The Companion to British History (Third Edition), by Charles Arnold Baker
Readers familiar with the first edition of The Companion to British History (Loncross, 1997) will already know that its value as a reference work proceeds from an inclusive attitude towards its subject. Besides providing the rudiments — monarchs, battles etc — the CBH was particularly strong on the constitution, law, local history, the Empire, anecdote, circumstance, and much else. It was also a useful stand-in for The Dictionary of National Biography. This third edition comes again with the glorious yellow jacket (which Routledge’s second edition discarded), but it has many more entries. We can read, for example, a crisp two-page summary of the Blair and Brown Government. A passing reference to ‘public relations tacticians known as spin doctors’ might tempt us to look up Alastair Campbell, but he is not there. He is named, however, in the entry under ‘Spin doctor’, where the author observes that he was ‘thought to have an undue influence on policy in 2003. See Goebbels.’
Now we can also discover precisely what a tomahawk is, sandwiched between Tolpuddle and Toman (which is followed by Tomatoes); or learn that bollards were ‘redundant naval cannon’ buried, after 1815, ‘muzzle-down to adorn streets, mark off pavements and assist turning carriages’. Bonhoefer, Fatwa, Polynesia and Sir John Wilkinson have been allowed entry, but not Alan Turing. In a work of this kind there are bound to be gaps, and one may dispute interpretations. Yet there is no other work of this kind.
It could be argued that The Companion to British History is among the most remarkable books ever written. It is the word ‘written’ which is important, for the CBH is not merely edited or compiled by Charles Arnold-Baker. While the research, which is mind-boggling, is his own, the book is actually written by him. There is a consistent stylistic excellence to its pages; it is recognisably the work of a single mind. One could almost approach it as an astounding novel, along the lines of Pavic’s Dictionary of the Khazars, or even Bolaño’s 2666.
Those who like economy in their reference books may be offended by the CBH’s abundance. It may be a useful resource for lawyers, historians, academics, idlers, teachers, preachers and, well, anyone really. But what have bollards, tomahawks and Polynesia to do with British history, and do we really need to know about demurrage? The economy lies in the style, and the authority, which is nowhere more evident than in the preface (he calls it a ‘scheme’) in which the author lays out his criteria and guidelines in less than three pages. It is a model of intellectual discipline, which is sustained throughout the book.
The CBH is a better first stop than the internet: it’s quicker, you know where the information is coming from, and it allows serendipity to the browsing eye: it’s cheap at the price. I hope a later edition will find the author’s name between Arnold, William Delafield (1828-59) who was ‘director of public instruction in the Punjab from 1856’ and Arnold-Forster, Hugh-Oakeley (1855-1909), where there will be suitably dry recognition of how truly astounding it is that a single man could write such a book in any age, let alone ours.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated January 31, 2009Tags: Britain, History, Non-fiction