Joined: 26 Mar 2007
| Posted: Fri May 11, 2007 10:53 pm Post subject: from the Telegraph
|Tom Pocock, who died on Monday aged 81, was a popular historian and journalist devoted, above all, to the study of Nelson and his times.
Vividly recounted with an easy elegance and a shrewd eye for landscape, the best of his eight works on the great man were Horatio Nelson and The Young Nelson in the Americas. The former captured the ambition, dash and selfishness combined with a natural sympathy for his fellow men which created the legend of "the Nelson touch"; the book was a runner-up for the Whitbread Prize, and has remained in print for 20 years, despite the flood of new books which greeted the bicententary of Trafalgar in 2005.
The Young Nelson in the Americas recounted the San Juan river expedition of 1780 to Nicaragua, which had been largely ignored by earlier authors. Retracing the 21-year-old post captain's journey through steaming jungle, Pocock showed how the attempt to dislodge a Spanish garrison almost ended a career barely begun; and, like his subject, Pocock lost a shoe in the red mud as he leaped ashore.
Pocock's other contributions to the Nelson canon included a handsome picture book, Nelson and his World, and Nelson's Women, which suffered somewhat because its minor subjects paled beside the all-too-familiar Lady Hamilton. There were also accounts of two lesser-known contemporaries: Remember Nelson was about Captain Sir William Hoste, Nelson's protégé; and Thirst for Glory, an account of Sir Sidney Smith, an extrovert naval officer and spy, is considered the one book young midshipmen must read. Sailor King may have concentrated too much on William IV's naval career for some tastes but it showed how he brought a basic decency to the throne after the reign of his brother George IV.
In addition Pocock wrote wider-ranging works, such as The Battle for Empire: the Very First World War, 1756-1763; The Terror Before Trafalgar; Stopping Napoleon: War and Intrigue in the Mediterranean; and Breaking the Chains: the Royal Navy's War Against White Slavery.
Pocock's work did not always please the critics. One professional historian (not a naval specialist) complained that he wrote in a style reminiscent of the boys' writer GM Henty; and there were sniffs from others about his failure to include references. But one speaker at an international naval historical conference pointed out that, despite the dearth of footnotes, Pocock had sold more books than all of those present put together.
Thomas Alcot Guy Pocock was born on August 18 1925 into a naval and artistic family which included Vice-Admiral Sir George Pocock, the captor of Havana in the Seven Years War, and the marine painter Nicolas Pocock. His father, Guy Pocock, was a novelist and schoolmaster who taught Lord Mountbatten at Dartmouth, and his aunt Doris Pocock was an author of girls' school stories.
Young Tom's favourite reading was Jane's Fighting Ships. While staying as a boy with his grandfather, he learned to sail a dinghy in the Norfolk creeks that had been familiar to Nelson. After going to Westminster and Cheltenham College he joined the Navy at 17. There his enthusiasm for Nelson slackened as petty officers constantly invoked him in relation to brass polishing, though Pocock later found no evidence of the great man sharing their concern.
His interest in journalism was whetted by guiding a boatload of reporters to observe a convoy passing through the Channel in late 1944.
After being invalided out of the service following an illness and the loss of the tip of a finger in a gun, he obtained a job as an editorial assistant on the Leader, a new weekly magazine. When he was invited to spend the weekend with a friend's father, who was town major of Calais, the War Office assumed that this was official business and issued him with a war correspondent's licence.
Returning to his office a week later in battledress with a correspondent's green and gold shoulder flashes, Pocock was told to continue reporting from the Continent though, without proper filing arrangements, he sometimes had to cadge a lift in an RAF aircraft back to England and file his copy from the nearest phone box. One of his most disturbing experiences was entering Belsen concentration camp through a fence, and then discovering that his failure to be sprayed with DDT to avoid lice at the main gate meant that he risked being infested as he stood up to his knees in human ashes.
The day Germany surrendered he was back in London covering a speech to wallpaper manufacturers by the Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin; he then went to a party at St James's Palace before being swept along by the crowd to Buckingham Palace, where the trumpeter Humphrey Lyttelton greeted the King with For He's a Jolly Good Fellow. Next morning Pocock woke in a hospital bed, registered as a "war casualty".
He returned to Germany for an assignment with the artist and author Mervyn Peake, then freelanced for a few years and worked as a defence correspondent for the Daily Mail before his most alarming experience, being summoned before the uniformed Board of Admiralty on becoming naval correspondent of The Times. With all the confidence of a 22-year-old he explained what he was going to do, then undid some of the good effect on getting up by saying "Bye, bye".
One significant story he covered during his three years on the paper was the first post-war visit by a British squadron to Leningrad, when Captain Varyl Begg risked a diplomatic incident by insisting on sailing through the shipyards in daylight.
On leaving the paper, he found rather different standards at the grubbier end of Fleet Street. When he was later sent to cover a riot in Madrid for the Daily Express all he could file was a tentative story about grumbles in the Falange party, which was imaginatively reworked to justify the headline "FRANCO FACES CRISIS PLOT". He was even more humiliated by the story about Colonel Grivas not having been seen on Cyprus, which came out in the "Sunday Dispatch" with a claim that the guerrilla leader was dead; it earned Pocock hearty congratulations, at least until Grivas held a press conference four months later.
Life as the Evening Standard's "fireman" was more congenial. Pocock covered Suez, Malaya, Algeria, Borneo, Vietnam and Northern Ireland. But Whitehall's increasing dislike for the robust styles of General Sir Walter Walker, who successfully deployed helicopter units against Indonesia, and Lieutenant-Colonel "Mad Mitch" Mitchell, who marched with bagpipes into the Crater district of Aden, was not to Pocock's taste.
In 1968 he married Penny Casson, with whom he was to have two daughters, and became the paper's travel editor, enabling him to follow in Nelson's footsteps. He had started to do this some years earlier when he had been invited to Cuba, at the height of the Cold War, for the tercentenary celebrations of the capture of Havana by Vice-Admiral Pocock, whose lost portrait he had spotted in the window of a London gallery and then arranged to be donated to the Royal Navy Museum at Portsmouth.
Pocock's collected articles in London Walks proved a particular favourite with readers. Reflecting lightly on the capital's architecture, history and inhabitants, he would describe passing proprietorially through Westminster Abbey, where he had prayed daily as a schoolboy, walking down Monument Street to the "fishy, slithery world" of old Billingsgate, or emerging from the Tube in a belch of stale London air to gulp the fresh breeze of Hampstead.
On retiring from the Standard Pocock went freelance again, writing for the Telegraph's travel pages as well as writing letters about the court martial verdict against two pilots in the helicopter crash on the Mull of Kintyre. He also wrote a biography of Walter Walker, ghosted the autobiography of "Mad Mitch", and drew on his own memories for books on Norfolk and Chelsea, the year 1945 and the retreat from Empire.
His Rider Haggard revealed much that was new about an unfashionable imperial author, though there was some carping about his failure to plumb the depths of psychology and literary criticism, and Alan Moorehead drew a withering review from Robert Hughes in The Sunday Telegraph for concentrating too much on the brilliant war dispatches instead of the books.
But for Pocock both were craftsmen of character whose work, even when produced for newspapers, deserved to be taken seriously.
To the end of his days Tom Pocock remained true to the gentlemanly code and the imperial vision. After 25 years cancer forced him to give up the organisation of the annual naval historians' dinner at the Garrick, which he had started. On his last visit to the club, he compared himself in the bar to a First World War officer, cheered by the company of friends the night before going over the top.
(Information appearing on telegraph.co.uk is the copyright of Telegraph Media Group Limited)