Last Wednesday, 21st October, I was shocked to find that BBC Radio 4’s Today programme had been overtaken by an obsession with those (admittedly splendid) Back to the Future films: the first 1985 movie travelled forward in time to 21st October 2015. The series has a cult following: everyone appears to know and be able to quote from them.
Not the Traffords, however. In the Eighties we were busy having babies, and the future to us was the next feed or nappy, not time-travel.
My sense of outrage lay elsewhere, however. The BBC was overlooking a much more important anniversary, celebrated every year on 21st October: Trafalgar Day.
While the Royal Navy in particular commemorates that astonishing 1805 victory over a combined French and Spanish fleet (of 33 enemy ships, 16 were sunk and 4 captured), Tyneside holds a very special sailor in its heart.
Northumberland-born Cuthbert Lord Collingwood, Vice-Admiral of the Red, was second in command to Nelson and, following that hero’s death, carried the battle through to its victorious conclusion. More than that, Collingwood commanded the vanguard: his ship, faster than most with a new copper bottom, led the squadron that first cut through the enemy line, engaging two ships at once and destroying them, largely both through his crew’s outstanding gunnery (firing something like two broadsides in five minutes, compared to the French crews’ fewer than one).
I should mention here that I am an interested party. Collingwood was educated at my place of work, Newcastle’s Royal Grammar School: he must have attended for all of sixth months before going to sea in his uncle’s ship! Indeed he was in the same class, and from an equally impecunious family of distressed gentlefolk, as John Scott, who went on to become Lord Eldon, Lord Chancellor of England and a famous philanderer, best remembered in Newcastle for his elopement with Bessie Surtees.
On Trafalgar Day the Headmaster of Collingwood’s school has a lot of fun: at least, I enjoy it immensely! With three cadets from our CCF naval section and the teacher who commands the section, I join the Lord Mayor and representatives of both the Royal Navy and the Collingwood family at St Nicholas’s Cathedral for the brief annual service, laying a wreath at Collingwood’s statue (he was christened and married in the cathedral, though not buried there: he lies beside his friend and hero, Horatio Lord Nelson, in the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral in London).
Next, every year since the bicentenary of Collingwood’s death in 2010, I have been going on alone to the Collingwood Monument in Tynemouth. This year, at midday, Captain Andy Jordan, Commander of HMS Collingwood (the major gunnery and training base in Portsmouth), gave the oration and proposed a toast, in the form of a tot of grog, to the Admiral. Organised by North Tyneside Council, the event took place under the gaze of that mighty statue flanked by four guns from his flagship: the blue ensign was flown, the flag that Collingwood raised as the enemy first opened fire.
Conveniently, back at school, that morning was a day for House assemblies and Collingwood House found itself in the school’s Main Hall with Collingwood’s portrait looking down on them. I couldn’t resist reminding members of that House of the man after whom it is named (Eldon House, also in the Hall, got a mention too).
I’m sorry if this seems a bit parochial: but there’s a bigger story behind it. We should remember Trafalgar, Nelson and his loyal, gifted No.2! Collingwood helped to save the country from the Napoleonic threat and is a true naval hero: indeed, on Tyneside everyone knows who really won the battle! As Collingwood’s ship broke the enemy line, guns blazing on both sides, Nelson was heard to exclaim: “See how that noble fellow Collingwood carries his ship into action!”
Next, as we say in the North, the national hero was shot “early doors”, so it was our boy, a son of Tyneside with his crew of Geordie sailors who had followed him from ship to ship, who saw the battle through to its successful conclusion and then saved numerous seamen (French and Spanish too) from the ensuing storm, even sacrificing valuable prizes in favour of human lives.
As he led the charge, Collingwood said to his crew: “Now, gentlemen, let us do something today which the world may talk of hereafter.”
They did. And the world should, too: even a Hollywood legend shouldn’t be allowed to push Trafalgar Day entirely out of the news.