Book Review: Nelson: Love & Fame

The 2005 bicentenary of Trafalgar will be well-timed. Nelson is the kind of charismatic individual who can be reinterpreted for any age, including ours; if he had not been killed at his hour of triumph, he could have made a second fortune from management training, teaching businessmen the principles of inspirational leadership.

Having worked for ICI and as a head hunter, after a spell in the Royal Navy, Mr Vincent is ideally placed to analyse the modernity of Nelson’s leadership. Even the single-mindedness of Nelson’s aggression, which is hard for the modern reader to understand in an otherwise humane and religious man, has its business parallel. Think of him mounting a hostile takeover bid.

His determination to either win public acclaim, peerages and pensions, or to have a tomb in Westminster Abbey (St Paul’s as it turned out) gave the fleet something to live up to. Nelson was also the master of spin. He made sure that the world knew of his achievements, from his own pen. He was vain (look at all the portraits, look at the diamond spray in his hat). However, he did have to contend with commanding officers who gave him precious little credit for his improvisational genius and bravery at Cape St Vincent.

The author is sensitive and perceptive in probing the inner Nelson. His thirst for adulation and unqualified love is ascribed to his having lost his mother in childhood. His lust for battle is described as a kind of addiction.

He trusted his captains, shared his thoughts with them over dinner on his flagships, occasionally – as in his frustrating pursuit of the French fleet in 1799 – sought their decision, and therefore bound them to it.

When Nelson caught up with his enemy in Aboukir Bay, Captain Foley of the leading English shipGoliathmade the inspired, split-second decision to slip between the anchored French fleet and the shoals that they had thought were protecting them on their landward side. It had been Nelson’s genius to give him the confidence to act on his own best judgement.

Simiilarly, Edgar Vincent describes the opening phase of Trafalgar as a near disaster; the initiative which he had given to his captains, with their superior gunnery, won the day. He had discovered the principle of ‘Mission Command’ 200 years before its time.

We all know that Nelson had faults. The author balances them by evoking the caressing softness of manner with which Nelson could charm his comrades, and those less well-disposed towards him. ‘Kiss me, Hardy’ was its ultimate expression.

Stand by for an avalanche of Nelson books during the next two years. They’ll be hard put to beat this one.