Nigel Lawson gains weight

A Dictionary of Contemporary History
September 10, 1999

As the 20th century ends, no doubt we can expect a proliferation of "companions" to it, eager to escort us back over its well-trodden paths and to reintroduce its most significant personages.

Duncan Townson's dictionary is rather more discursive than that descriptor usually implies. Many of its entries run to a page or more, and most are helpfully accompanied with suggested further reading. Individuals and mass movements, organisations and treaties rub shoulders. Harold Macmillan jostles with the Mafia; Pierre Trudeau with the Troubles; Saddam Hussein with the H-bomb; and Konrad Adenauer with affirmative action.

Townson also properly warns his users at the outset that, as the focus is on political and economic history and international relations, we will not find entries on writers and thinkers, except where such individuals became irredeemably enmeshed in political life. With state persecution rather than political contribution the sine qua non of inclusion, we find no Orwell, Fanon or de Beauvoir, and a correspondingly foreshortened view of what (and who) has given significant shape to the half century now ending.

More significantly, the dictionary is skewed by a "presentism" that weighs in favour of the recent past at the expense of earlier decades. For how many years will Margaret Thatcher appear, by a crude measure of column inches, a more important historical figure than Joseph Stalin - with three pages to his two? Will history judge the poll tax a worse error of political judgement than the purges? And, by a similar token, how many non-British readers would agree that Nigel Lawson merits more attention than Ho Chi Minh?

It is, of course, easy to cavil. There is much to be said for selectivity and discursiveness if, remembering Middlemar ch's Mr Casaubon, we accept that an all-inclusive "key" is a fool's errand. But whether such compendia will accompany us into the 21st century remains to be seen. Internet search-engines may increasingly render printed dictionaries anachronistic.

Susan Carruthers is senior lecturer in international politics, University of Wales, Aberystwyth.

A Dictionary of Contemporary History: 1945 to the Present

Author - Duncan Townson
ISBN - 0 631 20016 9 and 20937 9
Publisher - Blackwell
Price - £60.00 and £16.99
Pages - 447

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