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The Interview:
Tom Pocock

By Bob Frost, 1995

"Nelson, when he was a midshipman, nearly died of malaria. While he was recovering from it, he had an extraordinary religious experience. It was secular in some ways, but it was in line with what people now know as the religious experience - a sudden surge of euphoria after a period of feeling very depressed, insecure, and unhappy. A terrific confidence hit him, in a sort of divine way, that he was gonna do it. And thereafter he did."

Tom Pocock is author of several outstanding books about Admiral Horatio Nelson including "Horatio Nelson" (1987), "Trafalgar: An Eyewitness History" (2005), and "The Young Nelson in the Americas" (1980). Pocock worked for many years for British newspapers. He died in 2007 at age 81; here is his obituary from the Guardian.


Q. If one had met Nelson on a London street in 1800, what impression would he have created?

A. He was a slightly built man, quite lean, with a decided air of command. He looked like a seaman - he was usually very sunburned or weather-beaten. He was very polite, very open, very friendly and easy, with enormous charm and a sense of humor. He apparently had a very attractive smile, but he didn't smile with an open mouth, he had bad teeth. He was vain about certain things, but to meet him, he had no conceit, he was modest, he didn't expect any special treatment. He always talked with a Norfolk country accent. He was interested in all kinds of things; he was interested in what people did for a living and would ask them about their lives.

Q. How is he perceived today in Britain? Is he a living presence?

A. He's more popular than ever, in a funny way. He's been studied a great deal in recent years. More of his letters have been found in recent years. More academic papers have been written. We know a lot more about him than, say, a hundred years ago, and he's holding up well under the scrutiny, in terms of public appreciation.

If he had just been a successful admiral he wouldn't be remembered, but he's recalled as a very interesting human being - Superman and Everyman - a great national hero and also a fallible human being. People can identify with him in all kinds of ways.

He wrote hundreds, if not thousands, of good letters, which were kept by the recipients, because he was famous in his lifetime. As I say, these letters turn up in auctions all the time, ones that haven't been published before. I'm amazed by this.

His views as expressed in these letters are very human views, very fresh views, on all kinds of things. As I work on a book about him, reading these letters, thinking about him, I can imagine him being interviewed on television and being quite lively and engaging. Not some dusty old figure at all.

See Here for an Interview With
Geoff Hunt, Cover Artist for
the Novels of Patrick O'Brian.

Q. Are Nelson and Churchill alone at the top of the pantheon of British heroes?

A. I would think so, yes. Churchill - I am convinced that if it hadn't been for him we would not have got through 1940-41. I think you could say Churchill was the last great national hero. Nelson was actually the first. Before Nelson there were great historical figures, but people didn't know them. As human beings. With Nelson, even in his own lifetime, because of his scandalous private life, which everyone knew about, he was recognized as a human being who could get things wrong and behave badly, and also do a lot of things right. He was human. Whereas, as I say, before that, people couldn't really see the great historical figures, or feel them - they couldn't visualize them or identify with them.

Q. Where does Wellington stand in the pantheon?

A. He was a great general of course. But he was (pause) - I was going to say a cold fish - that's not quite fair - I should say he was very much in control of himself, of his emotions. People couldn't identify with this very cool, tough customer. Nelson by contrast was volatile, emotional; and they did. There are all kinds of exciting, interesting people in British history - Wellington, etcetera - but I don't think there has been one to measure up to Nelson, and in our own time, Churchill.

Q. Is Nelson taught in British schools at all?

A. A bit, but he's not a George Washington figure in that sense, not by any means. But some young people do get interested in him on their own. There are two Nelson Societies devoted to the study and commemoration of the man. People buy books about him. There are television programs about him every now and then. He is joked about by comedians. People are fond of him, there's a warm feeling about him, even if people only know that he was an admiral who won a lot of battles and had a scandalous love affair.

