History

23rd June 2000 at 01:00
SECONDARY. SUTTON POCKET HISTORIES. EARLY MAN. By Paul Jordan.

THE INCAS. By Nicholas J Saunders.

ANCIENT EGYPT. By Barbara Watterson.

THE AZTECS. By Brenda Ralph Lewis

. THE ANGLO-SAXONS. By Barbara Yorke

THE VIKINGS. by John Haywood

THE NORMAN CONQUEST. By N J Higham

THE MUSLIM WORLD. By Colin Turner

THE CRUSADES. By Bernard Hamilton.

THE EUROPEAN REFORMATION. By Vivian Green

THE CIVIL WARS. By Martyn Bennett

CHARTISM. By Asa Briggs

THE SLAVE TRADE. By James Walvin

THE RUSSIAN REVOLUTION. By Harold Shukman

THE BOER WAR. By Fred R Van Hartesveldt

. SUTTON POCKET BIOGRAPHIES. CLEOPATRA. By E E Rice

GENGHIS KHAN. By James Chambers

QUEEN VICTORIA. By Elizabeth Longford

ANTHONY TROLLOPE. By Graham Handley

STALIN. By Harold Shukman

JAMES DEAN. By William Hall

THE FALKLANDS WAR. By Michael Parsons

Sutton Publishing pound;5.99 each

It's that time of year when those of us who enjoy reading history through well-crafted fiction, biography and first-hand accounts find even best-selling historical writers have been displaced by the revision aid. Come soon August, when Sebastian Faulks and Antonia Fraser return to the front table.

At first glance Sutton appears to be competing in the revision aid market - short, pocket-sized books on key periods, movements and people with the essentials of a chronology, further reading and a decent index. Closer examination and the cover-to-cover reading of texts suggest a different purpose. In practice, few of the titles published so far match the 20th-century topics that are the core of most GCSE and A-level syllabuses, and there is nothing published yet on the United States, Japan or post-Verwoerd South Africa.

The titles that are relevant to examination courses are certainly comprehensive and, for most students taking an A-level course, readable, although many of the writers have responded to the need for brevity by distilling so many facts in every sentence that a notebook is essential.

Harold Shukman, who traces the steps to the October Revolution and writes brilliantly on Stalin, is a master of the six-barrel sentence - "At the end of August 1918 an attempt was made on Lenin's life, allegedly by a Socialist Revolutionary - a near-blind, unbalanced woman who was arrested and shot within four days." One paragraph in The Russian Revolution contains five sentences and 20 facts. This is not a criticism, but a health warning.

The hand-picked specialist writers are no mere recounters but also analysts. So John Haywood challenges stereotypes about the Vikings and makes space to examine the hypotheses for plunder, while Colin Turner gives a frank but balanced assessment of the use of violence by Islamic fundamentalists. There is even room for personal assessments such as James Walvin's overview of the tlantic slave trade, which recognises social concern and the need for a scholarly detachment - "Even today, looking back after the unending horrors of the 20th century, there is something uniquely terrible about the oceanic slave trade which linked together Europe, Africa and the Americas."

This is passionate history writing and truly compelling. The writing is so good that I can forgive his claim that slavery was "a critical force in the shaping of the modern western world".

Few books on the triangular slave trade have moved me as much as this and it is a tribute to Asa Briggs, the series editor, that in an impeccably mainstream tradition of history writing there is room for anger.

In such a large series there are inevitable differences in the ways in which writers present the significance of their period or subject. John Haywood succeeds in identifying and exploring the key questions about Viking motivation and, perhaps the best book in this series, Vivian Green's The European Reformation takes interpretation so seriously that every event is given a spin, from the self-interest of rulers to the liking of beards by reforming ministers.

There are reflective and interesting retrospects in many of the titles, with a masterly summary of the Norman impact on Britain by N J Higham, and shorter but thought-provoking postscripts on Ancient Egypt and The Crusades - "Although some modern writers claim that the crusades did permanent damage to relations between Christians and Muslims, there is little evidence for this in contemporary sources."

I found it useful to read first Brenda Ralph Lewis' postscript on The Aztecs and Nicholas J Saunders's "aftermath" on The Incas. A similar reflective overview would have been useful in Paul Jordan's Early Man, where the glossary is indispensable; despite obvious exertions this is a difficult read.

E E Rice provides a full assessment of the importance of Cleopatra, and James Chambers of Genghis Khan as a military tactician. By contrast, despite William Hall's impeccable credentials as a film historian, James Dean's long-term significance is clouded by the melodrama of his life and death in a car crash.

Despite the authority imposed on this series by the distinction of its editor, it remains a library where each title must be assessed on its merits. Those titles that relate to examination topics should be seriously considered for revision purposes.

The Falklands War is a well-written and soundly researched example of contemporary history and, among the biographies, it would be difficult to better Graham Handley's Anthony Trollope, which provides an entertaining and authoritative life of a multi-gifted and very human Victorian.

Mark Williamson is general adviser for humanities and RE in the London borough of Hounslowl Humanities Curriculum Special in The TES this week


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