Empire of the Deep by Ben Wilson: When Britain ruled the waves

Britain was designed for maritime power. Stephen Taylor reviews a sweeping history of Britain's naval prowess that covers the great commanders but finds little space for the seamen who served them.

Empire of the Deep: the Rise and Fall of the British Navy
Ben Wilson
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 720pp, £25
 
It is an image embedded in our history – the body of a naval hero brought home to a state funeral, his legacy a sea victory that had stunned Europe and secured Britain’s command of the oceans once and for all. Yet the hero was not, on this occasion, Horatio Nelson. Robert Blake’s triumph came at the battle of Santa Cruz in 1657, almost 150 years before Trafalgar and close to 70 years after another victory – over the Armada – that had supposedly obtained the same end. If there is one consistent aspect of Britain’s historical perspective, it is that we were always winners at sea.
 
That view has been refashioned by a new generation of naval historians, such as N A M Rodger, who have brought subtlety and social insight to what had been a fairly bland and triumphalist field. Successes, we now know, were set about with blunders, failures and weaknesses. Rodger is working on the third and final volume of his magisterial series covering this story from 660 to the present day. Now, fresh to the field but first to the line, comes Ben Wilson, with a single book covering the same period.
 
Starting in an age when no one, least of all Britannia, ruled the waves, he explains the mythology that grew up around our shores. There was no navy to start with but the Vikings helped to foster piracy and Henry IV licensed seafarers to destroy enemies of the kingdom and “keep the seas”. So pervasive was this tradition that only in 1856 did Britain formally renounce the licensing of privateers to capture enemy ships.
 
Foreign resources always came in handy. Danish mercenaries served in Edward the Confessor’s navy, when Anglo-Saxon sea power was at its height, and the Atlantic was opened up by that great Englishman Giovanni Caboto of Genoa, also known as John Cabot. From there, it was a short step to unleashing adventurers such as Francis Drake and John Hawkins to plunder the Spanish empire. With so much treasure at stake, it is not surprising that they fought one another almost as ferociously as they did the enemy.
 
Britain was designed for maritime power. It is a compelling truth and though Wilson strives to emphasise the setbacks, they were always of a lesser order than the triumphs. As Pitt the Elder said, the lesson of history is that when exerting power by sea, we become “the dread of the world; when by land, the contempt of it”.
 
This epic is peopled by vividly described national types. Hawkins is one, a dashing roughneck who used the sea – as did Drake and many others – to haul himself up the social ladder. Another is Frederic “Johnnie” Walker, the U-boat killer of the Second World War, whose grit and coolness arguably turned the tide in the battle of the Atlantic.
 
The British love a great ship almost as much as a great commander. Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire is the nation’s favourite painting and the Victory is a shrine. In 1418, Henry V launched the Grace Dieu, a colossus. Ultimately, she was the Bismarck of her day, an empty symbol that ended up on the bottom before she could do significant harm.
 
Wilson tackles this formidable canvas with zeal and spirit. He is strong on strategy and analysis, yet also throws himself into the great battle scenes, of which his account of the battle of the Nile in 1798 is particularly effective. Nelson’s preparations in the years leading up to Trafalgar are shown to have been as important as his battle plan, along with his meticulous care for the fleet’s health. “It is easier,” he said, “for an officer to keep men healthy than for a physician to cure them.” Yet there was so much more to the navy than battle. It charted oceans – then gifted this knowledge to other seafaring nations – and opened the world to scientific discovery, as well as trade and commerce. Among its most heroic yet least sung endeavours was the 60-year campaign to stamp out the African slave trade with vessels of the Preventative Squadron.
 
Covering so vast a subject was bound to require selectivity, even in a volume as hefty as this. Wilson acknowledges that ending slavery was one of the navy’s most noble battles, yet he finds scant space for it and fails to mention that it took the lives of almost 17,000 British seamen, mainly by disease. (The number killed at Trafalgar was 459.)
 
More seriously, he fails to examine in any depth a thread running through the narrative. The navy may have produced great commanders and ships but they would never have stirred from port but for the common seaman. British hands, Wilson notes, developed a habit of victory. After Trafalgar, a French captain was surprised to see that whereas his men were “either drunk or disabled”, the English worked with as much order as ever: “We were amazed, wondering what the English sailor could be made of.” Jack Tar’s contribution to naval supremacy is barely addressed here.
 
Stephen Taylor’s “Commander: the Life and Exploits of Britain’s Greatest Frigate Captain” is published by Faber & Faber (£20) 
Smoke on the water: a boy watches a panorama of the Sebastopol siege during the Crimean war. Photo: Igor Starkov/Anzenberger/Eyevine

This article first appeared in the 29 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue

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A hatchet job on the Daily Mail: Peter Wilby reviews Mail Men

Peter Wilby on Adrian Addison’s expletive-strewn history of the Daily Mail.

