Friday, 12 August 2011

'Britain and the Sea': what to do with a more ambivalent review


Following the great run of reviews for Britain and the Sea since 1600, there's been a bit more of (shall we say) a measured response in The Mariner's Mirror, the journal of the Society for Nautical Research.

Hugh Murphy, of the National Maritime Museum and the University of Glasgow, and the editor of the Mirror, is certainly a bit more stinting in his praise than were The Scotsman, The English Historical Review, BBC History Magazine and the American Library Choice magazine.

Here's what he had to say towards the end of his notice:

O'Hara, in what is a well-written book of considerable schoalrship, attempts through a wide-ranging historical sweep through the centureis to contruct a new way of looking at British history in the world. This, of iteself, is an admirable aim. As an island nation, still largely devoted to free trade when nearly every other nation is not, and one which had ceded political and economic power to extra-national institutions, we have looked outward... 'Britishness', if such a term has any real currency, remains under considerable strain, particularly in Scotland. But, when attempting to construct a British identity one would expect that in any event. Understanding the past remains vital to any society.

Murphy's main problems are with the publisher's blurb on the cover, which claims more than he would wish about Sea's status as a 'general' history; about what he calls my 'Gordon Brown moment' in trying to define 'Britishness' without reference to differential ideas of that concept in Scotland, Ireland and Wales; and some neglect in the book of the difference between coastal and estuarine communities and Britons who lived in more landlocked areas.

The lessons? Well, first and foremost, you can't please all of the people, all of the time. There's certainly, and secondly, a grain of truth in the argument that the book might have treated different parts of the island(s) in a more sensitive manner. Though in a book aimed (as Murphy notes) at undergraduates and the general reader, it's difficult to strike the right note and lever in as much detail as one would like. Thirdly, as Murphy again himself notes, 'trying to put [any history] into a particular overarching context is notoriously difficult to achieve'.

All in all? A fair appraisal. There's much more to say. Let's say it. As Murphy says at the end of his review, the 'rationale is to give the wider academic maritime history community "a star to steer by". We shall see how well that star shines or dulls in the coming years'.

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