The Patrick O'Brian Compendium©

The World of Patrick O’Brian

Saturday, November 4, 2000

Omni Shoreham Hotel – Washington, DC


It was equal parts academic lecture, Star Trek convention and AA meeting. Over 350 mostly older males, many in suits, gathered for an entire day in Washington to hear a variety of experts expound on a common theme – Patrick O’Brian. Arranged by the Smithsonian Institution, the all-day was entitled The World Of Patrick O’Brian, and was held at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in northwest Washington, DC.

Hosted by Ken Ringle, Washington Post columnist and reviewer, it was a vastly entertaining extravaganza of presentations about various aspects of the Aubrey/Maturin series. The audience had the feel of a neighborhood boys club – one almost expected secret handshakes, they were so many in-jokes and references to obscure lines in the books.

Before the formal kick-off at 9 AM, there was a half-hour buffet of coffee, juice and pastries. On display then as well as through the rest of the day were several prints by Geoff Hunt, illustrator of covers for the series and a presenter later on in the day. Mr. Hunt was himself present to talk informally about the prints, as were helpful sales associates from Mystic Seaport.

Ken Ringle himself started the series off with a talk on the nautical world, including slides demonstrating how a square-rigged ship’s best point of sailing is not directly before the wind, and what advantages a modern sloop-rigged boat might have over a square-rigger. Other points were raised as well, prompting a member of the audience to ask if the slides were from one book, and if so, what was the book so he could buy it. No, said Mr. Ringle, they were a compilation, which prompted several other attendees to give the names of their favorite reference books, out loud. Then others said no, that one was out of print, but you should try this one. You get the idea.

At 10, Dr. Robert Joy of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences rose to give his talk on The Medical World. Dr. Joy had brought a great number of slides to illustrate his points. Unfortunately, the Omni Shoreham’s slide projector decided to go on strike at this point, so that we didn’t get to see as many of them as he intended, and we also got to see several of them at times when his talk was on to other things. Despite this, his topics were very well-supported; saying that the prevention of scurvy was a major cause in the rise of the Royal Navy in the late 18th century, and driving home the point that many more seamen succumbed to disease than died in combat.

Following Dr. Joy’s talk, the slide projector having been taken out and flogged, Herman Viola of the National Museum of Natural History discoursed on the Wilkes voyage of the 1840s. This round-the-world voyage of exploration had many parallels in natural history to Stephen Maturin’s collecting and classifying. His slides cooperated fully with the speaker.

At noon, we were piped to dinner. Well, we trooped to lunch, at any rate. During the vittles, Cookie Grossman and Lisa Grossman Thomas, authors of Lobscouse and Spotted Dog, a cook book of the Aubrey/Maturin series, gave a talk on their efforts to reproduce many of the dishes O’Brian mentions. To save our modern constitutions, the only courses that were true to the canon were spotted dog and syllabub. The former (a suet pudding with raisins) was glutinous enough to qualify all the attendees for double-bypass surgery, while the latter (a milk, cream and sherry mixture) seemed only to cause a mild elevation in the cholesterol level.

After lunch, we were treated to a lecture and concert by Richard Kapp and Mela Tenenbaum on the musical works of the Aubrey/Maturin series. Mr. Kapp pointed out that although Locatelli was indeed a real composer, several of the works mentioned in the books don’t exist. Ms. Tenenbaum’s spirited rendition of several Locatelli pieces earned her a standing ovation.

Back at 2 was Ken Ringle, to talk about the books as literature. Why do we like them so much? He quoted numerous passages, demonstrating the humor and richness of the characters, dialog and plot. In the end, maybe we just like them because they’re good reading?

Last up at 3 was a panel discussion, with Ken Ringle, Starling Lawrence (POB’s American editor) and Geoff Hunt (illustrator of the covers). Many humorous anecdotes were recounted, as were several letters from POB himself. Questions from the audience followed, and by four-thirty we were all trying to remember where we parked our cars.

It was amazing to me that a series of books could motivate over 300 people to pay $100 each to sit inside a windowless room on a Fall Saturday just to listen to other people speak. On the other hand, the sense of sharing a really big secret made the time fly by. Throughout the day, speakers made reference to friends and relatives who had been urged to read the books and couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about. Your webmaster, however, couldn’t think of a better way to pass eight hours.

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