Ancient and modern

7th November 2003 at 00:00
FACTS AND RECORDS: Amazing Achievements. Edited by Matthew Turner. Kingfisher pound;7.99


THE WICKED HISTORY OF THE WORLD. By Terry Deary and Martin Brown. Scholastic pound;12.99

I CAN REMEMBER SERIES. The 1950s; The 1960s; The 1970s. By Sally Hewitt. Watts pound;12.99 each

There is a lot more substance in Facts and Records than its unpretentious appearance suggests. Six chapters on civilisation, culture, science and technology, engineering, sport, exploration and endurance add up to a lot of text - some narrative, some explanatory. Most of the accounts are very condensed - Mohammed and Marx each get a mere couple of sentences. There are some very broad topics - communication and commerce (from the first coins to Mitsubishi and Microsoft), law and justice (from Solomon to the trial of Milosevic). The genome project and the Galileo space probe are also here, but other appeals to contemporary relevance will soon become outdated - should Genghis Khan, Napoleon, Dante and Mozart really be bracketed with Lord Lloyd Webber, JK Rowling and Britney Spears?

The Usborne First Encyclopedia has more modest aims. It offers 30 topics in double-page spreads, each with a familiar mixture of photographs, drawings and a straightforward text consisting of a dozen sentences. It spreads the interest over a wide area, with sections on the birth of agriculture and the rise of cities, and the growth of civilisation in Africa, China and Japan as well as in Europe and the Americas. The illustrations tend to be emblematic - a bronze Benin mask, a samurai castle, the Botticelli Venus and the head of Sitting Bull. More exciting is to visit the related website, and then write your name in Babylonian script, travel to Machu Picchu or Versailles, watch a Celtic roundhouse being built or listen to songs from the First World War.

The Wicked History of the World is predictably full of relentless alliteration going back to Horrible Hunters and Nasty Neanderthals, via Phoul Pharaohs to Rotten Rulers including Attila and Stalin. It's also packed with silly puns - a city is where you sit down. The view of history here is close to Gibbon's famous formula: little more than a register of mankind's crimes, follies and misfortunes. There's a splendid board game about the Victorians: but while there are slave-drivers and slum-dwellers, there are no novelists or reformers. The book will be immensely popular and devoured for the torture, bloodletting and scurrility, but something is amiss when mass murder is as much the pretext for humour as "pee and poo".

The I Can Remember series weaves together the recollections of half a dozen people who were young during various bygone decades, with enough impersonal narrative to help us keep a sense of direction. All the witnesses have their own section, and further memories are scattered across themes such as family, school and leisure. The selection of persons and places is well done. The 1960s version of life in Dumfries and Penarth is very different from Carnaby Street, so we are not restricted to short skirts and long hair, but hear about new universities and the closing of steelworks too.

The 1970s aren't merely Chopper bikes and The Osmonds; the petrol crisis and the three-day week are here as well. This is history with more than the fun and the froth.

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