The PR genius of Horatio Nelson

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Next year is the bicentenary of Nelson's death at the Battle of Trafalgar. There will be lots of celebrations, lots of programmes, lots of books, lots of biscuit tins with Nelson's face on, and lots and lots of big dinners.

Next year is the bicentenary of Nelson's death at the Battle of Trafalgar. There will be lots of celebrations, lots of programmes, lots of books, lots of biscuit tins with Nelson's face on, and lots and lots of big dinners.

And they will all have been produced via the Nelson Heritage Industry Workshop, a hive of activity on the Thames which hopes to co-ordinate everything to do with Nelson in 2005, and which I was lucky enough to visit this week.

The head of the outfit, Rear-Admiral Sir Edmund Jervis, says that when a centenary year comes around, the planning has to start years ahead.

"We started work on this project about the time the Millennium Dome was going up, because we knew we would need that amount of time to get everything right. Plays would have to be written, films made, documentaries scripted, and these things have to done years in advance ..."

He pauses as a cry rends the air. Two ambulance men sprint past. "Don't worry about that," says Jervis. "It's only the Flogging Research Unit getting a bit keen again."

You're ... you're actually flogging people for research?

"Not what I would call proper flogging," says Jervis, affably. "Anyway, we have got off to a flying start with thanks to the great man himself."

Nelson? How has he helped?

"Well, he had the wit to die in the year of his greatest triumph, so everyone remembers the date. Nobody remembers when Napoleon died. The only date of his anyone remembers is Waterloo, his big defeat. Terrible PR. Whereas Nelson and 1805 are interlinked. He also had the sense to die in an odd year, which means his bicentenary cannot clash with the Olympics, the World Cup, or any of those things which come round in even years. Even in death his tactics were superb!"

And how do they intend to make the year a Nelsonian year?

"Nelsonian?" says Jervis. "Should that be Nelsonic? Or perhaps Nelsonesque? That's one of the things we'll have to hammer out. It's one of the signs of a great man that you have your own adjective. Napoleonic. Churchillian. Even Gaullist, alas. But not, you'll notice, Hitlerian or Kaiseresque or ... "

Raleighist? Drakeian?

"It's true," muses Jervis. "I can't think of any great seafarer who has his own adjective. What a scandal. Well, we must put that right with Nelson!"

Plans for 2005 range from flooding Trafalgar Square to re-enact his battles, to making Nelson a symbol of achievement for disabled people.

"I am not so sure about that one," says Jervis. "Yes, he had only one eye and one arm, but he achieved most of his achievements before he got to that state. I think I am right in saying there was no disabled access on board the Victory."

At that moment a man walks past with his arm in a sling. He nods to Jervis. Jervis nods back. Another flogging accident?

"Good God, no," says Jervis. "That's Dr Bancroft from the Scurvy and Gangrene Research Unit. Any more questions?"

Well, yes. Will there be any acknowledgement of Nelson's love life? Nelson's will asked the nation to look after Lady Hamilton. Britain notoriously turned a blind eye to the woman Nelson loved. Will Britain belatedly make amends?

"Look, I'm just a simple blunt sailor," says Jervis. "If the playwrights and film-makers want to go on about Nelson's love life, that's their privilege. That's not what made him a great man." So, what did make him a great man?

"He got to the top by disobeying orders and following his instinct. And he knew how to deal with troublemakers. So I have no hesitation in throwing you out, you horrible little pen-pusher!"

And moments later I am sprawling in the mud outside the Nelson Heritage Industry Workshop, deposited there by five muscular and not very jolly Jack Tars. I am deeply impressed. I have a feeling that this is one industry which knows exactly where it is going.

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