Saturday, 13 August 2011

"The Riddle of the Sands" by Erskine Childers

Alas, The Riddle of the Sands comes across as rather dated today, reading for all the world like John Buchan or Dornford Yates. Yet it was one of the most influential works of fiction ever published, fuelling public support in Britain for the Great Naval Race which preceded the First World War.

Our two plucky lads Carruthers and Davies take their yacht around the sandbanks of Friesland on a sailing holiday, only to discover dastardly prepations on the part of "a foreign power" as all the best thrillers of the day used to say. The story itself is well written and there is all sorts of nautical detail to please the Arthur Ransome and Patrick O'Brien fans out there.

Childers himself came to a sticky end, of course. Always a believer is some form of Irish Home Rule, he finally converted to the cause of full independence and joined Sinn Fein. Yet he was never really accepted by his new bedfellows, being seen as a renegade Englishman. When the Treaty split Irishmen down the middle, Childers sided with the anti-treaty de Valera, was captured by forces loyal to the late Michael Collins, and executed, famously asking to shake the hand of every member of the firing squad. His young son, also called Erskine Childers, and a former pupil of my old school, became President of Ireland in 1973 shortly before his death the following year.

This is such an important book that probably everybody should read it. It is a cracking story.

1 comment:

Emile de Bruijn said...

I love this book, such a fascinating Edwardian mixture of adventure, mystery and politics. And the sense of dread about what might be out there threatening Britain is palpable, the mists and storms of the North sea taking on symbolic proportions.