Q. With regard to his affair with Lady Hamilton - the heart has its reasons, of course, but why, given his immensely important position in the state - in a sense, he was the pillar of the state, the pillar upon which the state continued to thrive - did he allow himself to have the relationship? Did he feel his accomplishments put him beyond reach of the rules of the era?

A. I don't think it was a conscious decision on his part. (Pause.) It just happened. I think there are several reasons why it happened. One was, his mother had died when he was nine. He always needed mothering. His wife, Fanny, wasn't right for him in that regard.

While in Italy, in Leghorn, he met Emma. He didn't fall for her then, but he did have an affair with an opera singer, so Emma wasn't the first. They met again after the Battle of the Nile in 1798.

At the Battle of the Nile - Aboukir Bay - he was wounded. He was hit on the head by a bit of iron. It didn't damage him seriously but it was a terrific bang on the skull. When people have road accidents and experience that kind of blow, it does sometimes slightly alter their character - not permanently, necessarily, but it does loosen inhibitions sometimes. Also, he had been under terrific strain in the weeks leading up to the battle, and might actually have been suffering from what they now call post-traumatic stress. That also can alter character temporarily. So perhaps these were factors in what would follow.

When he met Emma again after the Battle of Nile she was exactly the woman he needed. She was motherly; he needed mothering. She bolstered his ego in a big way; he needed that - he was emotionally, and even socially, rather insecure. She was very sexy; he needed that. She flattered him tremendously; he lapped it up. And really she was great fun. It worked very well.

Her husband, who was much older than she was, had expected something like this to happen when he first married her. He said so - that a younger man would come along. He and Nelson got along well, they were great friends. Sir William looked the other way and let it happen. Nelson shared a house with the Hamiltons for a time, starting in 1800, just outside London, and was blissfully happy there.

Q. What drove Nelson so relentlessly toward greatness as a warrior?

A. I think his ambition was partly a social one. His father was a country clergyman, an intelligent, well-educated man, but they had no money, they were an ordinary English middle-class family. His mother's family were very grand indeed; they were related to the Norfolk aristocracy and the big landowners. His mother's rich relations all lived in these great houses, and that gave Nelson I think a bit of a social - not exactly a social chip - but a spur. I do not think he was concerned about becoming socially grand. But I believe he thought the Nelsons were regarded as the poor relations, and he wanted to show the cousins, and the world, that though they might appear to be very ordinary middle-class people, by God they were made of special stuff, they could really achieve something.

As far as his physical gallantry was concerned - I think he was simply a brave man. There are people who simply are like that. People who are active, and brave, and naturally good leaders. I think he was one of those. Also, he felt he would be looked after by fate. He was a great fatalist.

Q. Nelson's love of medals is well known. Some sources say he wore his decorations at Trafalgar, others say he didn't.

A. He wore a uniform coat with his main decorations embroidered onto it. That was what he normally wore in battle. Somebody said to him, before the action, when he was on deck, "Why don't you take that coat off and put a plain blue coat on?" He said "There isn't time." Well, of course there was plenty of time. He thought it would be bad for morale if he were seen to do that.

Q. It has been suggested that he was courting death at Trafalgar by wearing the medals, or by showing facsimiles of them so prominently, because he was feeling guilty about Emma and was depressed.

A. That's absolute rubbish. It was what he normally wore. Anyway, you see, in a battle like that, the risk wasn't as high as it might have seemed. Once the battle started the gunsmoke was so thick that you couldn't easily see people on the other ship's deck. Muskets - even rifles - weren't all that accurate. He would have been, I think, almost as likely to be shot if he hadn't been wearing that coat.

Q. Was wearing a coat with embroidered medals standard procedure for captains at that time?

A. If they had them, yes, but really, only an admiral would have had those particular decorations and such a large number. The ordinary ship's captain or most admirals would have fewer.

Q. What was his demeanor before a battle?

A. He would go 'round the ship and talk to numbers of his men in a very friendly way, like one human being to another, not like an admiral talking down. He would make jokes with his men. He had trained his officers so well that they'd know what to do, what would happen; he wouldn't have to give many last-minute orders.

