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Patrick Evans on Ernle Bradford, Ulysses Found, Slightly Foxed Issue 18

The Siren Call

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In 1963, with twenty years’ cruising the Mediterranean in destroyers and small yachts under his belt, an ex-naval officer and historian named Ernle Bradford sat down to trace the geography of the greatest adventure story ever told: the Odyssey.

My quest for Ulysses began long ago in Alexandria . . . I met Andreas – his shirt open, the sweat trickling off his matted black chest – who said: ‘My mother came from Ithaca, you know.’

Bradford was 19 at the time, and this meeting reshaped his image of Ulysses. Rejecting the notion of a Romantic hero, he recast him as a tempestuous red-headed, bow-legged Artful Dodger: ‘the shopkeeper with his thumb on the scales and an eye to the girls, handy with a knife in a dark alley, and at the same time in some strange fashion, capable of honesty – or was it great consistency? – over most of the major issues.’

With Andreas in mind and the Odyssey in his kitbag, Bradford sailed far and wide, testing himself against winds and currents, and squinting into the sun at the shapes of headlands so he could place himself where Ulysses once stood. What he found and where precisely he found it is – unless the recondite field of Homeric geographical scholarship excites you – not the most thrilling component of the resulting book. As Bradford’s former tutor points out in the foreword, Homer never claimed cartographical accuracy, because his stories are what Ulysses told the princess Nausicaa to enchant her over dinner. The joy of Ulysses Found is that it reawakens the reader’s love of Homer’s classic tale.

With Bradford at the helm, we sail from Troy (where Ulysses built the Wooden Horse) to the Land of the Lotus-Eaters, reputedly Djerba in Tunisia. The author pauses to slice open a metaphorical prickly pear, discussing the literal origin of this botanical mystery – to this day, the Lotus plant remains unidentified, known only for its fruit which induced a d

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In 1963, with twenty years’ cruising the Mediterranean in destroyers and small yachts under his belt, an ex-naval officer and historian named Ernle Bradford sat down to trace the geography of the greatest adventure story ever told: the Odyssey.

