Magazine article The Spectator

Waiting for the Bogeyman

Magazine article The Spectator

Waiting for the Bogeyman

Article excerpt

THE TERROR BEFORE TRAFALGAR by Tom Pocock John Murray, L20, pp. 260, ISBN 0719562805

On 19 August 1805, two months before his death at Trafalgar, Vice-Admiral Lord Nelson rejoined Emma Hamilton at their home in Merton after an absence of almost two and a half years. During that time, he had been continuously at sea, at first in the Mediterranean watching for Admiral Villeneuve to break out of Toulon to join the squadrons from the Atlantic ports, and then in the Atlantic itself, where the French tried to lure him into the Caribbean before dashing back to concentrate in the Channel to cover the invasion of England and Ireland.

Meanwhile the people of the eastern and southern counties especially lived in fear of the Bogeyman of Europe's landing; the army, yeomanry and militia were all but wearing away the cliff tops and coastal paths in their ceaseless watch, and spies and inventors plied the Admiralty and the Horse Guards with 'intelligence' and novel devices. This was the time of `the great terror', and it forms the background to Tom Pocock's latest volume on this arguably most romantic and heroic period of the nation's history.

Pocock has written eight books about Nelson and his times, one of which was shortlisted for the Whitbread biography prize in 1987. One imagines that in this dedicated and above all entertaining Nelsonian scholar's study there must be thousands of bits of paper with countless facts and anecdotes, painstakingly acquired, the residue of years of immersion in the naval affairs of the period, and it is difficult not to think that this book is an attempt to make final use of them. Why, for instance, should we follow over the course of many pages the to-ings and fro-ings of Lord Camelford, who seems not to try, let alone succeed, and who then suddenly dies in a duel in England without, apparently, contributing a thing towards that which is the book's subtitle - `Nelson, Napoleon and the Secret War'? …

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