Francis drake

From hearts of oak to hulls of steel: centuries of the British at sea

An ocean of clichés surrounds Britain’s maritime history, from Chaucer’s Shipman to the ‘little ships’ at Dunkirk. Tom Nancollas, whose 2019 Seashaken Houses treated lambently of lighthouses, now navigates debris-strewn territorial waters, sounding their depths. He examines 11 craft, from Bronze Age boats to ironclads, that epitomise Britain’s complex compact with the sea. Ships, so sturdily island nation-shaping, are themselves evanescent, exposed to danger and decay, and discarded once defunct. But their traces can be found almost anywhere. Even those that are now only names (the Conqueror’s flagship Mora, Cabot’s Matthew or Grenville’s Revenge) are ‘ensouled’ to this author – ‘lost characters of British history’, as worthy of salvage as

The Olympics have become a celebration of human frailty

Coronis Embracing one’s vulnerability seems to have replaced the higher, faster, stronger ethos of the Olympics. The very frailty that makes us human appears to have triumphed over the need to excel, or so the Games sponsors tell us. Not that I watched any of it. Not a single second, so help me you-know-who. I liked Sebastian Coe’s remark in last week’s Speccie about taking advice from Djokovic, who quit the mixed, thus leaving his partner in the lurch. I’ve always liked and admired Coe and always mistrusted the Serb, but then I’m a small-timer where sport is concerned. One thing I’ve never done is quit, however, and I did

Europe’s eye-popping first glimpse of the Americas

Coronavirus has cast a dampener over this year’s Mayflower 400 celebrations due to a hidden enemy with which the Pilgrim Fathers were all too familiar: within months of their arrival in America more than half of them had died of a disease whose principal symptom was violent coughing. There was no official artist on the Mayflower. Its ragtag party of Separatist Puritans had only been granted a charter on condition that their religious affiliation, banned in England, was not formally recognised. So we can only imagine how the New World looked to the cabin-feverish colonists who made landfall at Plymouth in December 1620, lustily shaking ‘the desert’s gloom/With their hymns