My quest for Ulysses began long ago in Alexandria . . . I met Andreas – his shirt open, the sweat trickling off his matted black chest – who said: ‘My mother came from Ithaca, you know.’
Bradford was 19 at the time, and this meeting reshaped his image of Ulysses. Rejecting the notion of a Romantic hero, he recast him as a tempestuous red-headed, bow-legged Artful Dodger: ‘the shopkeeper with his thumb on the scales and an eye to the girls, handy with a knife in a dark alley, and at the same time in some strange fashion, capable of honesty – or was it great consistency? – over most of the major issues.’ With Andreas in mind and the Odyssey in his kitbag, Bradford sailed far and wide, testing himself against winds and currents, and squinting into the sun at the shapes of headlands so he could place himself where Ulysses once stood. What he found and where precisely he found it is – unless the recondite field of Homeric geographical scholarship excites you – not the most thrilling component of the resulting book. As Bradford’s former tutor points out in the foreword, Homer never claimed cartographical accuracy, because his stories are what Ulysses told the princess Nausicaa to enchant her over dinner. The joy of Ulysses Found is that it reawakens the reader’s love of Homer’s classic tale. With Bradford at the helm, we sail from Troy (where Ulysses built the Wooden Horse) to the Land of the Lotus-Eaters, reputedly Djerba in Tunisia. The author pauses to slice open a metaphorical prickly pear, discussing the literal origin of this botanical mystery – to this day, the Lotus plant remains unidentified, known only for its fruit which induced a dangerously pleasant drowsiness. We escape the Land of the boulder-hurling Laestrygonians, breach the Pillars of Hercules and are blown back into the arms of the Lady of Wild Things, Circe, who bears the first of Ulysses’ many children conceived en route home to the faithful Penelope. In the Siren Land, Bradford recalls a calm night on the bridge of a destroyer during the Second World War. He thinks he hears the Sirens, and tells his captain. The captain gamely turns the ship around and sweeps the nearby rocks of Galli – but while Bradford hears their fateful melodies, his fellows hear only the sound of breaking waves. Voyaging gingerly past Scylla and Charybdis, we visit the meadows of the Sun God’s Cattle, where Bradford unpeels the psychology behind the rashness of Ulysses’ crew in butchering Helios’ sacred herd. Blaming a hot, nerve-maddening Saharan wind for their actions, he tells us of Sicilian custom: that if the sirocco blows for ten days, all crimes of passion and violence committed during that time are dismissed with a caution. The cattle thieves enjoyed no such reprieve: shipwreck claimed every one. Ulysses drifts perilously on through the ‘boom-and-sizzle of the surf ’, clinging to the wreckage of his Black Ship all the way to the Navel of the Sea, where he stays seven years with Calypso – the second of Homer’s temptresses. The location of her island Bradford claims for Malta – perhaps not impartially, because he himself lived in a converted windmill on the island for most of his life. Here too he composed his best-known work, The Great Siege: Malta 1565. In this sickeningly violent conflict, Christians fired the heads of executed prisoners at their Muslim enemy, and a surreal swimming battle took place in which the Maltese, natural waterbabies, plunged into the sea with knives between their teeth to beat back the Turks in vicious hand-to-hand fighting. Bradford’s Malta book conveys compellingly (and with disturbing echoes of current politics) the ruthlessness and desperation of one of history’s grisliest clashes between Islam and Christianity. But while his work on the Siege is a triumph of gripping military history, Ulysses Found is the result of a quest in which the sea’s most timeless story has taken root in his psyche, and for this reason it is the more poignant companion. ‘I never intended to make an incursion into the sacred grove of classical studies . . . [but] I found myself time and time again seeing harbours, anchorages, islands through other eyes than mine,’ he writes. Bradford’s act of seeking pattern in fiction and matching it to fact was nothing new. For two and a half millennia, ever since Homer wrote his epic, theorists have tried to locate the Odyssey geographically, placing it in the Aegean, on the Paps of Jura or even the coast of Nova Scotia. (Most recently, and most convincingly, in his Ulysses’ Voyage, Tim Severin has located it on the logical route between Troy, the Peloponnese, Crete and Ithaca.) That Bradford’s rivals site Ulysses’ landing places elsewhere never weakens his claims, at least not for me. Inspired by his book, I recently made my own odyssey, though it was far less ambitious. On what Bradford called Goat Island off the western coast of Sicily, where ‘wave upon wave of men and cultures have burst over the shore’, I found a shallow bay where, according to Bradford, Ulysses dropped anchor. With the water shimmering at my feet amid white-grey autumnal fog and crusted granite rocks, I undressed and swam out into the mist. On Mount Eryx I stumbled through the ruins of a medieval castle, seeking the cave mouths where Bradford thought Ulysses saw fires smoking, the cave floors trembling to the footfalls of the giant cannibal Cyclops. In the shadow of volcanic Etna a medley of sirens seduced me with their wiles. On a train in the Mafia heartland I shared a pizza with a ragged beggar who looked as Ulysses must have done when he arrived back on Ithaca. And in Trapani, like Bradford, I felt ‘history as heavy as a plush curtain. This whole region is heavy with the past of man. One’s own life is seen as no more than a minute drop of resin oozing from the trunk of a giant tree.’ Bradford himself had died twenty years previously. He was ferociously hard-working, publishing over twenty books, mostly biographies, of Barbarossa, Hannibal, Cleopatra and other historical notables. He was also an expert on jewellery and a broadcaster: he made a film version of his Ulysses book in which James Mason starred. But in an eerie echo of Homer, himself a mysterious author, Bradford’s agent claimed to possess no biographical information about the author. I tracked down his sister-in-law, who filled in the gaps. As a young man in the Navy, Bradford had to assist in the amputation of a fellow sailor’s leg. This gave him a lifelong irrational fear that the same fate would befall him. He met and fell in love with an artist in the galley of a yacht off the South of France, and later married her. They had a son, who was schizophrenic and tragically committed suicide. Both parents were heavy drinkers and, in the end, Bradford’s worst nightmare came true: he lost a leg to alcohol-induced circulatory problems, and moved from his beloved Mediterranean back to England where he died in 1986, at the age of 64. As a writer, his approach resembles that of men like Eric Newby or Fitzroy Maclean, whose experience of war prompted them to write and travel voraciously afterwards. Bradford’s writing is not faultless. He is prone to mariner’s machismo, and in Ulysses Found he occasionally weighs down his lyrical flair with cumbersome technical details of navigation, or by stubbornly insisting on the accuracy of his theories. But for anyone with a passion for the myth-steeped Mediterranean and a taste for the smell of the sea, of pitch-pine and salt-laden wood, Bradford is an indispensable chronicler. Just as the great Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski breathed new life into Herodotus, so should we travel to Greece, Sicily, Asia Minor and North Africa with Bradford to remind us of Homer and Ulysses.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 18 © Patrick Evans 2008


About the contributor

Patrick Evans is a writer and film-maker, and lives in Cornwall.

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