BOOK REVIEW / Britannia's swaggering popinjay: 'Nelson: A Personal History' - Christopher Hibbert: Viking, 20 pounds - Nelson is the most operatic and romantic of our national heroes, but he could also be a perfect ass. Jan Morris is charmed

THANK GOD Nelson died at Trafalgar. Can't you imagine the bathos of the hero in his old age, absurdly vain, increasingly testy and hypochondriac, drinking too much, plastered all over with decorations, forever trying to avoid poor Lady Nelson, and recalling old victories in the arms of his grotesque, obese and fulsome mistress Emma Hamilton?

But then again, thank God for Emma] If there were more Emmas, as the admiral said himself, there would be more Nelsons, and certainly without her the most operatic of our national romances (at a Verdian rather than a Wagnerian level) would hardly be a romance at all - just the career of a fighting commander whose principal merit, so Lord St Vincent thought, was mere animal courage, and whose love-life followed a familiar naval pattern of humdrum marriage punctuated by distant and transient infatuations.

Without Emma's husband Sir William, too, the tale would lose much of its charm. What a thoroughly agreeable old cuckold he was, and what an artistically important part he played in the menage a trois. He was more than just a foil, but a dramatic mirror to the passions of the spectacle, for he loved Emma just as besottedly as Nelson did, and made the perfect Dr Watson to Nelson's Sherlock - or, one might perversely say, a Horatio to his Hamlet.

And what would the great opera be without its chorus? Behind the star stood his Band of Brothers, worthy understudies one and all, steady bald Hardy, impetuous Berry ('Here comes that damned fool Berry] Now we shall have a battle]'), Foley always in the van, Beatty the gentlest of surgeons, 'dear good little Parker' - and behind them again the rough, bluff, cosmopolitan company of seamen, half of them distinctly reluctant recruits to the Navy, who threw themselves into Nelson's service with a devotion worthy of football crowds or rock fans, and who 'cried like wenches' when he died.

Such are only a few of the countless thoughts inspired in me by Christopher Hibbert's new biography of England's Darling. They are not exactly fresh in themselves, because like most of us I have been familiar with the saga of Nelson, Emma, Sir William and the Band of Brothers since I was a child, but they have been newly charged for me by this fine work. As was once said of Alan Moorehead, an author of rather similar talents, Hibbert only writes good books: this one is composed, like all his others, with an ease, a balance, a command of subject and a professionalism that is a model to us all.

Even so, one might have thought a new life of Nelson somewhat oxymoronic. It is only seven years since Tom Pocock published his superlative biography, and Mr Pocock could have been forgiven for supposing it would be the last for a generation or so. Fortunately, even literary Nelsonians are brotherly, it seems, and Pocock has not only checked this new book in typescript, but has handed over to Hibbert lots of his own material. The result is a different kind of biography from his: it is deliberately subtitled 'A Personal History', and relatively skimpy on the naval side of things. I found myself, in writing this review, consulting both works in parallel.

This was proper too, for the real allure of Nelson's story lies in its theatrical antithesis between life at sea and life on shore. Hibbert is excellent on Nelson as popinjay. What a perfect ass the Saviour of Europe could be] How preposterously he swaggered around with his stars and his medals and his sashes and his scarlet pelisse and the chelengk on his cocked hat, given him by the Sultan of Turkey, whose diamond centre revolved when you wound it up] Time and again I found myself thinking once more that surely no amount of epic courage, no number of annihilations, could make up for Nelson's conceited silliness.

Mr Hibbert leads us almost mischievously through these doubts towards the glorious denouement of the performance - familiar as ever, but in these pages perhaps more moving than ever too. The Duke of Wellington, at his only meeting with our Horatio, thought at first what a coxcomb and charlatan he was, only to discover that after a time his conversation became of matchless interest. Never had he known, recalled the Duke, such a complete metamorphosis; and never did caterpillar turn more marvellously into butterfly than when Nelson the vainglorious landsman turned into Nelson at sea.

Of course we know it's all coming: the swooning farewells from Emma, the adoring crowds on the promenade at Southsea, the dinners with the captains off Cadiz, the touching small kindnesses to midshipmen and sailors, the last letters, the noble prayer before battle, the fatal blaze of decorations on the quarterdeck, the heartbroken officers around the cockpit, Hardy himself, having kissed Nelson goodbye at the admiral's command, kissing him again to show he really meant it . . .

I am not ashamed to say that once again the tears came to my eyes as I reached the climax of the grand old tale, so beautifully retold here, and as ever I dismissed as mere irrelevances all the tomfooleries that had gone before. However often this libretto is worked, in the end Nelson always gets us cheering in the aisles. One aria in particular sticks in my mind now, and perhaps reaches the truth about his character. He was, wrote Victory's chaplain Alexander Scott, 'the greatest and most simple of men - one of the nicest and most innocent . . . an affectionate, fascinating little fellow'.

He remains, I suppose, nearly everyone's romantic ideal of that lost paragon, the true-born Englishman, so brave, so fallible, so bashed about by war, so heedless of fashion or convention, so gloriously sure of himself.

Thank God he died at Trafalgar in the days of Rule Britannia. Can you imagine him living in our own day, obliged to serve out his time as second-in-command to some dullard born-again acronym?

(Photograph omitted)

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