Official secrets;Books for Christmas;Reviews

17th December 1999 at 00:00
UNCOVERED EDITIONS:The Strange Story of Adolph BeckWilfred Blunt's Egyptian Garden. THE BOER WAR, 1900. THE BRITISH INVASION OF TIBET, 1904. THE LOSS OF THE TITANIC, 1912. WAR 1914: punishing the Serbs. THE R101 AIRSHIP. DISASTER 1930. WAR 1939: Dealing with Adolf Hitler. TRAGEDY AT BETHNAL GREEN, 1943. THE JUDGEMENT OF NUREMBERG, 1945. RILLINGTON PLACE. John Profumo and Christine Keeler, 1963. The Stationery Office publishing pound;6.99 each

THE BRITISH INHERITANCE: A treasury of historic documents. Edited by Elizabeth Hallam and Andrew Prescott. The British Library pound;25

The newly privatised Stationery Office has been opening its archives, a result of which is Uncovered Editions, official papers previously unavailable in popular form. The topics are chosen not just because they reflect a particular moment in history, but because they offer important and easily accessible evidence for the interpretation and re-interpretation that is every historian's business.

War 1914: punishing the Serbs, for instance, and War 1939: dealing with Hitler (topics familiar to most A-level students) contain the key diplomatic dispatches, Cabinet briefings and parliamentary statements of these critical, portentous times. Here is Sir Edward Grey, for instance, to the German ambassador on the possibility of a war between the Great Powers in late July 1914: "That any of them should be dragged into war by Serbia would be detestable." These records show exactly how that happened.

A second important feature of the series is that each pocket-size volume tells a good story. In outline, some of the stories are familiar - the official report on the "Titanic" disaster, for instance, or the inquiry into the execution of Timothy Evans for a murder we now know was committed by the serial killer John Christie.

But some less familiar accounts are also riveting. The story of the poet Wilfred Blunt's Egyptian garden could be a comedy, were it not for the threads of racist arrogance woven through it. The documents on the convictions of Adolph Beck, twice imprisoned 100 years ago for crimes he couldn't possibly have committed, read like a particularly gripping drama. Best of all was the official report into the death of 173 people when panic spread in a Second World War air-raid shelter in Bethnal Green. This is tragedy, but the account is humane, moving and beautifully told, and this excellent new series makes enjoyable reading. More please.

The British Inheritance is history for the coffee table. This is a collection of treasures from the Public Record Office, the British Library, and the national libraries of Wales and Scotland, helpfully captioned, and beautifully photographed and printed.

All the landmark documents are here: pages from the Domesday Book, the Magna Carta, Charles I's death warrant, the Act of Union. And there are countless less famous entries - manuscripts, letters, drawings, photographs and ephemera that vividly illuminate the lives and achievements of the British people. This is handsome to look at, interesting, often intriguing - history with a touch of nostalgia.

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