One of my mini-resolutions for 2013 is to take my blog back to its origins as a bookish, brain foodie space for quasi-high-brow banter. I really can’t figure out how to punctuate ‘quasi-high-brow’, which is indicative of the fact that my brain isn’t as razor sharp as it used to be 😉 You’ll be seeing a few more book reviews and less product placement from me in the coming months; as well as the other stuff that I can’t help but vomit onto the page when I’m under pressure.
Some time ago I was asked to write some book reviews for a journal which unfortunately never saw the light of day, so I thought I might share some of these not-quite-wasted words here instead. Happy reading 🙂
Captain Cook: Obsession and betrayal in the new world by Vanessa Collingridge
The premise for this book is tantalising: Collingridge sets out to write a biography, but is waylaid by the discovery that a distant relative, many years earlier, made some shocking discoveries about their shared hero, Captain James Cook. This sets up a very personal journey for Collingridge, whereby the deeper she burrows into the annals of Cook’s life, the more she is forced to consider the journey of this long gone other Collingridge.
The author, an Oxford graduate now working in radio and television, puts both her academic and media credentials on display in a writing style that swings between solid historical analysis and melodrama. Collingridge methodically marks out her lines of enquiry, filling the book with dates, maps, illustrations and a substantial bibliography, but she is equally prone to racy imaginings about aspects of the lives and personalities of these men. Chapters alternate between the stories of Cook and George Collingridge, thus drawing parallels and marking differences, working up to the climactic point at which George Collingridge triggers a major controversy by suggesting that Cook was not, in fact, the first to discover Australia. Collingridge fleshes out her stories with anecdotes and travelogues as she takes the reader around the world tracing the two men’s journeys.
This is a most accessible, intimate portrait of Cook, and will work well to supplement the dry writings of school history books that do tend to make it seem like Cook appeared, fully-formed, for the purpose of mapping Australia’s east coast. The author’s enthusiasm for the subject is infectious (she calls herself a ‘Cookophile’), indeed she gives the impression of a wide-eyed school girl as she sifts through the layers of these stories. Most of those layers, however, were constructed by a thousand researchers before her, so there is no escaping contradictory opinion about such significant historical characters and events. Collingridge has attracted criticism from other Cook scholars: some have drawn attention to factual errors in her research, and for others any writing about Cook is fraught since the notion of ‘discovering’ countries we now acknowledge to have been populated for thousands of years is so problematic. Rewriting history is a “dangerous game”, as she says of George Collingridge’s experiences.
At the end of her book Collingridge discusses the ways in which history can be manipulated in the retelling. In particular, she offers opinions on why the legend of Cook as a discoverer of lands was politically vital to the British Empire and the developing colonies. At the same time though, Captain Cook is touted as the definitive Cook book, missing the point that this, too, is just one of an extensive, conflicting series of perspectives on Cook’s life. It is, however, a colourful, easy read – part history, part genealogy and part mystery/thriller – which many non-experts will welcome as an addition to the Cook catalogue.
Collingridge, Vanessa (2002) Captain Cook: Obsession and betrayal in the new world. London: Ebury Press.