He was very good with midshipmen. There's one story - at sea when he was a captain, going to the West Indies, in a frigate, there was a boy going to sea for the first time, probably about 12 years old. Nelson saw the boy ordered up the mast by one of the officers. The ship was rolling, out in the middle of the Atlantic you know, and he saw this boy looking very scared, so he just wandered over to him and said, "Well sir, I'll race you to the masthead!" As if it were the schoolyard. And he went up with the boy, and when they got to the top, he perched up there for a while with the boy, and said, "It's quite easy isn't it, really; I can't see why some people are scared of doing that." He was the captain and yet he was doing this. This was unusual behavior for a captain.

Nelson lost his right arm in the Canary Islands in 1797. Later on, in 1801, after the Battle of Copenhagen, a lot of the British wounded were brought ashore at Yarmouth, and Nelson was going 'round the hospital there. He saw a young sailor who had also just lost his right arm, and he said, "Well, Jack, you and I are spoiled as fishermen!" Equating himself, the admiral, with the ordinary sailor. Quite unusual. Admirals were remote, lordly figures. Most of them wouldn't joke with ordinary sailors like that. Even with their officers. They were held in considerable awe.

Q. Would these comments and actions become known through the fleet?

A. Very much so. People would talk about them. The population of England, Wales, and Scotland was only about 10 million, so stories got talked about, particularly in the seaports, and in London.

His ships were spirited. His officers and crew knew his intent was not just to get the better of the enemy but to wipe him out. Before Nelson, an admiral was very pleased with himself if, after a major battle, he'd actually captured a couple of enemy ships, even though the rest of them got away. Nelson wanted to destroy the whole fleet, capture it or burn it. People knew that. They knew that he was utterly ruthless in that way, so he had this combination, of being a very human and humane man to his own people, but absolutely ferocious to the enemy.

Q. Was that ferocity new to the Royal Navy?

A. Because of the tactics at sea, where each ship fought in a line of battle - two parallel lines banging away at each other - it was very hard to get a decisive victory. Nelson aimed to actually mix it with the other side, break into them, have a complete melee, with all the ships fighting close alongside. He did that because the French and Spanish fleets were not at sea very much, they were bottled up in the harbors most of the time, and with the British fleet at sea so much, the men were highly trained, their gunnery was very, very good. They could fire at three times the rate, at least, of the French or Spanish. Nelson reckoned that once you got locked in amongst the enemy ships, you would win, because you could fire much faster.

Q. A defining moment for Nelson was at the Battle of Cape St. Vincent in 1797 where he broke out of the line of battle. Could you comment on that moment - whence came the guts to do that, to smash the rule so resolutely?

A. One, he knew that if somebody didn't do it, the enemy fleet, which was sailing in two sections, would link up. This, he saw, could be stopped, thus giving the rest of the British fleet time to turn and come into action, which indeed happened. He knew it was the right thing to do. He knew Admiral Jervis well enough to know that he would think it was the right thing to do. Partly that.

I do think also, although Nelson was in some ways socially quite insecure, in other ways he was very confident, confident enough to risk all. My theory is this. Rather a bizarre one. But I'll tell you what it is. He came from a family of clergymen; he had about 15 clergymen among his recent ancestors. Society then was fairly religious. Although the local clergyman might be quite a poor and humble man, and certainly his father was quite humble, in the end everyone had to go to him to ask for divine intercession. That gave them an underlying self-confidence, which was perhaps inculcated in Nelson from an early age.

Now, to continue along this vein. Nelson, when he was a midshipman, nearly died of malaria. While he was recovering from it, he had an extraordinary religious experience. It was secular in some ways, but it was in line with what people now know as the religious experience - a sudden surge of euphoria after a period of feeling very depressed, insecure, and unhappy. A terrific confidence hit him, in a sort of divine way, that he was gonna do it. And thereafter he did. This experience has been underestimated by some writers. I think it had a major positive effect on him. He suddenly got professionally confident after that. It was not consciously religious, but I think subconsciously it might have been. I think it was a key moment in his life, with roots in his upbringing and family background. He only occasionally referred to it, but I believe it had a deep effect.

