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'Seize the Fire' revisits Lord Nelson's famous victory at Trafalgar

As the 200th anniversary of the battle of Trafalgar approaches, this provocative audio book examines the motivation of the British sailors under Lord Nelson and why the October 1805 victory over a combined French and Spanish fleet has resonated so deeply for the British.

Nelson, an adored leader before the battle, died at Trafalgar, and he came to personify the heroic ideal for generations of British men. (Anyone besotted with the A&E Horatio Hornblower miniseries will be struck by how much C.S. Forester drew on Horatio Nelson for his protagonist.)

The audio is read by author Adam Nicolson. Grandson of Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West, the writer possesses an elegant, indeed plummy, English accent. His narrative is less about ships and more about the men who manned them. At the center stands Nelson. Nicolson describes how the sailor earned his subordinates' lifelong affection through his charm, loyalty and leadership. The masses also adored the naval hero, whom the popular press idolized.

In terms of cultural archetypes, Nicolson perceives a connection between the passionate poetry of William Blake and Nelson's fiery, no-holds-barred approach to battle.

The listener is guided by Nicolson into a variety of interesting theories about the battle, a pivotal event in history. For example, Nicolson presents the idea that individual ambition strengthened the British will to win. The French and Spanish officers were bluebloods, and as long as their honor was not harmed, defeat would not threaten their position in society. But the British Navy drew many men from the middle class who knew that prize money from a victory could set them up for life.

Nicolson details the hard life of the ordinary seamen. They were flogged for drunkenness and other offenses, yet the British sailors were better fed and treated than Spanish and French crews. (A military genius on land, Napoleon had little understanding of what made a triumphant navy.)

Nicolson describes Nelson's famous last hours when he bid farewell to a close friend, a fellow officer. He spoke lovingly of his mistress and their daughter. His last utterance: "Thank God I have done my duty."

As an icon of bravery and leadership, Nelson has influenced his country's psyche for 200 years. Seize the Fire offers plenty of sustenance for anyone with an interest in the psychological underpinnings of the hero in myth and in history.

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© Copyright 2004 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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