Magazine article The Spectator

The Boy's Own Stories

Magazine article The Spectator

The Boy's Own Stories

Article excerpt



by Patrick O'Brian

British Library, L50 (limited edition, L125)

Going through some old papers the other day, I came upon an exercise book in which my brother had written an early novel - he must have been about eight. The opening scene is set in a hut in a clearing in the jungle, where a missionary and his wife are trying in vain to beat off a horde of frenzied savages. `Do not attack the minister of the one true God,' this muscular Christian roars as he empties his revolver into the advancing masses, then calls on his wife, who seems to be acting as a sort of unofficial loader, to `kindly hand me my Martini Henry riffle' [sic]. All in vain - they are hacked to pieces. Skulls are cracked like eggshells, blood spurts from severed jugulars, their baby son is swept off by the victors to be brought up as a cross between Superman and the Noble Savage, and one realises that the author had been reading Tarzan.

I was reminded of this story when confronted by two early works by Patrick O'Brian, now issued in handsome matching bindings by the British Library. The first, Caesar, The Life Story of a Panda Leopard, was written when the author was 12 and by his own account delicate and somewhat precocious -- 'a sort of elderly child'. Even now, 70 years later, he can remember the gusto with which he embarked on this first work of fiction, and, as is the case with most children's writings, his sources of inspiration are fairly clear.

He does not explain why he made Caesar an impossible mythical animal whose father was a giant panda and mother a snow leopard. Apart from this unusual ancestry, Caesar, who tells the story in the first person, behaves very much like the other panthers, leopards and tigers whose life stories for children were popular in the 1920s. We have those staples of wildlife stories, the forest fire, the death of the mother, the kindly white master who tames the wild beast. And there is plenty of blood and guts here too - more eggshell skulls, a tiger disembowelled by a wild boar, an elephant kneeling on a panther `breaking every bone', while the jungle rings to `the mocking bellow of the alligator'. It is worthy of the ancient Colosseum.

Where Caesar differs from many other similar children's stories is in the young O'Brian's persistence. He keeps the story galloping along for 90 pages, then brings it to a proper end, and among the echoes of The Jungle Book and Rider Haggard there are vivid descriptions and the beginnings of a sure touch for words. …

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