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Sub Culture: The Many Lives of the Submarine

21 Apr 23


(Reaktion Books – £16)

ISBN 978 1 78914 637 0)

222 pages

Having previously written books critical of Leninism, and how it is actually possible to develop a non-authoritarian Left, on how the social, cultural, and political liberation of Britain between 1974 and 1976 was aborted by a Right-wing counter-revolution, and on the North London working class, John Medhurst has now turned his attention to the submarine, particulary the nuclear submarine.

This is not a book about the culture of submariners, and, in fairness, I’m unsure as to precisely who the target audience is. Nor did I find it at all straightforward to determine precisely what argument John Medhurst wanted to present. For me, the nub of the problem lies in the title and “…The Many Lives…”. I felt that Mr Medhurst wanted to cover a lot of ground and ended up not going into a lot of detail about anything.

So, the reader is presented with chapters ranging from the place the submarine occupied in History, its contribution to scientific progress and exploration, how submarines have been portrayed in art, literature, fantasy, and film, ranging from Stingray, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Das Boot and The Hunt for Red October, to name just a few. And, of course, we get the submarine and sex, including the machismo of the submarine service and the symbolism of launching torpedoes and missiles from a sleek-shaped hull.

It was only in the latter chapters that I felt I understood what Mr Medhurst’s thesis was,  when he talks of the modern, nuclear powered submarine “…as both the ultimate deterrent and doomsday weapon…” [dustjacket notes], and how , if the UK’s Trident programme, including the submarines, was scrapped, the £205 billion saved over 30 years could be used to eliminate child poverty in the UK, build over 100 new hospitals, staffed by 150,000 additional nurses, build 3 million affordable homes, install solar panels on every home in the UK, and be used to counter threats as diverse as climate change and cyber-terrorism. However, I didn’t think it was clear if all or some of these could be achieved.

You may agree, or disagree, with John Medhurst on whether we could do any of this by getting rid of Trident. I, personally, think these are laudable aims, but my criticism is that this is an important, perhaps the important point in the book, and it’s just not developed as an argument at all. I would have much preferred a more detailed analysis of this than, say, a discussion on the significance of a pink submarine in the Cary Grant/Tony Curtis film, Operation Petticoat.

So, for me, the book didn’t work. I’m no submariner, and no sociologist, but I am an interested reader, and John Medhurst’s book didn’t engage me, unfortunately. I felt that he’d just cast his net too wide and thus, hadn’t really developed a cogent argument. For this reason, I’d hesitate to recommend it to members.