A THOUSAND WORDS - Alex Waterhouse-Hayward's blog on pictures, plants, politics and whatever else is on his mind.


An Australian Napoleon, Two Horatio Nelsons & Wellesley Is Impressed
Wednesday, January 30, 2008

One of the richest experiences I can have is discovering a "new" author who has written over 20 novels. Years back Celia Duthie introduced me to Arthur W. Upfield mystery novels in which Detective-Inspector Australian half-breed Napoleon Bonaparte (" my friends call me Bony") solves murders in the Australian outback of the 1950s. It took me a while to find some of the out of print books in the author's series of about 28 novels. So much fun! I could read one after another.

I remember going to listen to Patrick O'Brian lecture in Seattle. When I got back my friend Marv Newland asked me, "How did he look? Do you think he has another novel in him?" O'Brian died after almost finishing his 19th Captain Aubrey/Doctor Maturin novel. With English author Reginald Hill I read him almost as fast as he writes them. I just finished Death Comes For The Fat Man but I was elated today to find out he has written the next one in his Dalziel/Pascoe series, A Cure for all Diseases.

It is an equal pleasure to see a film I know I have seen before, but except for a few scenes it is all but forgotten. A couple of days ago I experienced that pleasure when Rosemary and I saw Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier in the 1941 That Hamilton Woman. This ostensibly British film was filmed in a Hollywood lot and it is full of innacuracies. In spite of them, it is a rowsing film full of delights. Of the innacuracies I know as I have read (over and over) one of the best Nelson biographies, Horatio Nelson by Tom Pocock (1987). In this biography I learned that Horatio Nelson was a true hero and nothing of his life needs to be enhanced. His only competition came from another English seaman Lord Cochran. There is a bit of both men, via Frederick Marryat's Mr. Midshipman Easy (1836), in Patrick O'Brian's Captain Jack Aubrey. In many of O'Brian's novels Jack Aubrey recounts being at the table with Nelson (when he, Aubrey was a young officer). Nelson asks Aubrey, ( "in a most natural way"), "Please pass the salt."

It was in the Pocock biography that I found out that Nelson had an older brother called Horatio who died very young. Our Nelson was really called Horace but quickly became the new Horatio. In actual fact, there were two Horatio Nelsons!

While I am most interested in Nelsonian lore I am not in the same league as Barry Unsworth's Charles Cleasby:

I sat on there, after the battle. I have never been to sea, except twice on the cross-Channel ferry. That was a long time ago, before my illness. Now I am his land shadow. I have been abroad only once since then, just once in twenty years. That was when I went with my father to Tenerife to see the place where Horatio lost his right arm.

in Losing Nelson (1999). This wonderful novel is in reality a very fine Nelson biography as recounted by a man obsessed to the point that he stages Nelson's naval battles, in perfect detail, in his basement.

I was but a month in the Argentine Navy when I was befriended by an experienced (on his second year of our two year conscription period) sailor. We called him and their kind, conscriptos piola. Piola in Argentine slang means quick thinking, almost sly. His name was Bjerre and he was of Danish extraction. He told me, "Those three white stripes on your collar are in honour of Lord Nelson's famous three victories, The Nile, Copenhagen and Trafalgar." I have since found out that the British navy had issued collars with three white stripes before all of those battles. But it rang true and I have never forgotten.

For a long time I suspected that Nelson may have been more of hero simply because we always read the British point of view. My suspicions were all wrong as Spanish novelist and journalist, Arturo Pérez-Reverte recently (2004) wrote Cabo Trafalgar - Un Relato Naval a novelized version of the events in which by slightly mentioning the ineptness of French admiral Pierre-Charles-Jean-Baptiste-Silvestre de Villeneuve, Nelson survives (at least his reputation does) Trafalgar without Pérez-Reverte's sailors being any less than manly and brave, which they were.

When Rebecca, Rosemary and I went to the National Gallery in Washington some 5 years ago I showed here a few paintings (not more than 10) One of them was Goyas's portrait of the Duke of Wellington. The other was David's magnificent portrait of Napoleon. I told her how one had vanquished the other. Unfortunately John Rigaud's fine portrait (the one on the cover of the Pocock biography) of aspirant (Nelson was 19 when the artist began it) Horatio Nelson was not in the Gallery and I could not tell her the little story so finely described in Pocock's book Horatio Nelson:


During the coming month there were to be many meetings with ministers and senior officers in Whitehall and, before one with Lord Castlereagh, The Sectretary of State for War and the Colonies, a chance meeting and the conversation which followed illustrated Nelson's response to recognition. He found himself in an ante-room of the Colonial Office in Downing Street and sharing it with a major-general of authoritative and aristocratic manner, more than ten years his junior. The soldier was to recall how he had met there:

...a gentleman, whom from his likeness to his pictures and the loss of an arm, I immediately recognize as Lord Nelson. He could not know who I was, but he entered at once into a conversation with me, if I can call it a conversation, for it was almost all on his side and all about himself and, in reality, a style so vain and so silly as to surprise and almost disgust me. I suppose that something that I happened to say may have made him guess that I was somebody and he went out of the room for a moment. I have no doubt to ask the office-keeper who I was, for when he came back he was altogether a different man, both in manner and matter.
Nelson had been told that his companion was Major-General Sir Arthur Wellesley, just returned from a succession of brilliant campaigns in India. Wellesley continued:

All that I had thought a charlatan style had vanished and he talked of the state of the country and of the aspect and probabilities of affairs on the Continent with a good sense and a knowledge of subjects both at home and abroad that surprised me equally and more agreeably than the first part of our interview had done; in fact, he talked like an officer and a statesman.

The Secretary of State kept us long waiting, and, certainly, for the last half or three-quarters of an hour, I don't know that I ever had a conversation that interested me more. Now if the Secretary of State had been punctual and admitted Lord Nelson in the first quarter of an hour, I should have had the same impression of a light and trivial character that other people have had, but luckily I saw enough to be satisfied that he was really a very superior man; but certainly a more sudden or complete metamorphosis I never saw.

Horatio Nelson, Tom Pocock


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