A whole world in his safe hands

A Little History of the World
March 10, 2006

One Sunday afternoon when I was just 24, I was asked to write the history of the world. My publisher friend wanted me to start the next morning, as he needed the manuscript for the first third - up to the birth of Christ - in just two weeks; there would be a generous six weeks to do the rest. Oh yes, and my copy had to fit perfectly into a shelf-full of little boxes, each one covering an exact slice of time, with no shortfalls, overruns, deviations or hesitations.

Amazingly (not least in view of the fact that my recently completed history degree had ignored the world outside Europe, and ancient history beyond the Greeks was entirely terra nova to me), I delivered it on time, with the help of a few reference books and three Mars bars a day. The result was an assembly of all the key names and dates, but I fondly imagined that the selection and emphasis offered a valuable glimpse of historical development. Thirty years on, I think of it as a halfway creditable attempt at an impossible task. In those two months, I learnt an enormous amount - perhaps more than in three years at college - and it set me off on a career in history publishing.

I assumed that the challenge I faced was a unique one. But now I know that Ernst Gombrich, doyen of art historians and author of the hugely popular Story of Art , had a remarkably parallel experience. In 1935, at the age of 26 and while completing his doctoral thesis, he was asked by a publishing acquaintance, Walter Neurath, to write a history of the world for young readers. He completed the task in 40 chapters and just six weeks. Each morning he read secondary texts, each afternoon sought out sources and quotations, and each evening wrote a chapter. He began with the origins of the Earth and the human race and took the story up to his present day.

At this point, Gombrich's story and mine diverge. My efforts are rightly in oblivion, whereas his book, written in a manner to encourage "the reader to relax and follow the story without having to memorise names or dates", is an enduring joy. It would still form a wonderful introduction not only to what happened in history, but to what really mattered. Written (and now for the first time translated into English) in a style that allows him to address a young reader without patronising her - a style found in other writers of the 1930s such as Saint-Exupery and Tolkien, but which no one seems to have managed since - it succeeds in showing, not just telling, what happened and why it was important.

Over and over again, the author comes up with a fresh image and appealing language to take the reader to the heart of the topic; and, incredibly, to impart a sense of how that episode - whether it was the ancient Egyptians or the Thirty Years War - fits into the whole picture. So surefooted was he in this respect that, when he revisited the text 40 years later in a final chapter titled "A small part of the history of the world which I have lived through myself: looking back", he felt embarrassed by just one chapter of the original. This was the section on the Industrial Revolution, where he felt he had laid too much emphasis on the distress caused by new machines and not enough on their necessity and long-term benefits.

Of course, some chapters have been rendered out of date, but it would be hard to say that the approach itself is obsolete. It is too personal, too direct and too curious to be placed usefully into intellectual categories.

It never glosses over the cruelty of man to man, especially in the context of religion, but it remains optimistic that good sense could prevail, even at the worst of times. Though some critics have seen it as a Marxist tract, it is above all a paean to humane and enlightened values, under threat when Gombrich was writing just as they are again today.

We have no shortage of historians eager to tell us what was important in the past and why; but few of them dare speak straight to the imagination of young people, to open their minds and to enrich their vision in the manner that Gombrich achieves so effortlessly here. And those who do try cannot pretend to the profound mastery of the "big picture" that Gombrich - almost magically considering his working method - achieved. Every one of us should read this book to learn the true meaning of education, although it is not one that would satisfy the bureaucratic requirements of Ofsted or the QCA.

And for this, we - and our children - should be truly thankful.

Peter Furtado is editor, History Today .

A Little History of the World

Author - E. H. Gombrich
Publisher - Yale University Press
Pages - 284
Price - £14.99
ISBN - 0 300 10883 6

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