Wednesday, 11 February 2009

The Companion to British History

we cast off our traditional narratives and left ourselves with little else but shopping as a distraction
Yesterday I was privileged to meet Charles Arnold- Baker, author of The Companion to British History, at his Johnsonian flat in the Temple, London’s legal heart. Though 90 years old, he remains as sharp as a tack, recounting his remarkable life, combative in his views on the practice and nature of history. Arnold-Baker was born into the Prussian aristocracy, during the last months of the Kaiser’s reign, and christened Wolfgang von Blumenthal. When his German father and English mother divorced, he came to England. Educated at Winchester and Magdalen College, Oxford, he was repelled by National Socialism (and the Marxists who taught him at Oxford), and joined the Buffs, becoming Churchill’s bodyguard, before rounding up Nazis in Belgium for MI6 towards the end of the war. Trained as a barrister, he began work on The Companion to British History in 1960. Each of its 15,000 or so entries, all two million words, were composed in longhand in an exercise book. His method was to write of events and personalities in chronological order and then rearrange them alphabetically, adding complementary entries that, in his judgement, shed light on British history. Now in its third, beautifully presented, edition, the CBH is a rich, brilliant and sometimes eccentric work – its entry on Limericks adopts that genre’s form. Arnold-Baker and his work will be profiled in a future edition of History Today.

Later on, I watched TV reports of the Select Committee grilling of four prominent bankers, including Fred ‘the shed’ Goodwin, the longstanding ally of our Prime Minister.I had discussed our society’s neglect of narrative history with Arnold-Baker, and earlier with David Starkey, a master of the form, and reflected on the grievous consequences while watching the confrontation between bankers and parliamentarians, which itself shed little light. Both sides were at fault, I thought. From the 1960s onwards, we cast off our traditional narratives, whether historical, religious, social or cultural, failed to reinvent them, and left ourselves with little else but shopping as a distraction. Politicians, who had been the driving force behind these changes (remember the nonsense spouted by Tony Blair about Britain being a ‘New Country’ – only if you discard all the history of course), allied themselves with bankers in an extraordinary act of smoke and mirrors that has brought the country to the verge of bankruptcy. The politicians were unable to create – perhaps didn’t want to create - a convincing national narrative, so called on the bankers to create ever more elaborate – and unsustainable - means to keep us consuming instead, like spoilt children. We spent too much and earned too little. Our children and grandchildren will live with consequences. As one last act of consumption, buy them Charles Arnold-Baker’s The Companion to British History. It will offer them a lifetime of instruction.

It is available here:

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