of the day, with an air of espieglerie which became her very well, and which was perhaps derived from the caustic humour peculiar to her uncle’s family, though softened by transmission.

They don’t write sentences like that any more, which perhaps is just as well. Though we may need to correct that judgement with a later example.  Equally, we may suspect the OED doesn’t quite catch the full significance of the term (unless we read much into “roguishness”), or that this later usage adds dimensions which Scott was too prudish to explore.

And so to George MacDonald Fraser

My headline here is similarly Scottish in flavour.

The presence of builders in the house (and we are still a fortnight from kitchen-installation) disrupts the even-tenor of our reading-habit. Time for remedial treatment.

FlashmanMy usual correction for a reading block of this magnitude is to revisit an old friend. On this occasion it wasn’t Anthony Hope, but his close derivative, George MacDonald Fraser. No, not the magnificent Flashman saga (we get enough of that each PMQs). The even-lighter, frothier The Pyrates. Fraser must have been working on this around the time he was cobbling the screenplay for Octopussy (#13 of the James Band franchise).

The Pyrates

For brevity and convenience, let’s go with the wikipedia summary of The Pyrates:

The Pyrates is a comedic novel by George MacDonald Fraser, published in 1983. Fraser called it “a burlesque fantasy on every swashbuckler I ever read or saw.”

Written in arch, ironic style and containing a great deal of deliberate anachronism, it traces the adventures of a classic hero (Captain Benjamin Avery, RN, very loosely based on Henry Avery), multiple damsels in distress, and the six captains who lead the infamous Coast Brotherhood(Calico Jack Rackham, Black Bilbo, Firebeard, Happy Dan Pew, Akbar the Terrible and Sheba the She-Wolf). It also concerns the charismatic anti-hero, Colonel Thomas Blood (cashiered), a rakish dastard who is loosely modeled on the historical figure, Thomas Blood. All of the above face off against the malevolently hilarious Spanish viceroy of Cartagena, Don Lardo. The book’s 400 pages of continuous action travel from England to Madagascar to various Caribbean ports of call along the Spanish Main.

Were we to take this confection at all seriously (which would be a grotesque mistake), we might use it as the ultimate satire of every cliché of a plot device. The web-site tvtropes (oh, how I wish I had conceived that idea!) lists some ninety — count them! We don’t have to wait until September 19th (International Talk Like A Pirate Day) to catch the spirit — which is somewhere between Navy Rum and sarsaparilla.

Get the flavour

Here are the first four sentences of Book One, chapter one:

It began in the old and golden days of England, in a time when all the hedgerows were green and the roads dusty, when hawthorn and wild roses bloomed, when big-bellied landlords brewed rich October ale at a penny a pint for rakish high-booted cavaliers with jingling spurs and long rapiers, when squires ate roast beef and belched and damned the Dutch over their claret while their faithful hounds slumbered on the rushes by the hearth, when summers were long and warm and drowsy, with honeysuckle and hollyhocks by cottage walls, when winter nights were clear and sharp with frost-rimmed moons shining on the silent snow, and Claud Duval and Swift Nick Nevison lurked in the bosky thickets, teeth gleaming beneath their masks as they heard the rumble of coaches bearing paunchy well-lined nabobs and bright-eyed ladies with powdered hair who would gladly tread a measure by the wayside with the gallant tobyman, and bestow a kiss to save their husbands’ guineas; an England where good King Charles lounged amiably on his throne, and scandalised Mr Pepys (or was it Mr Evelyn?) by climbing walls to ogle Pretty Nell; where gallants roistered and diced away their fathers’ fortunes; where beaming yokels in spotless smocks made hay in the sunshine and ate bread and cheese and quaffed foaming tankards fit to do G. K. Chesterton’s heart good; where threadbare pedlars with sharp eyes and long noses shared their morning bacon with weary travellers in dew-pearled woods and discoursed endlessly of ‘Hudibras’ and the glories of nature; where burly earringed smugglers brought their stealthy sloops into midnight coves, and stowed their hard-run cargoes of Hollands and Brussels and fragrant Virginia in clammy caverns; where the poachers of Lincolnshire lifted hares and pheasants by the bushel and buffeted gamekeepers and jumped o’er everywhere …

