We continue our occasional series on famous sea captains with the one who influenced me most: Captain Archibald Haddock.
Tonnerre de Brest!
When asked where my esprit d’aventure comes from, I recount how my grandmother shared stories of her travels around South America. We sat together on her big floral sofa in her house on Cape Cod as she went through her slides. The whirr of a little Kodak slide projector, and the reassuring smell of Mai Tais mixed with Camel cigarettes that inevitably accompanied her narration, brought life to the slightly faded, slightly fuzzy snapshots. She would have been big on Instagram. I was nine or ten.
Jean’s spirit of adventure ran deep. She got her driving license at 12, when it was enough to stand taller than the counter to qualify. It was probably about the same age she learned to smoke. Tall, slender and beautiful, she divorced her first husband and made ends meet by modelling and working as a librarian. Her father had been a publisher and her house was lined with books. With her second husband she travelled extensively to warm locales where they collected seashells. Back when doing such things was both acceptable and unusual.
When my grandfather passed away, Jean was still in her early 60s. She escaped the dark Massachusetts winters by booking cabins on freighters that plied their trade between major ports of call at places like Chile, Peru and Ecuador. Those trips would take weeks. Each port required a stop of two or three days as the ship transferred cargo and took on fuel. With only seven or eight other passengers aboard the service was attentive, if rudimentary. Whatever small amount of discomfort she experienced was entirely offset by the like-minded people she met and the relationships she forged. At each stop they took off and toured the local sights with enthusiasm.
As I reflect on those evenings, I am sure my fascination with her stories was a natural progression of my long relationship with Tintin and his most trusted companion Captain Haddock. From the age of six with their help, I peered into a world far beyond the confines of any library. I learned about foreign countries with petty tyrants, and clumsy criminals hired by the wealthy to exploit the weak.
My brother, five years older than me, got to read the weekly cartoon magazine Eagle with Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future, as a central character. But my curiosity lay more in the real world and Tintin became my thing. That my grandmother, like Tintin, had been to the land of the Incas and sailed on freighters was enough for me to sit still and listen for hours. For her part, I think my grandmother always appreciated a well-behaved child and an attentive audience.
Georges Remi (Hergé) presents the young reporter as an idealised boy scout, in a 1920s kind of way. Clean, sober and sensitive to the needs of others, the early adventures in exotic places provided the necessary colour our hero lacked. Tintin’s faithful dog, Snowy, served as comic relief. When, about a third of the way through the canon, Tintin meets Captain Haddock an altogether more mature narrative takes shape.
We first meet the Captain in The Crab with the Golden Claws. Imprisoned in his state room on his ship the Karaboudjan and morosely drunk on whiskey, Tintin, himself bent on escape, enters Haddock’s life through an open porthole. From this point the story takes off.
To give you some idea of the pacing, over the next 10 pages (out of 62), Tintin and Haddock launch a lifeboat and escape the ship. Rowing away, as Tintin rests, the captain finds a bottle of whiskey then drunkenly sets the oars on fire to keep warm. Capsizing the lifeboat in a fistfight, our heroes land in the water when an airplane appears. Instead of rescue it’s the bad guys who begin strafing them. With a lucky shot, Tintin forces the seaplane to land then gets the jump on the crew. Here we learn Tintin can fly, and he steals the airplane. A huge storm shows up and tosses the airplane around until it crashes in the desert. It is as well both Tintin and Captain Haddock have a bias for action.
In his first story Haddock gets blind drunk five times and faints only once, after drinking a glass of water. Haddock’s alcohol-fuelled impetuosity brought a much-needed humanity to the series. Here was a character with major personal flaws that makes himself indispensable to the story’s success. Even as a nipper, while I might aspire to Tintin’s brilliance, it was Haddock who reassured me that my flaws weren’t going to get in the way of a good time. From Tintin I learned the value of paying attention to details while taking a sensitive approach to problem-solving. From Haddock I learned the self-destructive power of explosive anger and the consequences of leaping before you look.
The captain’s go-to expletives, “blistering barnacles!” and “thundering typhoons!”, are used to express surprise in much the same way as Tintin says, “crumbs!”. His rages, however, bring on a tsunami of vituperation and maledictive insults hurled at the object of his anger. The torrent of words belies an erudition that isn’t otherwise apparent. It is unlikely for even a seasoned sailor to have picked up words like athropitecus, colocynths, and anacoluthon in passing conversation. And it isn’t everyone that can rout a band of brigands by running at them, shaking their fists while shouting at the top of their lungs, “Swine! Tramps! Jellyfish! Toffee-noses! Savages! Vegetarians! Aztecs! Toads! Carpet-sellers! Iconoclasts!” Proving, perhaps, that mastery of language is mightier than lead and gunpowder. From him I also learned the value of a good dictionary.
