Jolly Rodger: The Journey That Led N.A.M. Rodger from a Schoolboy Passion for Warships to His Becoming the Historian of the British Navy Took Some Unexpected Turns. He Regrets None of Them

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I GREW UP WITHIN the sound of the sea, but it was seldom the same sea for long. In the way of naval families of my generation, we were forever packing up to follow father, and our travelling was always by sea. Before I was ten I had crossed the Equator three times, I had sailed the Atlantic, the Pacific and the Indian Oceans, I had watched the Pitcairn Islanders pulling off from their little beach, and landed through the surf myself at St Helena. I had seen tropical storms and waterspouts, I was familiar with flying fishes and porpoises, and I had glimpsed the white back of a new-born sperm whale spouting. In one house there were penguins at the bottom of my garden, and from another I could see the blue hills of China across the bay. When I was twenty I had moved house more than once for every year of my age. A curious or imaginative child would no doubt have been stimulated, but I took it all for granted. Even when I went away to school, I found myself among boys most of whom came from service or diplomatic families.

Not until I reached university did it dawn on me that there were people who had lived all their lives in settled communities, who had grown up in the same place and with the same friends. My childhood gave me an abiding enthusiasm for ships, especially warships. I came to collect books and facts about them. Other boys went for stamps or railway engines, but I collected warships. Jane's Fighting Ships was my favourite reading, and nourished my appetite for naval facts and naval technology. History was scarcely present in all this. At school it (and, for some reason, biology) were the only subjects that I did not fail altogether, but this was a modest claim. I had eccentric, memorable and even, in a few cases, good history teachers, but only a series of improbable accidents led to my going to university.

Oxford was an intellectual revelation, but it was breadth that attracted me rather than depth. I could go to any lecture I pleased: Tolkien on the Viking sagas, Sir Roger Mynors on Virgil's Eclogues, illuminated manuscripts, explosives--I absorbed them all. Occasionally I even went to history lectures.

Discovering that I was expected to be able to read Latin for my course, I bought a dictionary and a copy of the Vulgate, and read it from beginning to end. I taught myself the elements of Greek in my final term when I got bored with revision. I discovered music, and at one time was singing in six choirs at once. In the midst of all this, my childhood enthusiasm for ships began to mature into a real interest in the history of the sea, and of the Navy in particular. Once or twice an indulgent tutor allowed me to write an essay on naval history. I was not, however, an outstanding scholar. No one thought I would get a First, nor did I. I was an entire stranger to the thoughts and ambitions of my clever contemporaries who were destined for academic careers.

By the time I finished my undergraduate days, however, I did have a confirmed passion for naval history, and with some borrowed money I stayed on to do a doctorate. My subject was the late nineteenth-century Admiralty. I wanted to discover if British cruisers had been built in response to strategic ideas; to relate intellectual currents, policy and planning to the technicalities of naval architecture. It was an eccentric approach to an utterly unfashionable subject--but Oxford was tolerant of eccentricity, and in those days it was not thought necessary for a supervisor to know anything about his pupils' research. Had I been clever, someone would have told me, had I been ambitious I would have discovered for myself that to make a university career I should have studied a fashionable subject with a rising academic star. Instead I pleased myself in contented obscurity.

When I finished my doctorate in 1974, the university expansion boom was over, and it was at once evident that there were no jobs there for marginal candidates and marginal subjects. …