So, I have bought this book, but unfortunately have not had time to read it. Sorry Nigel Jones, it does look good. If I have time later this year I’ll return here to write something about it.
The date was Bank Holiday Monday, 3 August 1914, and it was destined to be a day of final, irrevocable and fateful decision. Even as the camera shutter fell, preserving this carefree scene, the larger issues of peace and war continued to hang in the balance… Nearly thirty-six hours later, Britain would declare war on Germany. Life for many of the men and women on this river excursion would never be the same again.
Having been through a fair few of these books about years, this is the first one which has completely lived up to my expectations, but strangely enough it’s by having a narrow, selective focus that it manages to provide the wide scope it aims for. Each chapter tells a story from the time, ranging from national news to private affairs, and from the leaders of the country to its most lowly inhabitants. Woven through this is an incessant drumbeat of approaching disaster. The way Mark Bostridge weaves this element into the fabric of the piece seems a little counter-intuitive, an odd way to capture the supposed innocence of these times, but these memories are already stained by what happened, and the examination of those stains is, after all, why we are here.
My desire for an overview of the year 1913 in book form being so far unsated, I was very happy to find someone else had had a go at it, and didn’t stop for 500 pages. It feels very much like the author had enough material for 1000 and had to cut it down, such is the density of information. On the plus side I feel almost overwhelmed with information, but on the minus side it did all feel a bit disjointed – a trip around the important cities of the world without any real sort of narrative to link it together. This is being picky, though – if you look at it as a series of essays on different places in a single year then it serves as a very readable reference work. When we get onto 1914 the narrative will be naturally stronger, though the scope may be much more narrow.
One part of this project which has surprised me in its scope is “books about years” – this has become something of an obsession, and having started, I’ve been working my way up to having a shelf full of them, which means I also need to read the things. So far the entries in the series have been fairly sporadic, but coming up to the first world war there is a positive flood of the things (then they immediately become sporadic again at the end of the war) – so quite a bit of reading to be done over the next few months.
This one is critically acclaimed, which is a first, and written by a major German intellectual. In a sense it is a good view of the year, though the view it presents is weirdly myopic. At the start we do have Hitler and Stalin nearly bumping into each-other in Vienna, but on the whole Illies steers completely away from any sort of politics, preferring to concern himself with the lives of a handful of writers, artists and musicians living in the more cosmopolitan parts of the German-speaking world. There are many fascinating anecdotes within, the whole thing is very readable, but ultimately at the end I felt I’d been sold a bit of a pup. He presents these artists and thinkers of symptomatic of a cultural moment, which naturally they are – but I want to hear more about the lives of other people, across a much broader area of the world, and waiting patiently for him to get to that bit was a fruitless task.
None of this is fair – if I had approached this book with a better understanding of what it was I would have finished it in a much happier state, and many of these figures have fascinating internal lives which are vividly recreated. But that sense of impending doom, of what was about to come, I just can’t seem to find it anywhere at all. Again, this is probably my problem, not his. But still…
Time inexorably marches on at a 12x speed, and sometimes there isn’t the opportunity to fully immerse myself in the moment. I bought this book at Oxfam two weeks ago, but have only had time to read the introduction and two chapters. The one on entertainment was excellent, its description of the cultural value of London Zoo worth it alone. It’s much, much better than 1898. But here comes 1901, and it’s time to prematurely move on.
1898 is quite a memorable year for one big reason; it marks the start and end of the Spanish-American war, the first adventure of the USA’s imperial phase, and the making of one of its most zeitgeist-setting leaders, Theodore Roosevelt. On the plus side this means the year is easier to research, but on the downside, the focus is usually blinkered.
When I’m scouting around for research sources through my strange little narrow frame, the most obvious thing to look at is “books about years.” This is the first one I’ve encountered so far (there are many, many more to come once we get into the 20th century) and is not the best, or the worst introduction to the genre. While supposedly about the events of 1898, the book is mostly (say 80%) about the Spanish-American war, from an entirely American perspective, and even the context setting introduction and conclusion are only basically lists of events in the USA. I guess this is fair enough, the war was nicely contained by the year, though the repercussions in Cuba and The Philippines would continue for decades after, and expecting American historians to take an international perspective is obviously wishful thinking. The war is described well-enough, taking a pretty even-handed approach to the rights and wrongs of it, but the analysis is a bit limited, events are covered in a reasonable depth, with no extra time taken on analysing deeper issues. Not sure I would recommend it, but I’m not giving it to Oxfam.
In the same sort of quality, but preferable due to being consumable in two hours, here’s a fairly dry PBS documentary with a host of military historians in front of bookshelves and hoary voice actors playing McKinley, Roosevelt and the rest.