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

Scott Cresswell on Flickr via Creative Commons
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Podcasting Down Under: Tom Wright on how Australia is innovating with audio

The ABC producer, formerly of the Times and The Bugle, makes the case for Australian podcasting.

In September last year, Ken Doctor wrote that “We can mark 2016 as the year the podcast business came of age.” Statements like this have been coming thick and fast since the first series of Serial dropped in October 2014. We’re either living through a golden age of podcasting, or the great podcast advertising boom, or the point when podcasting comes of age, or some combination thereof. For the first time, everyone seems to agree, podcasts are finally having their moment.

Except this isn’t the first podcasting gold rush. Tom Wright, now a producer for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), was there the first time media organisations rushed to build podcasting teams and advertisers were keen to part with their cash. Speaking to me over Skype from Australia, he said that seeing podcasts attain “hot” status again is “very strange”. “The first iteration had similar levels of excitement and stupidity,” he added.

In 2006, Wright left BBC Radio 1 to join the Times newspaper in London as a multimedia producer. The paper was “very gung ho” about using podcasts, he explained, particularly comedy and sport shows, as a way of reaching new audiences. There, he launched The Bugle with comedians Andy Zaltzman and John Oliver, The Game with football writer Gabriele Marcotti, and a number of different business shows. “This was ahead of the crash of 2008,” Wright noted.

The shows found large audiences almost immediately – “in my time, The Bugle had 100,000 weekly listeners,” Wright said – and The Game (plus periodic special podcasts pegged to the football, rugby and cricket world cups) brought in good sponsorships. Both podcasts and the videos that Wright also worked on were seen by the Times as “an add-on to the main deal” – ie, the paper’s news stories and features.

“Podcasts, especially in comedy, are still kind of seen as a marketing exercise for something else. . . My feeling is that a lot of comics – let's just pick on one country – in America, say, do a podcast and it's not particularly funny or good, but they flog their tickets for their tour relentlessly so you come and see the really good stuff.” Wright, however, saw the podcast form as something more than a marketing exercise. “My feeling was that we had this opportunity to do comedy, and maybe make it a bit more ambitious, you know?”

It all changed after the financial crisis of 2008, when the advertising money dried up. A new boss came in at the Times and Wright said the focus shifted to online videos and a greater emphasis on hard news. “Amazingly, they let The Bugle continue, which is fantastic,” he said.

(For long-term listeners of The Bugleof which I am one – Wright is a much loved presence from the first 100 episodes. He is referred to solely as “Tom the Producer” and used to chip in regularly to try and keep Zaltzman and Oliver to time, and to express his disgust for the former’s love of puns. Listeners used to write emails for the show straight to “Tom”, and he has his own section on the slightly bonkers Bugle wiki.)

Wright left the Times and moved to Australia in 2010. That year, the paper had introduced a hard paywall, and Wright said that he and other colleagues felt strongly that this wasn’t a good idea. “Who wants to be writing or making stuff for 5,000 subscribers?” he said. “It was also a cost of living decision for me,” he added. “I'd been living in London for ten years with my wife, and we did the sums and just realised we couldn't afford to live in London if we wanted to have kids.”

Wright tried to keep producing The Bugle from Melbourne, a decision which he now describes as “insane”. “It was around 2am [Australian time] when they started recording,” he explained. “I was using my in laws’ Australian-speed wifi, and because I was uploading huge reams of data to the Times, they got stung with an enormous bill. I thought maybe this is a message that I should seek some local employment.”

Wright joined the ABC and went back to live radio, producing for a call-in programme on a local Melbourne station, before moving over to triple j – a station he describes as a bit like BBC Radio 1 in the UK. It was hard work, but a great introduction to life in his new country. “The best way to learn about Australian culture and the way of life was being at the ABC,” he said. “It's the most trusted organisation the country has, even more so I think than the BBC in relation to Britain, given all the scandals recently.”

After the success of Serial, he said he remembers thinking “are podcasts back now?”. “The Nieman Lab in America came out with a journalism survey about reader engagement, and it said the average interaction with a video is one minute, the interaction with a page is almost ten seconds, and with podcasts it's 20 minutes. That was just this eureka moment – all these people thought wow, that's an aeon in online time, let's try doing this.”

In Australia, Wright explained, as in the UK and elsewhere podcasts had been “just the best radio shows cut up to a vast extent”. But in 2014 publications and broadcasters quickly moved to take advantage of the renewed interesting in podcasting. He is now part of a department at the ABC developing online-only podcasts “that will hopefully feed into the radio schedule later on”. It’s a moment of unprecedented creative freedom, Wright said. “That sense of risk has been missing from radio, well media, for a long time. . . Like at the Times, we’re told ‘just go do it and come back with some good ideas’, and it's fantastic.”

Wright is focusing on developing comedy podcasts – as “Australian comedy is great and criminally underrepresented,” he said. One show that has come out of his department already is The Tokyo Hotel, an eight-part series following the inhabitants of an eccentric hotel in Los Angeles. It’s a great listen: there’s a lot of original music, and the fast-paced, surreal script feels at times reminiscent of Welcome to Night Vale. “It was hugely gratifying but immensely hard work,” Wright said. “It had its own score, numerous actors, a narrator who was Madge from Neighbours. It was quite literally a big production.”

The plan for 2017 is to bring out another, similarly ambitious production, as well as “a couple more standard ‘comedians chatting’ things”. Australians are already big podcast fans, and Wright reckons that enthusiasm for the form is only growing. “I think that Australia is a place that's not afraid to embrace the new in any way,” he said. “Podcasts are a new thing for a lot of people and they're really lapping it up. . . It's very curious because I think in Britain anything old is seen as valued, and the new is sometimes seen with suspicion. It's almost the exact opposite here.”

Five Australian podcasts to try

Little Dum Dum Club

Comedians Tommy Dassalo and Karl Chandler run a charming weekly interview show.

Free to a Good Home

Michael Hing and Ben Jenkins, plus guests, chat through the weird and wonderful world of Australian classified ads.

Let’s Make Billions

Simon Cumming and his guests aim to launch a new billion-dollar startup every week.

Meshal Laurie’s Nitty Gritty Committee

The commercial radio host shares the stories she’s been most surprised and moved by.

Bowraville

Dan Box, the crime reporter at the Australian newspaper, investigates the unsolved serial killings of three Aboriginal children.

Do you have ideas for podcasts I should listen to or people I should interview? Email me or talk to me on Twitter. For the next instalment of the New Statesman’s podcast column, visit newstatesman.com/podcasts next Thursday. You can read the introduction to the column here.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.