History’s Revenges

Peter Clarke

  • The Illustrated Dictionary of British History edited by Arthur Marwick
    Thames and Hudson, 319 pp, £8.95, October 1980, ISBN 0 500 25072 3
  • Who’s Who in Modern History, 1860-1980 by Alan Palmer
    Weidenfeld, 332 pp, £8.50, October 1980, ISBN 0 297 77642 8

It is doubly true these days that the experts are the last people we can rely on. We rely on them because the compartmentalisation of knowledge in every field means that they are the only guides left. The last people, however, because they have retreated into their specialised enclaves, content to communicate with each other rather than a lay public. It never was any use putting a mathematician on the spot for a nimble piece of mental arithmetic. Likewise, if you want to know the time, the day is long gone when you could ask a policeman. We have now reached the stage when it is impossible to get a straight answer out of so humble a practitioner as a historian. ‘Not my period’ has become proverbial as an attempt to pass off ignorance as professionalism. So where can we get the facts? Historians are voracious consumers of reference works and it is wholesome that they should occasionally produce volumes like these, serving common needs in an unpretentious way.

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