One of the many responses we have had to our latest mail out – which for the first time, reaches all Society members personally – comes from Patrick Coyne in Durban, South Africa. Patrick has kindly written the attached article which gives the background to his readings for the blind, and his personal and professional appreciation of of CSF and Hornblower stories.
Reflections on reading CS Forester’s books, and other books – both silently, and out loud
By Patrick Coyne
On 4 May 1971, I entered the soundproof studio of Tape Aids for the Blind in Durban, carrying with me CS Forester’s novel Mr Midshipman Hornblower. I had requested to be allowed to read this book firstly because that author was a favourite of mine, and secondly because all or nearly all the other CS Forester books had already been read by other volunteer readers. I opened the book, put on the headphones, twitched the microphone to its optimum position, checked that my ‘monitor’ (the person who controlled my recording) was ready, said a few words for volume checking, announced the author and book title, and began reading: ‘Chapter One: The Even Chance… A January gale was roaring up the Channel, blustering loudly, and bearing in its bosom rain squalls whose big drops rattled loudly on the tarpaulin clothing of those among the officers and men whose duties kept them on deck…’
As always, while I read, I was not only conscious of the author’s smooth prose and superb setting of the scene, but also the inestimable privilege I had to be able to do something I enjoyed doing, but which also would give enjoyment to heaven knows how many blind people who would listen to my voice reading the book, over the coming months and years.
The list of available titles carried by the audio library of Tape Aids for the Blind exceeds 50000, in all the 11 languages that are official in South Africa. The book that I was now reading would be one of the 2000+ books that would later be sent out in just one day to blind listeners of all races across South Africa, for whom the whole process, including all postage fees and also a tape player if necessary, would be completely free. ‘Tape Aids’ has soundproof studios in Durban, Johannesburg, Pretoria, Cape Town, and Pietermaritzburg, but Durban (my home town) is the Head Office and was the first to start recording more than 55 years ago.
Tape Aids receives no State subsidy, and so is entirely dependent on the generosity of citizens and business firms. It is also, of course, heavily dependent on its volunteer workers some of whom read the books, others who check them for correctness, and others who see to the packaging and postage of the audio books, and so on.
I have been reading for Tape Aids ever since 10 March 1965. The number of books I have read now totals 55, both fiction and non-fiction titles. But many of the readers have far more than that under their belts. I have made a habit of reading only once a week, but some readers come to Tape Aids twice or more times per week.
There is of course a certain skill in reading audio books. All prospective readers are given a stiff audition before being accepted as regular readers at Tape Aids. But all experienced readers will agree that some authors are easier to read than others.
As many of CS Forester Society’s members may know, if a reader is himself an author, then while reading, various modes come into play. One may read to be entertained, thrilled, charmed, educated, and kept at a level of white-hot interest. Then again, you may find yourself reading with a cold, even cynically critical eye as to the author’s writing skill. Also, when a book is read aloud, it has to be prepared beforehand to a certain extent. The result is that there is almost a degree of the atmosphere of a school-pupil’s ‘reading study’ test or university student’s critical evaluation about the whole exercise.
For me, while preparing an hour’s reading of a CS Forester book I was always conscious of his superb characterization skill. His protagonist, Hornblower, was not drawn just as a highly skilled sailor, but also as a man who was prone to fits of self-flagellation. He was a more complex character than most of the heroes of naval history novels written by other authors. He was courageous, yet his own worst enemy when faced by danger. In other words, because he was so conscious of the coming life-threatening situation, and so frightened by it, that in the end, it made him far braver than more insensitive officers.
Then, I was always strangely intrigued by CS Forester’s depiction of Hornblower’s deeper moral convictions. While the author took care to describe him as an atheist, or at best an agnostic, yet he made him display what was in effect the traditional Christian virtues. Just one example: In the story in Mr Midshipman Hornblower titled ‘The Duchess and the Devil’, Hornblower is tempted to forget his solemn word of honour to the Spanish that he would not try to escape. As CS Forester so impressively wrote, ‘All he had to do was not to say a word. He had only to keep silence for a day or two. But the devil did not tempt him long. Only until he had taken his next sip of rum-and-water. Then he thrust the devil behind him and met Crone’s eyes again. “I am sorry, sir,’ he said.
‘I am here on parole. I gave my word before I left the beach.’
‘You did? That alters the case…”’
Then, the author very properly milks the exquisite situation by describing the outcome , how ten men arrived back on Spanish shores, with nine of them laughing and shouting, while the tenth ‘walked with a fixed expression on his face… his expression did not change even when the others, with obvious affection, put their arms around his shoulders.’
I have not yet mentioned more obvious charms of CS Forester’s stories. For example, his unrivalled knowledge of the Royal Navy’s customs in the past, plus his encyclopedic grasp of the technicalities of naval sailing ships and their handling. An extreme example of the latter is the episode in A Ship of the Line where Hornblower actually takes the dismasted flagship Pluto in tow behind his own ship, the Sutherland, in a fierce storm, on a lee shore, and saves it successfully.
I cannot leave this subject of how one can read CS Forester’s books while admiring his skill, without touching on his ability to describe Hornblower in love. In A Ship of the Line, allow me once more to quote:
‘There were several persons in the oak paneled room into which they were ushered, but for Hornblower there was only one. Lady Barbara was there in a blue silk dress, blue grey, the exact colour of her eyes. On a gold chain round her neck hung a sapphire pendant, but the sapphires seemed lifeless compared with her glance. The fringes of the room seemed to be deep in mist; only Lady Barbara could be clearly seen… “I must congratulate you, Captain, on your appointment to the Sutherland,” said Lady Barbara on his left. A breath of perfume was wafted from her as she spoke, and Hornblower’s head swam. To smell the scent of her and to hear her voice again, was like some romantic drug to him…’
Outstanding ability in so many aspects of fiction, especially naval fiction, must be only a weak tribute to an author who has, sadly, now left us.
Here is the website giving more information on Tape Aids for the Blind: www.tapeaids.com
My website which details my published books is: www.patrickcoyne.co.za
My e-mail address is: voicepi“at”mweb.co.za (replace “at” by “@”)
My physical address is: 24 Adrienne Ave. Glenashley, Durban 4051, South Africa