Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Another okay(-ish) review for 'Britain and the Sea'


It's another review of the present writer's Britain and the Sea (they're likely to come in thick and fast now) - in The Journal of British Studies - and it's not too bad. But it isn't full of unqualified praise either. It's by that enormously respected and experienced historian of naval administration and strategy, Daniel Baugh of Cornell, and it challenges the book even as it says some quite nice things about it. Baugh does say some very nice things:

Any reliable history of national consciousness is inevitably hard to achieve, but his [O'Hara's] delving into an impressive variety of books and articles has yielded a rich harvest of telling facts and also, what is truly admirable, comparative observations. The variety of topics is wide ranging: to name a few, the costly naval commitment to suppressing the African slave trade; the impact of North Sea oil and gas; the rise, decline, and revival of English seaside resorts; the ups and downs of the fishing industry; and the popularity of fish and chips.
Elsewhere, though, he's unhappy on three fronts: the book doesn't say enough about the great maritime centre that London became; it forgets the great land-based and financial catastrophe that the First World War really was, helping to shape a non-nautical national identity; and, thirdly, the book doesn't contain much of the 'writing back' of migrants on the move out of Britain, often to Empire and Commonwealth.

To which I can only say: mea culpa, really. The problem with responding to reviews and reviewers is that they often want you to write one book, and you wanted to write another. I wanted to focus on the Scots and the Northern English to show the non-metropolitan nature of the Empire; I wanted to emphasise naval warfare in the twentieth century to put right the emphasis on Dunkirk and the trenches; and I wanted to show the reader the chaos and contingency, not the sense of togetherness and community, of the great migration of British people across the world.

It's a healthy and a useful process, engaging with reviewers and their arguments. It shows us what we are - what we wanted to say. It's no bad thing to be criticised. I may say this through slightly gritted teeth (I think all writers and academics do). But I mean it.

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