“The past is another country; they do things differently there.” A truism, perhaps but accurate enough, as author Jan Morris discovered when she set about learning more about the man she glimpsed in a photograph back in 1950. Instantly fascinated, Morris began her lifelong attempt to unravel the enigma that was Admiral Jacky Fisher. FISHER’S FACE: OR, GETTING TO KNOW THE ADMIRAL is a fascinating result, a combination biography, detective story, and memoir by one of Britain’s premier writers.
By the time Morris gazed on Fisher’s face, the subject of the picture had been dead for a generation, and yet he was still the subject of passionate argument and fierce emotions. Although less well known today, he remains one of the most important, and controversial, figures in imperial British history.
As First Sea Lord in the years before World War I, Fisher reformed the British Navy—or ruined it, his opponents would claim. The Royal Navy’s equipment and ships were modernized, destroyers and submarines were introduced, the navy’s worldwide network of bases was drastically reduced and life aboard ship became infinitely better for the “ratings”—the common sailor. Perhaps most important of all, it was Fisher who brought about a revolution in naval design in 1906 with the launching of the DREADNOUGHT, the first modern battleship.
It was a remarkable apex to a remarkable career that Fisher had forged entirely on his own during a time when connections and relationships were all important. Born to an impoverished coffee grower in Ceylon, the young Fisher was sent to England and to the Royal Navy as “an orphan of empire” in Morris’ words. Intelligent, shrewd and incredibly lucky, Fisher made friends, formed alliances with politicians such as Winston Churchill, fought and bested interservice foes and rose from ensign to First Sea Lord. In an age when caste as well as class still mattered, it was a remarkable achievement, and Morris’ account of it is fascinating.
Yet FISHER’S FACE is more than a study, however entertaining, of a bygone age. It is a penetrating psychological portrait of an individual who was yet a type: the professional as passionate lover, for Jacky Fisher’s greatest—perhaps his only true—love in life was the Royal Navy, and his transformation of it was less a test of power than a testament of devotion. Morris’ book is a similar testament of devotion and fascination.