Writing to shake things up

I have long been a great fan of Admiral Sir John Arbuthnot Fisher (1840-1919).

First use of OMG! Part of p78 from Fisher's 'Memories' (Hodder & Stoughton, 1919).
First use of OMG! Part of p78 from Fisher’s ‘Memories’ (Hodder & Stoughton, 1919).

He was a firebrand, peppering his letters with Biblical quotes, multiple underlinings, different coloured inks. Along the way he invented the abbreviation ‘OMG’, first used in a letter he penned to Winston Churchill in 1917.

As  British First Sea Lord from 1904, Fisher was responsible for introducing both the dreadnought and the battlecruiser. He habitually arrived at work at 4.00 am, vigorously pour his energies into the tasks in hand, and would often parade around the offices bearing the sign ‘I have no work to do’.

The Royal Navy wasn’t called ‘the fleet that Jack built’ for nothing.

He spoke as he wrote. ‘Fisher,’ King Edward VII is reputed to have once said, ‘will you leave off shaking your fist in my face.’

One of Fisher’s favourite sayings – immortalised on the bust carved by Epstein – is starkly poignant ‘The  —- with today. What’s happening tomorrow?’

It is, I think, an apt point we could all do well to consider, as we write. What direction are we going in – and how can we make things more exciting tomorrow?

Have you written anything to shake things up lately?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013


8 thoughts on “Writing to shake things up

  1. Absolutely! The novel I just finished for NaNoWriMo was intended to do just that. Shake me out of my doldrums as a writer and also to put down a story I’ve been thinking about and putting off for (literally!) decades. Writing it exposed the strengths and weaknesses of my conceptions and was a great deal of fun besides.

    Question: How much armor was placed on a dreadnought to protect the vessel from the plunging fire of an enemy dreadnought?

    1. It’s good to shake up things in the writing world every so often! Apropos dreadnought deck armour – the actual answer is ‘never enough’. As I understand it, the problem in 1905 when Fisher’s Design Committee met was that nobody quite knew how naval battles might eventuate with available technology. They pored over the lessons of Tsushima with a fine tooth comb but lacked the breadth of experience to draw the right conclusions. Gun ranges were rising rapidly on the back of the capability of heavy guns – but the estimated battle range was 6,000 yards, and nobody expected what happened in 1915 during the first clash of heavy ships at Dogger Bank, when the ‘Lion’ opened up on the ‘Blucher’ at around 23,000 yards. Fire control hadn’t kept pace. The other limit was financial; ships were built to displacement limits for political reasons associated with budgetary constraints. That automatically forced a sharp compromise between armour, guns, fuel and propulsion.

      The result was that most of the WWI-era dreadnoughts had insufficient deck armour to properly protect them against long-range plunging shells, though that was NOT why the British lost three battlecruisers at Jutland. It wasn’t until the early 1920s that designs emerged with adequate deck armouring – and even then much depended on how the thicknesses were distributed. In this sense it was only the British battleships, developed on war experience that wasn’t shared with anybody else, that were really effective. The concept of the ‘immunity zone’ was in vogue by this stage, buoyed on the big US innovation of WWI, the ‘all or nothing’ principle, which I believe itself was a specific consequence of budgetary constraints – it was a way of concentrating armour (deck and side) on a displacement-limited hull. Militarily that was brilliant, and followed by the British in all subsequent battleships, exemplified by the ‘King George V’ class (1934-36 design) which was a way better warship than its critics usually allowed.

    1. Fisher was an astounding character – in all the senses of the word. His writing was almost Dada-esque, and this well before Dada was widely conceptualised. He peppered it with Biblical quotes. He ignored grammar. His two volume autobiography was dictated and used various typographical tricks to replicate his explosively creative turns of phrase. And this from a career naval officer who flourished particularly from the late nineteenth century.

  2. I was watching an old rerun of the QI series and Stephen Fry mentioned the story of the origin of OMG. Felt very smart having already known the answer thanks to your blog!

    1. Thanks! I first discovered Fisher as an undergrad and ended up writing my Honours dissertation on him in 1984. Back then I had no idea of the import of ‘OMG’ – it just wasn’t a pop-term then in the way it is now. Funny how the social wheels turn.

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