The Ukip leader Paul Nuttall recently claimed that he was among the crowd at the Hillsborough football stadium disaster in 1989 and that he lost close personal friends there, statements which suggest, at best, a flexible relationship with the truth. David English, the Daily Mail editor from 1971 to 1992, went one better. He claimed to have been in Dallas in November 1963 on the day John F Kennedy was assassinated. He was, he told Mail readers 25 years later, “part of the inner press circle which the Kennedys courted so assiduously” and: “We lived and travelled well, we President’s men . . . in brand new special planes.” In Dallas, he “witnessed the whole unbelievable scenario”. In fact, English, then based in New York for the Daily Express, was 1,600 miles away having a coffee break near his office. Adrian Addison’s riotously entertaining book is full of similar stories.

The present editor, Paul Dacre, has never been caught out in such flamboyant untruths. Yet, as Addison explains, the very appearance of the Daily Mail is based on a more subtle lie. Flick through its “human interest” features and you find “typical” Britons talking about their experience of relationships, crime, hospitals, schools, and so on. “Typical” in the Mail’s world means Mail readers as envisaged by its editor – white and middle class, not too fat or too thin, with smart but sensible clothes, hair and shoes, and free of tattoos and nose rings. A story does not, as editors say, “work” unless a picture shows the subjects conforming to this stereotype. If they don’t, make-up artists and hair stylists are despat­ched along with the correct clothing.

Addison, a BBC journalist for much of his career, has experience of tabloid journalism, though not at the Mail. Well over half his book is devoted to the editorships of English and his direct successor, Dacre, with the Mail’s first 75 years – including the familiar but still shocking story of its proprietor’s admiration for Hitler in the 1930s – dismissed in just 150 pages. The paper’s Sunday sister, launched in 1982, is mentioned only briefly.

In many respects, the book is a hatchet job. Dacre emerges, to quote Stephen Fry, as “just about as loathsome, self-regarding, morally putrid, vengeful and disgusting a man as it is possible to be”; English comes out very slightly better, thanks to personal charm and lavish parties; and the Mail Online’s publisher, Martin Clarke, who gets a chapter to himself, is portrayed as a cross between Vlad the Impaler and Fred West, redeemed, like Dacre, by demonic energy and undeniable success in attracting readers.

Like a good tabloid editor, Addison varies the tone, giving us occasional tear-jerking passages to show that even Mail editors have a human side. English befriends an ­office messenger boy, promises to find him a job in journalism if he gets an A-level in English, and proves as good as his word. Dacre, shy and socially clumsy, summons a features editor who had said the previous night, “You are mad, you know, Paul,” and asks, “I’m not really mad, am I?” Addison even deploys that old tabloid staple, the faithful, prescient dog. It belonged to Vere Harmsworth, the 3rd Viscount Rothermere and fourth Mail proprietor, who died in 1998 just 12 weeks after English, some said of a broken heart because the two had become so close. The day that Harmsworth, tax-exiled in France, was leaving home for London, where a heart attack killed him, his dog Ryu-ma refused to accompany the master to the airport in the chauffeur-driven car as it usually did.

The Harmsworths command a degree of admiration from many journalists. Of all the great newspaper dynasties – the Beaverbrooks, the Astors, the Berrys – they alone have stayed the course. The present proprietor, Jonathan Harmsworth, the 4th Viscount Rothermere, is the great-great-nephew of Alfred (“Sunny”) Harmsworth, who co-founded the paper in 1896. The Mail’s masthead hasn’t changed in 121 years, nor have several other things. Just as Sunny had only one Daily Mail editor until his death in 1922, Jonathan sticks by Dacre, allowing him to get on with his fanatical Brexiteering despite being a Remain sympathiser himself. So, too, did his father allow Dacre to denounce Tony Blair while he himself moved to the Labour benches in the House of Lords. Again like Sunny and Vere, Jonathan keeps accountants at arm’s length, giving the editor such generous budgets that the Mail scraps roughly two-thirds of the features it commissions yet still pays higher “kill” fees for them than other papers pay for the articles they print.

Other aspects of the Harmsworth legacy are less admirable. Most papers worried about the militarisation of Germany in the years before the First World War but, Addison writes, the Mail “raged”. Today, it is rage against immigrants, liberals, Greens, benefit claimants, human rights lawyers, the EU, overseas aid and a host of individuals from Polly Toynbee to Gary Lineker that oozes from almost every paragraph of the paper.

Many among what Dacre calls “the liberal elite” will find that Addison has written the exposé of the Mail that they always wanted to read. The inside story, with its unexpur­gated f***s and c***s, is as bad as you thought it was. But remember: the paper sells about 1.5 million copies a day, second only to the Sun. Its faults and virtues (there are some of the latter) owe nothing to marketing constructs, the proprietor’s business interests, party loyalties or anything other than the editor’s judgement as to what people will read. Denounce it by all means, but remember that millions of Britons love it.

Peter Wilby was the editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the NS from 1998 to 2005

Mail Men: The Story of the Daily Mail - the Paper that Divided and Conquered Britain by Adrian Addison is published by Oneworld (336pp, £20)

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 16 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit and the break-up of Britain