Monday, April 18, 2005

"To Rule The Waves" - Big Fun but, Oh Dear...

I've been trying to cram in as many books as possible over the pre-exam break, some of which have actually been vaguely related to course content. One of the books that doesn't fall into this category has been Arthur Herman's "To Rule the Waves: How the British Navy Shaped the Modern World".

Herman's book is a doorstop, the main body of the text clocking in at 569 pages, but it is one of the most enjoyable 569 pages I've read in some time and I was able to canter through it at quite a lick, even allowing for the fact that I was reading it mostly at night as a prelude to falling asleep in a spreading puddle of my own dribble. As popular history goes it's a first class effort. If you like your history to be brimming with larger than life heroes, stuff blowing up and lots and lots of dead French people, then you'll be ready to rock 'n' roll. Boy's Own has nothing on it.

The book opens in the early years of Francis Drake and ends with a brief treatment of the Falklands campaign. Herman frontloads the pre-1700s, resulting in the feeling that later eras are somewhat rushed (especially the 20th century) through. The narrative is very much character driven, with extensive coverage of Francis Drake, John Hawkins, Samuel Pepys, Horatio Nelson, Jackie Fisher, Uncle Tom Cobleigh and all. Given that it is fundamentally a popular narrative history, this works quite well and Herman deserves credit for, for example, not giving undue focus to Nelson to the exclusion of others. Of course, being character driven it does run the risk of coming back to sterile debates over who was "the best" and I found myself thinking in these terms while reading the book, not necessarily a good thing - for example, in the section dealing with the Great War, Herman clearly favours David Beatty over John Jellicoe. This is what we call "wrong".

The book carries the tag line "How the British navy shaped the modern world" and this sets alarm bells ringing over whether the text would be excessively deterministic. Broadly speaking, I think Herman avoids this, though given the overall popular slant of the book it is never really developed into a serious thesis anyway. I was alert for the whiff of history-as-politics while reading the book (Herman is a regular contributor to NRO) and there were occasional hints of it. Britain is undoubtedly portrayed as a country with a mission and Herman is explicit in noting the passing on of roles from the UK to the USA. He also makes much - probably too much - of the role of morality and mission in British foreign policy during the nineteenth century. In his treatment of the post-1815 piece I felt I sensed strongly that Herman had Germany and Japan in mind as he wrote and his focus on Castlereagh and implicit criticism of Metternich seemed to represent a calculated slap in the face to Henry Kissinger and other old school Realists. That said, the question is one of emphasis and while Herman probably overeggs the pudding, his general slant cannot be said to be completely at odds with reality.

So, taking it for what it is, I enjoyed it a lot.

Unfortunately, there the good news fizzles like spit on a hot griddle. Because there are a lot of problems with it, even allowing for its status as a nakedly "popular" history.

As I read the first few chapters, I found myself thinking, "Christ, he hasn't footnoted any of this."

In fact, I later found that this is not quite true. There's no bibliography to speak of, but there's actually 51 pages of notes at the back of the book. What Herman has not done, bizarrely, is to link the notes directly to the main body of the text. Instead, the notes are prefaced by a snippet of the text to which they are related. So, page 2, in common to all other pages, has not a single footnote directly attached. But if you go to page 571, you will find three small snippets of text from the page, with notes attached.

This is a completely inadequate way of going about things. Perhaps the only less satisfactory method I have encountered is John Mosier's tendency to present the reader with a rather dubious "Essay on the sources" in his work, rather than a full and comprehensive Bibliography. Not only does it make it virtually impossible to check on Herman's sources while reading, it then becomes a labourious process to track back through the text, searching for the three words which are meant to flag up which sentence the footnote is referring to. The strangeness of this is added to by the fact that to the best of my knowledge I have never encountered a single other book, popular or academic, that is sourced in this manner. Whether this format was set upon by Herman or his publishers, Hodder and Stoughton, I have no idea. Given that Herman is a teaching historian, I sincerely hope it's the latter. If I submitted an essay sourced in the same manner, I'd have strips torn off me - with justification.

This need not be fatal in and of itself, but unfortunately the moment the text began to stray into areas in which I harbour any degree of substantial knowledge, I began to pick up repeated errors of fact. Some of these ring alarm bells but can plausibly be put down to sloppy editing (for example, Herman skips between calling General Monck "George" [correctly] and "Samuel" with gay abandon). Others are simply buttock-clenching. Apparently the commander of the naval contingent during the Gallipoli campaign was Admiral Sir Ian Hamilton(!). Earlier on, we are informed that the Duke of Wellington was able to seize victory in the Peninsula because the British infantry was armed with rifles (!!!!). Later, Herman has Sandy Woodward controlling and giving orders to the British submarine force, in apparent ignorance of the fact that British nuclear submarines acted under a seperate chain of command and were controlled directly from London.

I gave some thought to the idea that perhaps I was becoming rather petty and that the broad sweep of the book made such errors inevitable. Frankly though, I don't think so. Some of the errors - especially those cited above - are really very serious and do risk calling into question the credibility of the whole. I am not, for example, in the position to dissect Herman's chapters on the Seventeenth Century and earlier. These take up the lion's share of the book and it may well be that Herman is personally on more solid ground here. However, given that I know that chunks of the latter portions of the book feature a string of jaw-dropping errors of fact, I am less than inclined to take sections where I know that I personally am not on solid ground as gospel. The whole project is thrown into uncertainty.

This is unfortunate, as it's a fantastic read. But as things stand, To Rule the Waves is unlikely to ever rise above the status of enjoyable historical eye candy and may actually end up horribly mis-educating the uninitiated.


Blogger MAJ C said...

Beevor's Stalingrad is end noted the same way. I have seen the technique before in popular history works that are trying to be somewhat scholarly without being stuffy.

11:42 PM  
Blogger Anthony said...

Well that's that theory buggered then, isn't it?

2:53 AM  

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