There is something about certain historical figures that draws writers. Many years ago I did an undergrad course on the intersection between history and biography where my specialist focus was Admiral Sir John Fisher, the volcanic, combatative and controversial head of the Royal Navy during the ‘naval race’ that led up to the First World War. An extraordinary character whose nature was endlessly fascinating. Later I wrote an honours dissertation on Fisher, before going on to higher degrees.
In my professional work since I’ve written biographies of Sir Donald Mclean – the dour, pious, God-fearing land buyer whose legacy continues in New Zealand to this day through claims against his practises, 150-plus years on. I’ve written two biographies of Lieutenant-General Sir Bernard Freyberg: one a military analysis, the other a character biography (you can buy it here). I have never returned, however, to Fisher. It’s an omission I need to fix.
We’re talking here about a technophile who considered himself Britain’s second Nelson, a master at public relations whose twist on events continues to shape the way history is written, a man who wrote in block capitals and underlinings, his letters spattered with Biblical quotes and coined acronyms; who pursued vendettas beyond the point of reason; who could ruin careers with a stroke of the pen. His favourites – the ‘Fishpond’ – became the officers who led the Royal Navy at sea during the First World War. And he ended his naval career with an explosive letter, penned on 17 May 1915, to Andrew Bonar-Law, then leader of the Opposition:
“The P.M. will stick at nothing to keep W.C. (Churchill) I’M A DEAD DOG! I CEASED WORK LAST FRIDAY NIGHT. W.C. IS LEADING THEM ALL STRAIGHT TO RUIN…”
Four days later he left the Admiralty forever, later telling his wife: “NOTHING WILL EVER INDUCE ME TO GO TO LONDON UNTIL THE WAR IS OVER,” (again his emphasis). He was still fuming at his defeat in September 1917 when he discovered a new honour had been created. That spurred a letter to Churchill: ‘O.M.G. (Oh! My God!) Shower it on the Admiralty!!’ While it may well have been reinvented later, Fisher certainly coined OMG for himself, and the letter – published later in his autobiography – is the first known use in English.
Biographers have been fascinated by this extraordinary Admiral – a man at the heart of the Royal Navy in the age of social militarism, when Admirals were revered like rock stars and the wider sweep of history cannot be explained without integral reference to matters military. The breadth of Fisher’s life and influence has only barely been explored. Jan Morris’ classic Fisher’s Face riffed on the character. Ruddock Mackay’s magisterial Fisher of Kilverstone (Oxford, 1973) remains the only biography to really exploit the 6000-plus items in the Fisher papers. Fisher’s story has also been entwined with that of wider history, initially by Arthur Marder, a view later historians have re-cast in light of new data and lines of enquiry.
I recently located my honours dissertation. Youthful stuff now, of course, but I am wondering about writing something new about this extraordinary man.
Who’d like to see a book on him?
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2022