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The Rough Guide Chronicles. England. By Robin Eagles. France. By Ian Littlewood. India. By Dilip Hiro. China. By Justin Wintle. Rough Guides pound;7.99 each.

If the past is a foreign country, it clearly makes sense to explore it with a travel guide. The same no-nonsense directness that marked the Rough Guide travel books also marks this series of pocket histories. They are small enough to fit into a backpack or back pocket, and anyone with an interest in the background of the country they are visiting should pack one with the water bottle and collapsible cup.

The format is simple. Each country's history is divided into manageable chronological chunks, which are then introduced by an essay which surveys the whole period, drawing out important themes. There then follows a remarkably detailed chronology, with issues of special interest dealt with at greater length in separate boxes. Space determines that there are few illustrations, but these are generally well chosen, though the podgy one of Napoleon contrasts nicely with the stern, brooding marble carving on the cover of France.

What is most striking is the sheer amount of detail the books manage to fit into a small space. England is particularly strong on the early history, with more detail on the pre-1066 intrigues than I have seen in more substantial books. This can lead to information overload - there's a heavy emphasis on battles and dynastic squabbles, and it's hard enough to keep track of all the ins and outs of medieval England, never mind countries where the general background is less familiar - but this is more than made up for by the quality of the writing, which nicely marries the academic with the gritty.

The Chinese emperor, we are told, sponsored "the oceanic voyages of Zheng He, which could have led, but didn't, to a Chinese maritime capability equal to the European challenge". In due course the Emperor welcomes "a handful of scientifically savvy Jesuits".

The text in England becomes progressively more radical as it approaches our own day: whether Britain emerged with credit from the Falklands War, it says, "is more open to question". The politics is also balanced with a good spread of wider social and cultural vignettes, including Indian cinema and cricket ("what football is to Britons and baseball to Americans") and the European rococo ("the transient beauty of a world only a few steps from annihilation").

The strict demarcation into countries can be problematic - India covers Pakistan; England doesn't cover Scotland - and inevitably there are a few errors: the Prince of Wales who toured India in 1925 was the future Edward VIII, not George VI; but who's counting? These guides will be as useful to a teacher wanting a quick mug-up as they will be to a traveller wanting the low-down on the Great Wall of China before lunch.

Sean Lang is editor of Modern History Review

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