I do think other captains might have done the same thing at Cape St. Vincent, breaking out of the line. Not many others, but one or two perhaps. I'm writing a book now about another British admiral, a man called Sir Sidney Smith, who was a bit younger than Nelson, and served under Nelson, and he exceeded his orders when Nelson was the admiral. At first Nelson didn't like it at all, then he realized Smith was doing just what he'd done. And everything was all right. They ended up great friends.

Q. As you stand in front of HMS Victory today, and also as you examine it from within, what are your impressions?

A drawing of HMS Victory as it
appeared in the late 19th century.

A. The sheer beauty of the ship. And the fact that it's an extraordinary living organism, really - much more than modern ships are - a marvelous, living thing. One thinks also of the discomfort, of course. The contrasts - the discomfort of 99 percent of the people on board, and the spacious quarters of the captain and the admiral. The remarkable resiliency of those men. Not only in action, in working the guns, but actually working the ship - going up the mast, taking in sail, making sail, day and night, in frightful weather, handling those huge heavy sails. They must have been extraordinarily tough.

Q. Tougher than people today?

A. Possibly.

Q. You have visited many Nelson sites, yes?

A. Yes, virtually all of them in fact. I've been all my life a newspaper journalist, and have traveled for my job, so I have had a chance to see these sites. Very exciting for me.

Q. Is there anything at the Trafalgar site, on shore, in the way of a monument?

A. Not a thing. The battle happened over the horizon - I should think about 20 or 30 miles out to sea. There's nothing to see on shore.

Q. What site is the most evocative for you?

A. Nicaragua, I think - the jungle there. When he was a young captain he went up the Rio San Juan. The idea of the expedition, with the army, was to go up the river and cut the two Americas in half at the narrowest point of Central America, and eventually establish a naval squadron in the Pacific and in the Caribbean, cut a canal through, and roll up the Spanish empire. This was after the American Revolution; the British were looking 'round for more colonies; the Spanish empire was looking rather rickety, and the British thought, well, we might try taking it over. It didn't work out, but if the army commander had listened to Nelson, they could have done the first part of it anyway. There's a castle there, it hasn't changed at all. Very evocative indeed.

I would also mention the little village in Norfolk where he grew up, Burnham Thorpe. It hasn't altered much over the years, he would instantly know it now. (Editor's Note: For the ambience of a seaside village in Norfolk County, see the 1976 film "The Eagle Has Landed.")

Q. Does the village have a museum?

A. No, it doesn't, but one does get a feeling of Nelson very much.

A map of England showing
Norfolk County (shaded).

Q. With regard to the novels of C.S. Forester and Patrick O'Brian - why, in your opinion, is this period of history so compelling that two novelists in the 20th century could mine it for first-rate fictional material and sell a ton of books? Not to mention the others who have written well about those years.

A. I think both writers are marvelous. That era - we can identify with it. People expressed themselves much as we do now. They were modern people in many ways. As I was saying, Nelson seems to me a fairly modern man. We can see see how these people thought, and behaved, whereas, if we go back further in history, it's difficult to connect, really.

In those years too, there was a terrific lot of action, of all kinds, all over the world. A lot to write about. Military people were very much on their own in these distant parts of the world, and they had to take the initiative. This didn't happen nearly so much in the world wars, with the almost instant communications - occasionally it happened, but not often. In Nelson's time people had to take great decisions on their own; sometimes they took the right ones, sometimes the wrong ones; in any case, much action resulted.

I think also a fondness for sailing ships, and the sea, is a factor here. And nostalgia for the rather simpler world. (Pause.) Not quite nostalgia, perhaps - we didn't know that world ourselves - but perhaps nostalgia for what we imagine the world must have been like. The political issues were large and complex, but the topics weren't quite so complicated as they are today.

-The End-

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