Like every good partnership, Tintin and Haddock complement each other. As the pair mature and settle into a comfortable life in Haddock’s ancestral home (having found Red Rackham’s treasure), the captain manages his alcoholism better, but not at the expense of comedy. His pratfalls and clumsy wrangling with technology, drunk or sober, provides moments of real hilarity.
Although written for young people, Hergé doesn’t shy away from murder, theft, drugs, racism, human trafficking, or suicide – only sex. We kids could handle that, too, but his original publishers were Catholics and probably drew a line. So, while Tintin might be the original vocel, Haddock must periodically avoid the attentions of the world’s most famous opera singer, the Milanese Nightingale, Bianca Castafiore.
Which leaves us with the ambiguity of the two men’s relationship. If you read the English Wikipedia entry for Captain Haddock, it is fairly straightforward. His French entry on the other hand delves into interpretations of the stories that are much racier and, well, more French. For my part, I don’t think it matters much and, in any case, such exploration would distract from the action.
Like Captain Haddock, whenever I’m dealing with some broken thing on the boat that I don’t understand, I too release a stream of invective that occasionally terrifies my crew. I suspect this has something to do with being given permission at a young age, by the captain’s example, to vent frustration rather than bottle it up. On reflection, perhaps I should make Tintin’s adventures required reading before boarding Aleta for any length of time. Billions of blue blistering barnacles! Of course! Then they might appreciate the transient nature of my rage and treat it as comic relief. Not something to take seriously.
Billions of Blue Blistering Barnacles!
In the 1950s Hergé established a studio with supporting staff to elevate the quality of his books. Many of the early adventures were redrawn and reissued, along with the publication of new ones. My favourite adventures are also the ones that I feel are the most artistically satisfying. Out of 24 books in total, here are my top five (Captain Haddock plays a central role in all of them):
Note: many characters recur in Tintin’s adventures, so if you want the best experience, start at the beginning. – ed.
- Tintin in Tibet (read The Blue Lotus first for context)
- Flight 714 to Sydney
- Tintin and the Picaros (Hergé signed my copy when I purchased it in Oxford)
- Destination Moon and Explorers on the Moon (I’ll call that one big volume)
- Prisoners of the Sun (read The Seven Crystal Balls first for context)
If you are not already a fan, the following links will bring you into the world of Tintin:
- The main site for all things Tintin: Tintin.com
- The Internet Archive has most Tintin books available to borrow by the hour.
- There is nothing like reading Tintin IRL: Tintin Boxed Set
- Many Tintin films have been produced over the years. Most recently Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin
- Or you can visit the Hergé museum in Louvain-la-Neuve.
- A compendium of Haddock’s expletives: Blistering Barnacles: An A-Z of The Rants, Rambles and Rages of Captain Haddock
Holy Hurricanes! You have intrigued me. I have never read Tintin… but now I think that I should. I can also relate to ‘transient… rage’ bothering others in ways that are often quite surprising to me… since it is generally just an expression of momentary frustration.
Yellow-bellied sons o’troglodytes!
Ah, you must read Tintin! If for no other reason than to understand the Captain’s benchmark for rage is unmatchable. We all look calm by comparison. 😉
Of course, like with any good series, reading them in order introduces you to characters that return in later episodes. Just like life, the same people keep turning up randomly…
It was such a pleasure to meet your grandmother when I visited Cape Cod with Vicky a few years ago. I remember being so impressed with the takes of her adventures and her wonderful shell collection. The Mai Tais were pretty good too.
Good to be reminded of Tintin too. I have dipped into them with various grandchildren but you inspire me to revisit them. I did go to the Herge museum to see his original cartoons when I was visiting Brussels for a conference eons ago. Happy sailing and thanks for keeping me amused with your blogs. It is far better than switching on the news with my morning cup of tea.
Thanks Jenny – You must be a big fan if you made the trek out to Herge’s museum. I have yet to visit, but we plan on motoring around the Netherlands a bit, so perhaps a side trip to Belgium is in order?