An affair in the afterlife

Book:FISHER'S FACE by Jan Morris, Viking £16
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The Independent Culture
FOR nearly half a century Jan Morris has been haunted by the face of a man whom she never met, a man who died six years before she was born. She keeps his enlarged photograph pinned, mysteriously, on the inside of her wardrobe door. Perhaps as Fisher swings slowly out to meet her in the morning she ponders the possibility that here is her spiritual reflection, or again her complement; a doctor once told Fisher that he should have been born twins. The young James Morris wanted to be Fisher: "That's the man for me," he said when first he saw Fisher's photograph; he began to collect a great volume of material which swelled alarmingly over the years. Now the older Jan Morris has settled for an affair in the afterlife and written a self-styled jeu d'amour and caprice, an extravagant conception of breathless adulation, gossip, games and war.

Much has already been written about Fisher's life and this book makes no claim to be a biography. It outlines his career but focuses powerfully on the complex personality behind the strangely contemporary face. Jack Fisher was born in Ceylon in 1842; aged six he was sent to relatives in England and did not see his family again for 25 years. After prep school he joined the navy as a cadet sponsored by Nelson's last surviving captain and by Nelson's niece. His first ship was the Victory, he had just read Southey's Life Of Nelson and at the age of 13 he began a life dominated by Nelson's heroic image. The navy was to be his "intellectual obsession and emotional passion".

As an Admiral he commanded the British Fleet in the Atlantic and then the Mediter-ranean; eventually he became First Sea Lord. He served all over the world during the period of the Navy's transition from sail to steam, and he was an enthusiastic technologist, an inventor, designer and constant advocate of progress. The paramount importance of the Navy was his credo: "No soldier of ours can go anywhere unless a sailor carries him." He had a keen sense of social justice and he reformed conditions and career prospects for the ratings. He saw the potential of the submarine when colleagues would not take it seriously: "Under-hand, unfair and damned un-English". He launched the first turbine-driven warship; the Grand Fleet he had armoured forced the surrender of the German Fleet in the Great War.

He knew everyone from Bismarck to Gari-baldi to the Tsarina. He yearned for his own Trafalgar but saw little active service, for these were the long years of the Pax Britannica in which his Navy kept the peace, maintaining Britain's imperial sway over a quarter of the world. The Navy also often interfered in matters which were not its concern. "Tell these ugly bastards that I am not going to tolerate any more of their bestial habits," boomed one commander, poking his nose uninvited into a tribal dispute in rural Turkey. Morris paints a richly beguiling picture of the Victorian Navy, its profound inner security, its glorious assumptions, its extravagant social life and its traditionally eccentric leaders.

Fisher was adored by his men; most of his colleagues adored him too, forming a devoted and protective circle known as the Fishpond. Women, says Morris, would want him as a lover; and men would simply want to be him. He was generous, witty, enormously charming and quite unpredictable. Besides the Navy his grand passions were the Bible (Old Testament) and dancing. He used to take two midshipmen with him to balls so that when he had danced the ladies off their feet he might still have partners. He was wildly demonstrative to men and women, an unashamed self-publicist, and a crafty flatterer of journalists: "The most masterly thing you ever penned. It was BOVRIL!!!"

Inevitably he acquired enemies, notably the wondrous Lord Charles Beresford who had a hunting scene tattooed on his backside, and a wife whom he called "My little painted frigate"; this lady is said to have worn false eyebrows. Such details make this book a constant delight. Morris wanders about Fisher's life, dwelling now on his taste in clothes, now his religious impulse, now his political intrigues, conjuring up a series of tableaux vivants. "Fisher is still alive for me," she declares. "I shall go wherever he goes, as infatuates do."

Although Morris hankers after that affair in the great hereafter, her persona strikes me as Fairy Godmother rather than lover. The voice is indulgent, effusive, only occasionally sardonic. Exclamation marks abound, but for once they seem appropriate. It is all such fun, a terrific thrill to be shared with everyone.

Now and then she really overdoes it. There is a completely deranged vision of Fisher, back from the grave, flirting with Mamie Eisenhower and stealing red roses from her bouquet. And Fisher's Garboesque retreat from the final dbcle of his life as a statesman is just too much: "His face a mask of bitter hauteur at the window of his sleeper, our Jacky steamed away into his closing chapters." Yet even these hyperbolic frissons are somehow enjoyable; and if in the end the hint of coincidences and double identities and fusions of past and present remain a tantalising blur, one still feels oddly privileged to have looked at Fisher's face through Morris's eyes and shared with her his "genius for delight".