Two cheers for the new

The Contemporary History Handbook

January 2, 1998

The Institute of Contemporary British History has for a decade now positioned itself in the vanguard of the writing and dissemination of contemporary, particularly British, history. The fervour lives on in this book's preface and introduction by Anthony Seldon and Brian Brivati. Perhaps, however, as Brivati notes, the battle has been won and the former critics "put politely but firmly in their place". This in itself may account for a distinct change in emphasis and tone in the current work for, as Seldon concludes, the ICBH has not managed to foster a distinctively British school of contemporary history, nor has it stemmed the compartmentalisation of the discipline. Indeed contemporary history has become not just pluralistic but an almost "chaotic pursuit". The Handbook's aims are to reflect and encourage diversity and it certainly succeeds in this.

It is divided into three main sections: debates, international perspectives and sources, with the third section itself subdivided into five others, which discuss archive sources and debates, printed sources, oral and audio sources, visual sources. There are 41 individual chapters, which are typically around ten pages long. Some are shorter. For example, John Young's discourse on the shape of the historiographical debate over Britain and Europe occupies just six pages, while Nicholas Cox on National British Archives occupies 15 pages. This in itself is at once a strength and a weakness, imposing discipline and sharpening the focus in some cases, although in others there is something of a sense of breathlessness with authors succumbing to the "must get this in" imperative. Across the board, however, the sheer scale of the ambition and the attempt deserves applause.

The change in focus is also welcome, for the essays in the international perspectives section of the book are consistently readable whether they stem from more common concerns such as Michael Twaddle's very fine essay on the European scramble from Africa through to George Philip's engagement with Latin America, or Philip Boobbyer and Julia Buxton discussing the collapse of the former Soviet Union and Soviet bloc's respectively. There are also two good essays on the Far East, Ian Neary on Japan and the Pacific and an insightful discourse on China as "a state in search of a civilisation" by Chris Hughes. No longer just British then, but there remain causes for concern and these are picked up by Brivati in his introduction; commenting on the fact that the volume is heavily influenced by the fall of the Berlin wall and the resurgence of market economics, he is struck by the way in which the prospects both for economic and democratic growth are debated almost solely within the paradigm of the market.

It has to be said that this is an uneven book. Indeed, one could argue with some justification that there are really three books here, on the nature of history, the historiography of various subjects and the practise of history in archives. Perhaps the authors would have benefited from more room, reflective as well as spatial, because there is rather too much of a sense of rush about the volume as a whole. Further, despite an excellent essay by Andrew Graham on debates in contemporary political economy, the volume does not credit economic or business history with much life. An ambitious book, therefore, which does not quite achieve its goals. Two cheers for contemporary history.

Lewis Johnman is a research fellow in history, University of Westminster.


The Contemporary History Handbook

Editor - Brian Brivati, Julia Buxton and Anthony Seldon
ISBN - 0 7190 4835 4 and 4836 2
Publisher - Manchester University Press
Price - £45.00 and £17.99
Pages - 488

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