Return of the narrative

20th December 1996 at 00:00
THE YOUNG OXFORD HISTORY OF BRITAIN AND IRELAND By Mike Corbishley John Gillingham Rosemary Kelly Ian Dawson and James Mason Oxford University Press Pounds 19.95.

Mark Williamson celebrates the revival of an unfashionable approach to history.

Large-scale narrative history, particularly for younger readers, has been out of fashion, submerged in this visual and electronic age by less demanding, more exotic techniques. The Young Oxford History of Britain and Ireland therefore represents a welcome return to the continuous-record or storytelling method. This is no cut-price, supermarket stocking-filler.

The recent discovery of Boxgrove man, who lived 500,000 years ago, provides a convenient starting point for a story, told in five chapters, which ends with the anticipated return of Hong Kong to China in 1997 and a look ahead to the fibre-optic world of the 21st century.

Familiar boundaries are drawn at the departure of invaders, the death of monarchs and the turn of centuries. This encourages scanning and makes reference easy; when in doubt, the detailed index comes to the rescue.

The scope of this book is as comprehensive as its title suggests, with the histories of Scotland, Wales and Ireland skilfully interwoven. Periods in the history of these countries that are often overlooked in textbooks are given due recognition, with good coverage of the fortunes of the Scottish kings after the demise of the Picts, the defeat of the Welsh princes by Edward 1, and the Irish revival in the 14th century.

The chapter on the protest movements of the early 19th century notes how the coalfields, ironworks and textile mills of Scotland and South Wales played as big a part in the Industrial Revolution as those in the Midlands and North of England and goes on to describe, albeit in general terms, the attempts of Griffiths Jones in Wales and the Gaelic Schools' Society in Scotland to ward off the Anglicisation of their languages and cultures.

For a book of just 400 pages it is rich with sources as diverse as the subject demands. First-hand accounts and other primary sources are used wherever possible, to capture the mood of a period or to illustrate an event or development. In most cases a single source has to suffice and is selected for its ability to encapsulate the issue in question. A good example is the young Churchill's reaction to Seebohm Rowntree's report of 1901: "I can see little glory in an empire which can rule the waves and is unable to flush the sewers."

The writers have avoided the temptation to popularise. This is history seriously written and intelligently presented. Political, economic and religious history are given their due weight alongside social and military aspects.

The well-mannered and restrained invective that was a feature of political debate in the last century is used to embellish the portraits of otherwise indistinct if notable figures; so Peel, according to Shaftesbury, is "an iceberg with a slight thaw on the surface", and that great tree-feller and classicist, Gladstone, is called "a vindictive fiend" by Disraeli, and aptly summed up by Lady Palmerston: "If you boiled Gladstone you would not find an ounce of fun in him."

Fatures on topics such as Pilgrimage, the English Country House and the Motor Car are useful and well-presented additions to a text which is otherwise an unbroken narrative, with more than 500 visual sources complementing the text.

The text is highly readable and should be accessible to most teenagers who are interested in history and read for pleasure. In fact the clarity of the prose and the use of many fresh illustrations are invitations to browse, and it is not difficult to imagine adults reclaiming what would make an ideal gift.

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