James MacManus’ Ocean Devil is a biography on George Hogg, a graduate of Wadham. Hogg’s achievements as a journalist, writer and headmaster of a school in China are entrenched in the minds of those who are acquainted with his story.
It is a great pity that their number is so small. But I do not recommend Ocean Devil on its informative value alone. It is an extremely engaging read, and especially so for the Oxford student.
Hogg’s Oxford harks back to a time now idealised and no Oxonian (let alone Wadhamite) could fail to feel nostalgia at the description of Maurice Bowra’s ‘high table humour’; declaring himself ‘anti-elitist, anti-prig, anti-solemn and very anti-Balliol’.
The dreaming spires are soon dispersed, however, and the reader finds himself in the midst of an entirely alien culture; China in the late 1930s.
The brutally clear account of the ‘Rape of Nanjing’ shows us that MacManus is perfectly at home with tackling the greater themes of war. Moreover, aside from the main narrative highlight of the book; the depiction of Hogg leading his students across 700 miles of perilous mountain track, the book is filled with charming vignettes which betray MacManus’ ability as a writer.
For a historical work on Hogg’s life, a suitable number of sources are drawn upon. Quotations from Hogg’s letters home include his impressions on a war-torn village; ‘It was at once too near the ordinary, and too beyond the limits of ordinary experience to bring horror.’ To add another perspective, evidence is drawn from interviews with his students.
It is of course inevitable that MacManus should try to engage with some of the broader historical events surrounding Hogg’s life. Here the historian will perhaps be a little disappointed as the author tantalisingly raises questions about the nature of Japanese brutality only to leave them relatively unresolved.
However, MacManus does not aim to give a detailed analysis of China in the 1930s nor should we demand it of him.
I would recommend Ocean Devil to any one with an interest in an enigmatic yet relatively unknown figure and to all those who appreciate good writing.