Time for a break
THE GUINNESS HISTORY FACT BOOK. Guinness Publishing Pounds 9.99. 0 85112 782 7. TIMELINES OF WAR: A CHRONOLOGY OF WARFARE FROM 100,000 BC TO THE PRESENT By David Brownstone and Irene Franck. Little,Brown and Company Pounds 19.99. 0 316 114O3 0. ENCYCLOPEDIA OF BRITAIN. By Bamber Gascoigne. Macmillan Pounds 29.95. 0 333 63739 9. Mark Williamson on history chronologies and some of the problems they pose.
Nothing happened in January 1763. Such are the limitations of chronologies. A monumental work such as Helicon's Chronology of World History must be able to withstand the predictable criticism that it reduces history to a mere list of dates without cause or context. Events flow, like Matthew Arnold's river of time, carrying with it births, deaths, conquests, treaties, speeches, from the Amer-Indian settlements in New Mexico, circa 10,000 BC when the editors deem dated history to have started to December 29 1992 when Collor de Mello, the President of Brazil resigned on the eve of his impeachment, where the editors decided to call a halt.
The making of the series is itself an event worthy of record, based on work by Neville Williams whose first edition on the modern world in 1966 was followed by his volume on the period from Columbus to the Peace of Paris, published three years later. The genre includes the renowned Gooch's Annals (1901) and Stein's ambitious Kulturfahrplan (1948). Philip Waller's revision of Williams' work on the modern period and the reissue of the remaining two titles, originally published in the seventies, make up the quartet. Waller's introduction to the fourth volume in which he acknowledges that books of dates usually "conform to canons established by complacently conservative, westernised, white, middle-class males" may not do enough to dispel the charge of occidentalism but at least provides a platform for a ringing justification of an accessible, reliable collection of data for the hard-pressed scholar, teacher or journalist, a volume which enables them to verify a date just as a traveller consults a signpost or map.
Problems associated with early dating are addressed by Mellersh who shows how a cross-referencing of eponymous dating supported by in-built corrections by the Egyptians and, when appropriate, the carbon-14 technique can achieve a workable measure of chronological accuracy. From 1582 both the Julian and Gregorian dates are given where countries involved in the same event were following different styles.
The double-page format is reference-friendly with events chronicled on the left, progressing swiftly from millennia, centuries and decades to years in volume one with months and days used subsequently. On the right are key events under appropriate classifications with the press, entertainment and sport featuring in The Modern World. The purpose of lettering these clusters becomes clear when using the index, a task in which patience is, in most searches, finally rewarded as a check on the start of the October Revolution leads inconclusively to the Russia entry where the chronologically arranged events jump from the Alaskan Treaty of 1824 to the Treaty of Rapallo in 1922 and "Revolutions" requires us to consult "Rebellions". The assurance that the answer is there for the seeking is a tribute to the professionalism of the researchers and editors who have produced a work of Olympian stature which is likely to be a centrepiece of reference collections for many years From a chronological banquet to a snack-sized fact finder. The Guinness History Fact Book is inexpensive and unpretentious, aiming to provide at-a-glance information on dates, events and people. The compression is, in its own way, as impressive as Helicon's Chronology is expansive; 36 pages takes us from the earliest civilisations to the post-Cold War world with inserted features on key developments such as the invention of writing, population growth in the 19th century and decolonisation, summaries that are as informative as they are concise. Maps illustrate the principal movements and changes but are too generalised to give adequate support on many aspects such as the expansion of dynastic China or the geographical distribution of Catholics and Protestants after the reformation. Too many maps are difficult to interpret because they are too small or poorly designed with indistinguishable shades of grey. Time charts follow this brief history of the world with the apparently equitable treatment given to the Far East, India, sub-Saharan Africa and Australasia somewhat mitigated by the use of the ill-contrived term "other worlds".
The A-Z fact finder is as comprehensive as 3,000 pithy entries can permit with useful feature panels chronicling the important events in nation states as diverse as Argentina, Romania and Vietnam as well as enabling the publishers to include the ever-popular tables of popes, emperors, prime ministers and kings without which any history fact book would be incomplete. Guinness has brewed an ideal present for the broadsheet reader without the time for encyclopedias and libraries who wants briefing on demand. Brownstone and Franck's Timelines of War claims to be the first-ever chronology of all wars and these prolific America-based writers of reference books may have simultaneously produced the last of this unnecessary genre. The book comprises a 500-page time line, geographically apportioned with the Americas accorded their own identity after 1700, on which invasions, defeats, revolutions and developments in military technology are hung in chronological sequence. Individual wars are not recounted separately from other unrelated events occurring on the same continent, so the American War of Independence is interwoven with the Spanish in Brazil and the Peruvian insurrection, and the Boer War with events in Sudan, Somalia and Chad. Births and deaths appear as randomly as they occur in nature which can be disconcerting when trying to follow a sequence of events in a particular conflict.
The temptation for the eye to wander across the page and to begin to link or compare events receives positive encouragement from the authors. The opportunities to construct waggish scholarship paper questions are irresistable and, sadly, endless - "1402 saw Owen Glendower's revolt in Wales and Tamerlaine's invasion of Anatolia. Briefly discuss". "Analyse (succinctly) the links between the Battle of the Boyne and the Turkish recapture of Belgrade". This is one chronology too far.
The difficult business of establishing and maintaining boundaries is well expounded by Bamber Gascoigne in the preface to his revised Encyclopedia of Britain. Although the subject of Britain imposes, one would have imagined, fewer self-imposed restrictions than a subject such as medicine, Gascoigne has turned arbitrariness into an art and a rationale into an apologia. Wilde, who made his home in England, is in but Yeats, who remained in Ireland, is not. Solti and Haitink who held lengthy appointments with British opera houses are included but Brendel's Hampstead home does not qualify - "the life of an international concert pianist is by definition international."
The unashamedly populist approach by the former presenter of 25 years of University Challenge has resulted in a myriad aspects of British life and culture with Merlin, Mersey Beat, The Messiah and the Met Office jostling one another amid Menuhin, Mercia and Mercury (the telecommunications company, not the messenger of the gods).
The minority that cannot share the assumption that cultural identity in the developed world is largely nation-based may be surprised to find no discernible trace of jingoism. The entry on Thatcher who "promoted . . . the free play of market forces, often regardless of any socially harsh results" and whose "economic miracle" was characterised by the extremes of "yuppies" (cross referenced) and the homeless is hardly fawning and is matched by equally trenchant handling of the unemployment numbers and the NHS.
No gloss is applied to the uglier aspects of Britain and this most up-to-date of reprints covers Cromwell Street as well as Crippen. More appealing entries on Crossroads, Gazza and tomato ketchup make this a browser's delight. Always adroit, frequently delightful and, for some readers, occasionally controversial, this intelligently conceived resource will undoubtedly be successful in the general market place. It should be welcomed by schools where its quality presentation and modern outlook will breathe new life into reference collections and encourage the study skills needed to pursue the enquiry.
Mark Williamson is general adviser for humanities and religious education in the London Borough of Hounslow.