The Riddle of the Sands - Erskine Childers, Milton Bearden

As for the other two, the girl when I saw her next, in her short boating skirt and tam-o’-shanter, was a miracle of coolness and pluck. But for her I should never have got him away. And ah! how good it was to be out in the wholesome rain again, hurrying to the harbour with my two charges, hurrying them down the greasy ladder to that frail atom of English soil, their first guerdon of home and safety.

The Riddle of the Sands is often hailed as the original spy novel that laid the groundwork for the more famous adventures of later characters such as James Bond. Except, of course, that Childers tale of two young men going off on a sailing trip and inadvertently stopping an invasion is nothing but a boys own adventure story.

Granted, most James Bond novels are adult versions of simple adventure stories, but at least Fleming added some style, some character development, social criticism, and reflections on the complexities of human nature to his stories. As many of you know, and as those long-suffering buddies who have read a Bond novel with me can attest to, I have some problems with some of the attitudes displayed in Fleming’s books. Yet, I’d prefer the worst of his writing to the Childers exploits in the spy genre. Not only lacked the story anything memorable (other than the proposed invasion), the proposed politics or assumed strategy in the book seemed quite illogical and just wrong – as would be proven during the First World War. The book is also pretty boring. Well, at least for someone who is not interested in the finer details of sailing.

The aspect that unnerved me most about the book, however, is that it’s story of a planned invasion of Britain by Germany fed into a general paranoia held by society at the time, that it took advantage of a fear of being attacked, that it glorified that naive sense of nationalism that would lead so many into the juggernaut that was WWI, and that its publication actually led to Britain building additional naval bases and increase its efforts in the arms race.

Is it not becoming patent that the time has come for training all Englishmen systematically either for the sea or for the rifle?


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