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Chocolates from the king of Spain

Fisher's Face Jan Morris Viking £16
Admiral Sir John Fisher had a tremendous idea for winning the First World War in three weeks. He would take a huge fleet to the Baltic coast in Germany, land thousands of troops, and sweep south destroying all before him. He got as far as building three extraordinary ships. Called the Courageous, Furious and Glorious, they were so peculiar that the Navy rechristened them Outrageous, Spurious and Uproarious. All six adjectives could be applied to Fisher.

Jan Morris has been obsessed by this man for 40 years. Half of her, she says, wants to be loved by him, the other half wants to be him. In passionate mood, she has produced a tribute to her hero, a jeu d'esprit, an imaginative recreation that breaks most of the rules of biography but succeeds in projecting an image as arresting as the single photograph she offers, a picture of an extraordinary face.

You could wish that she had used just one more, of Fisher's mother. Fisher claimed that she was a great beauty but in photographs, we are told, she looks terrible, like Truganini, the last Tasmanian aboriginal, or Lili'uokalani, queen of the Hawaiians. "There is something at once regal and condemned to the heavy-jowled calculation of her face," says Morris, adding in an avowed novelettish speculation that she could have been the love child of Fisher's respectable wine-merchant grand-father and a mysterious lady of Oporto.

She probably was. Morris gives no documentary proof of this or of most of her other surmises, provides no list of sources, no scholarly footnotes, not even an index, yet the bravura of her style and the enormous range of her experience give an irresistible verisimilitude to the whole caprice. She has absorbed so much of this man's life; she has travelled from the Ceylon plantation where he was born to the Norfolk churchyard where he is buried; she has conjured up his spirit in every port and posting of his career. She has read his thousands of letters, corresponded with people who knew, disliked, admired, despised and adored him. She has even tried on his hat. We'd better believe her.

The object of her devotion was a sailor. From being a midshipman at 13, he rose to become First Sea Lord, retired, and was recalled in 1914, aged 73, to work with Churchill at the Admiralty. Dismayed by the appalling loss of life in the Dardanelles, he resigned his post and was castigated for running away. It is just possible that, had he been prepared to commit even more men and ships to that effort, it might have succeeded, but it is at least as possible that he was right and Churchill wrong. There is even a heady whiff of possibility about his Baltic project, which just might have done what Gallipoli failed to do. But as it happened, it is a sad coda to a dashing and heroic career.

He should by rights be remembered for other things. The Royal Navy he joined was flamboyant, snobbish, brutal and complacent. Under his command, this imperial yacht club became an efficient European fighting force; sail gave way to steam and wood to steel, just as horses were to be replaced by tanks in the next century. He was also an innovator. In 1882, after a skirmish off Alexandria, he invented the "ironclad" or armoured train. He was the first to see the potential of turbines and torpedoes, invented the battle-cruiser and pioneered the Dreadnought. He was keen on submarines, sending the Prince of Wales down for a trip - "I shall be very disappointed if George doesn't come up again" was the laconic comment of the future Queen Mary. He introduced promotion through the ranks, gave status to engineering officers, abolished flogging and was accused of "rank socialism".

As a man he was energetic and contradictory. He revelled in sermons and enjoyed quoting Biblical texts, particularly those featuring smiting and coming swiftly from behind. He was a noted philanderer, boasting to Edward VII that he had "ravished every virgin in London" - "Splendid if true" was the king's comment - though his flirtations seldom went beyond the lasciviously platonic. "What a man likes," he said, "is to be a saint with the reputation of being a bit of a devil." He was more jocund than ribald and devoted to his wife for 52 years.

He inspired intense emotions. He could show immense generosity, but he could also nurse a grudge for decades. There were those who saw him as incorrigible, insufferable and intolerably conceited, but even more who fell hopelessly under his spell. King Alfonso XIII of Spain is said to have been so charmed that he kissed him, popped a chocolate into his mouth and cried "You darling!" An MP went so far as to name his unfortunate daughter John in his honour. The journalist J M Garvin, who knew a good many people, said that he had never met anyone so unlike anyone else. Morris is in full agreement. By the end of this exhilarating book, you suspect that she might even agree with a dazzled seaman who, when asked in an exam to define electricity, wrote "a suttle and impondrous fluid invented by Captain Fisher."