An England, in short, where justices were stout and gouty, peasants bluff and sturdy and content (but ready to turn out for Monmouth at a moment’s notice), merchant-fathers close and anxious, daughters sweet and winsome, good wives rosy and capable with bunches of keys and receipts for plum cordials, Puritans smug and sour and sanctimonious, fine ladies beautiful and husky-voiced and slightly wanton, foreigners suave and devious and given to using musky perfume, serving wenches red-haired and roguish-eyed with forty-inch busts, gentleman-adventurers proud and lithe and austere and indistinguishable from Basil Rathbone, and younger sons all eager and clean-limbed and longing for those far horizons beyond which lay fame and fortune and love and high adventure.

That was England, then; long before interfering social historians and such carles had spoiled it by discovering that its sanitation was primitive and its social services non-existent, that London’s atmosphere was so poisonous as to be unbreathable by all but the strongest lungs, that King Charles’s courtiers probably didn’t change their underwear above once a fortnight, that the cities stank fit to wake the dead and the countryside was largely either wilderness or rural slum, that religious bigotry, dental decay, political corruption, fleas, cruelty, poverty, disease, injustice, public hangings, malnutrition, and bear-baiting were rife, and there was hardly an economist or environmentalist or town planner or sociologist or anything progressive worth a damn. (There wasn’t even a London School of Economics, which is remarkable when you consider that Locke and Hobbes were loose about the place).

captainblood1If explicating Paradise Lost — even the opening twenty-six lines, and just two sentences to barely-literate, Biblically-deprived, mono-multi-cultural sixth-formers is a chore, consider how to unravel the referential complexities of that little lot. GMF’s Influential Bibliography, appended to the text, is a good start to “background reading” – though a wet Sunday afternoon, with Errol Flynn on a tv film re-run, might not be a bad one.

Incidentally, the headline for this piece is from chapter five (which is where I rolled over and went to sleep last night). The three ships of the “nasties” (all cuddly teddy-bears, really) are closing in on Our Hero, and his side-kick, the Anti-Hero, and — of course — threatening the Eye Candy:

Secondly came that gaily-decked galleon of evil repute, the Grenouille Frénétique, or Frantic Frog, flagship of Happy Dan Pew, French filibuster, gallant, bon vivant and gourmet, who was given to dancing rigadoons and other foreign capers as his vessel sailed into action. Clouds of aftershave wafted about his ship, whose velvet sails were fringed with silk tassels in frightful taste, its crew of Continental sea-scum lining the rails crying “Remember Dien Bien Phu!” and “Vive le weekend!” as their graceful craft seemed to can-can over the billows with élan and espièglerie.

[In fact, Happy Dan Pew wasn’t French at all. His real name was Trevor O’Grady from St Helens, but he had been hit on the head by a board-duster while reading a pirate story during a French lesson, and his mind had become unhinged. From that moment he suffered from the delusion that he was a Breton buccaneer, but since he spoke no French beyond Collins’ Primer, his crew had a confusing time of it.]”

Beyond which, all I can say is …




Filed under films, Flashman, George MacDonald Fraser, Naval history, Walter Scott

2 responses to “A can-can over the billows with élan and espièglerie

  1. Reblogged this on Pippakins Other News. Or something and commented:
    As someone who has dallied with builders on more than the odd, very odd, occasion I do empathise with this post. It conjures real solid, fluid volcanic emotion and leaves a sense of anti climax bordering on deep depression which is I assure the reader nothing like as deep as the hole one builder left in my bathroom. Sigh…It all adds up and you know what? I have discovered that having a man around the house, however feeble, does make a difference. For a start the builder tends to stay closer to the door, keep his hands visible and refrain from carving his initials in the ceiling. Well ! Indeed…

  2. Pingback: The not-so-great and the not-so-good, no. 31: Captain Avery | Malcolm Redfellow's Home Service

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