RogerBW's Blog

Never Go to Sea, John Winton 27 March 2014

Fourth of Winton's novels and in the loosely-connected series. The Artful Bodger (Commander R. B. Badger, RN) takes over public relations for the Royal Navy, and gets involved in running a horse in the Derby.

Rather like HMS Zubian, this is really two different books, and they don't quite fit together. One is Winton's usual comedy of Navy life, this time looking at the bureaucratic angle; the other is a sort of proto-Dick-Francis introduction to the world of horse-racing, as the Bodger is brought up to speed. Only at the end, when thanks to some leaked information much of the Navy takes an interest in the Bodger's horse, do the two strands approach each other, and even then they mesh uneasily.

The Navy side of the book, while worryingly optimistic about the morals and competence of the press, is quite fun. The Bodger isn't as exposed to the foibles of his fellow officers and men as in previous books, which is a shame; the cast of civil servants who replace them have a nasty habit of blending into each other, which I suppose to some extent is the point of the exercise, but means that the Bodger ends up carrying much of this half on his own. The brightest spot is the school visit.

The other side is Everyman's Guide to Horses: in the guise of lectures to the Bodger by his mate who's retired from the Navy and become a trainer, we are told all sorts of things about the business of racing. This book came out in 1963, when Dick Francis had only written two novels; it assumes a fascination with the whole affair that never quite caught me. Yes, it's fun to see the Bodger out of his depth and using his naval patterns of thought to make sense of the business, but somehow the connection between this and the Navy is a bit too tenuous for my taste. It could have been put into practically any humorous book. The mystery of why the horse performs so erratically is an interesting one, but a very broad clue ensures that by the end of the book very few readers will be surprised; this in turn makes the characters look foolish for not having spotted it before.

Winton has become prone to lists, which doesn't help matters. Do I really need ten lines of fictional racehorses that make up the pedigree of the important one? Or of imaginary newspaper tipsters? Or the various sub-courses on which a race can be run at Newmarket? None of these things is bad in itself, but at their length and frequency they feel like padding.

It's not a bad book, and I did enjoy it, but the first three (We Joined the Navy; We Saw the Sea; Down the Hatch) are a lot better. Definitely not a good place to start.

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