Following Ulysses with Ernle Bradford

Recently I wrote about how a young Royal Navy sailor in 1941 sauntered into a Greek bar in Alexandria and came out with his head full of the Odyssey. Well, those of you who haven’t read that piece, go and read it now, but I’m willing to remind the rest who have merely forgotten who this sailor was: Ernle Bradford.


It was a name that meant nothing to me only half a year ago, although one of his other books has been on my history shelf for a while now, the one about the battle of Thermopylae. But I read it lined up with Book VIII of Herodotus, and fine though it was, Herodotus made the greater impression. And so a few months ago it was with no recollection of his name but purely based on the five stars on Amazon that I chose his book about the Great Siege to take it with me on holiday to Malta. It turned out to be a book I simply couldn’t put down: I read it on the plane, in bus stops all over Malta, on beaches and in cafés, and most of all on the roof terrace of our hired apartment in Triq Sant’ Orsla, staring at the solid walls of Fort St Angelo across the Grand Harbour. I even blogged about it via my phone (try to write 1500 words on your phone and you’ll appreciate how good the book was). I looked for him on Amazon when we came back and my wishlist became swollen with his books on Mediterranean history, which, as it turns out, was his specialty.

And so I got Ulysses Found for Christmas.

Ulysses had known the click of light in olive branches far from Ithaca, the black beaks of the dolphins as they rose with rasping sighs alongside his boat, winds of fig and grape, and the stars big as moons on hot, still nights. He had heard the Sirens singing across the cat’s fur of an autumn sea. He had known the sand dimpled like hand-beaten copper on lonely islands, and looking down from his boat into the waters of uncharted anchorages had seen among the weed-wigged rocks the movement of strange-coloured fish…

I never liked the Odyssey but halfway through Ulysses Found I just wanted to read it. We have two different versions at home and I took E.V. Rieu’s which happens to be the one Bradford used. I finished the two – the Odyssey and Ulysses Found – together, reading them in parallel. And although I still don’t find the Odyssey as good as the Iliad, I’m glad I read it in full at long last.

But Ulysses Found is a great book, even if you don’t like the Odyssey. Nor –  paradoxically – do you have to read the Odyssey to enjoy it because Bradford doesn’t assume you have and tells you all you need to know with a handful of quotes thrown in. Only the relevant bits: the ones about Ulysses’ travels on the sea. The beginning and the end of the Odyssey which takes place on dry land (Telemachus’ visit to Sparta and the killing of the suitors in Ithaca), he studiously ignores. For this book is Bradford’s quest to prove that the travels of Ulysses were based on a sailor’s or several sailors’ real travels. His premise is that Homer talked to these sailors and got accurate descriptions of places they visited, of weather they encountered, of distances they covered and their directions of travel – which he then faithfully put into the Odyssey. He makes a good case for it, too, although I think he pushed his evidence just a little bit in places. But I’m not inclined to quarrel with what was clearly a labour of love.

Whatever the mythological aspects of Ulysses and of his voyage, my only purpose has been to try and show that the voyage which is described by Homer had its origins in fact. I have spent most of the best years of my life sailing the Mediterranean and I never intended to make an incursion into the sacred grove of classical studies. It merely happened that during these years I found myself time and again seeing harbours, anchorages, islands and stretches of coastline, through other eyes than mine.

What convinced me to pick up the Odyssey itself was the way Bradford presented it, stripping the story of the fairy-tale elements, and sticking to the ‘factual’ information buried within. Suddenly, in his reading, this story which I always considered as wildly fanciful as Gulliver’s travels in Lilliput became a real journey. Embellished a little in its details perhaps but real nevertheless, as real as the Iliad always felt to me, regardless of the various instances of divine intervention. The case of the Iliad was of course much helped by the fact that Heinrich Schliemann found the location of Troy based on it, and now Bradford moved the Odyssey into the realm of history – well, almost.

It would be spoiling Ulysses Found for any would-be reader if I started to go into details on how he did this, how he interpreted the Lotus-eaters or Cyclops, or what his explanation was for Scylla and Charybdis. Suffice it to say that he consulted other commentators on the Odyssey, from Strabo to Butler, both ancient and modern, and then he added his charts, his trusty Admiralty Pilot, his years of experience of sailing in the Mediterranean to pinpoint the locations Odysseus visited. If this sounds like heavy-going: it isn’t. It’s engagingly written, livened up by snippets of his travels as a yachtsman and a navy officer in the Mediterranean. The resulting book is not simply a commentary on the Odyssey but a travel book first class.

And Bradford knew the Mediterranean. Not only he sailed up and down on it time and again in a destroyer throughout World War II but after the war, apparently finding civilian life dull, he sold his home and bought a boat and continued wandering the Mediterranean. He spent several years living in Malta: I found an excellent article titled Ernle Bradford and Ulysses Found on the Forth Yachts Club Association’s website (of all places) which told me much about Bradford’s life – because let’s face it, the Wikipedia entry is woefully inadequate. It recommends two more of Bradford’s books, ones nothing to do with history but with his sailing and I think I’m going to get both. Not just because I’m sure they’ll make great reads but also because it’s the closest I will ever get to sailing the Mediterranean in a small boat.

“For every desire has enriched me more than the possession – always false – of the very object of desire.” I do not believe that he was content. One night they slid the black ship down into the water and unloosed the mooring rope from the pierced stone. They turned the eyes of the ship towards the west, and sitting all in order they smote the grey sea-water.

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