Friday, 7 October 2011

'Britain and the Sea since 1600'... Not bad?


Another review for Britain and the Sea since 1600 (above) has come in. This one's probably the worst of the lot they have, as regular readers will know, been in general very positive - which comes as a bit of a disappointment.

But as I've said before - you can't please all of the people, all of the time.

This one is by Helen Doe, a University of Exeter Teaching Fellow and maritime writer. There's some praise here, specifically about its 'usefulness' for students.

But there's also some quite piercing commentary, to say the least. In particular, Doe objects to the lack of coverage of the great nineteenth-century shipping firms that girdled the world (e.g. P&O). And Doe would also have liked more on marine artists and the 'environmental turn' in ways of perceiving the sea and its value and vulnerability since the Torrey Canyon tanker disaster off Cornwall in 1967. Doe concludes:

This is an ambitious book that promises a ‘full-scale treatment of Britain's relationship with the surrounding oceans’ and yet it is inevitable, as O'Hara admits, that a single volume cannot be considered comprehensive. The book does provide a useful series of themes, but they are highly selective and provide a strangely uneven view.
There's probably some truth in that. It's impossible to cover more than four hundred years of history with the same sureness of touch, or indeed in the same detail. One is inevitably an expert (in the present blogger's case, in the history of economic and social policy) in some areas, while remaining relatively under-powered on others.

But in general the experience of reading Britain and the Sea's reviews has demonstrated to me how frustrating it is when expert readers say 'ah, you should have covered this', rather than engaging with 'I thought this was interesting, and this less so, in what you actually did cover'. I'm reminded about a phrase J.R.R. Tolkien used about his magisterial Lord of The Rings: 'the passages or chapters that are to some a blemish are all by others specially approved'. Daniel Baugh, you'll remember, wanted more on London and on the financial crisis of the early twentieth century. Hugh Murphy wanted more on 'Scottishness' within 'Britishness'.

Especially galling is the fact that a long section on nineteenth-century shipping companies ended up on the cutting room floor (as did a bit chunk about London). And, just as this review came out, I was in the National Archives of Scotland, researching a new article about - you've guessed it - environmental views of the sea and 'clean water' in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.

So I saw the hole in the doughnut. But no one book can do everything. Mea culpa!

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