Tom Pocock: Journalist and naval historian whose work focused on the life, times and contemporaries of Nelson (obit.)





The status of naval and maritime history in Britain has greatly advanced in recent years, with several specialist university centres and new professorial chairs. One reason is that, as academia has democratised, it has seen its own advantages in catching up with a long-standing and less fashion-prone popular interest in the field. In this, one strand has been an enduring market for naval fiction, especially but not solely of the Nelsonic era, from C.S. Forester to Patrick O'Brian et al. Another has been a matching tradition of saleable general naval history, purveyed in the mid-to-late-20th century by such names as Christopher Lloyd, Oliver Warner, Dudley Pope, David Howarth and Richard Hough - most led into it by wartime naval service. Tom Pocock, a great friend of Hough, was the last of this Second World War-tempered group and among them held a special place on a number of counts.

Pocock was undoubtedly one of the best writers - fluent, evocative and with great narrative pace - qualities fostered if not born in his original and long-parallel career as a journalist. He was also extraordinarily productive, writing, editing or contributing to 23 books over a period of 38 years up to 2006. Most distinctive, in terms of his reputation, were the high proportion (10) that focused on the life, times and contemporaries of Nelson, with whom Pocock's bond was as much their shared Norfolk background as personal admiration. As he said in the preface to his full biography, Horatio Nelson - a Whitbread Prize runner-up in 1987, and still in print - since a boy he had "walked the [Norfolk] paths that Nelson walked, seen the views he saw, visited most of the houses he had and enjoyed much talk about him in the . . . inn at Burnham Thorpe which he knew"....

Pocock's devotion to Nelson and his contemporaries are likely to be his main legacy. Apart from the 1987 Nelson biography, he published three other notable naval lives; of Captain Sir William Hoste ( Remember Nelson, 1977); of the arch-maverick Admiral Sir Sidney Smith ( A Thirst for Glory, 1996) and in 2000,afreshandoverduere-examination of Captain Marryat - founding father of the Nelsonic sea novel.

His books also showed his fascination and tenacity for "finding things out", often at personal cost and difficulty. Young Nelson in the Americas (1980), for instance, involved a journey to the Nicaraguan jungle fortress where his hero nearly died in 1780, and was also an early example of his capacity to identify an overlooked aspect of a familiar subject, or anticipate and exploit a rising public interest. Later cases included The Terror before Trafalgar: Nelson, Napoleon and the secret war (2002) and his last book, Breaking the Chains (2006), which treated the Navy's war on white slavery in time for this year's Abolition bicentenary.
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