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A Christmas read: A window on the world before the War


Over the festive period TCW will be publishing reviews by our writers of books which they feel deserve a wider audience. Here is the first.

CHRISTMAS is not the time to read a door-stop novel or history book. That is why sun-loungers and summer vacations were invented.

Instead, an ideal Christmas read should not be too text-heavy. And there should be pictures.

Rather than suggesting one of those humorous modern Ladybird books for grown-ups, my choice is a bit more vintage.

An Atlas of Current Affairs by J F Horrabin is a cartographic history of the world from the signing of the Treaty of Versailles to the rise of Nazism. The book was published in 1934 and was updated and reprinted in the following two years. It does not focus exclusively on the deteriorating European situation. It does not anticipate war, but shows the events that started the impetus towards it, with the necessary absence of hindsight. It consists of 160-odd pages of maps and text detailing this critical time in human history. 1936 was the point at which a Second World War became inevitable, as the soon-to-be Axis powers flexed their muscles and found they had little constraint. I found it interesting reading of the events described enjoying the full knowledge of how they turned out.

There are interesting snippets. Saudi Arabia came into existence through military conquest, and not just as a handout by the Allies, something I could have found out in an encyclopaedia, but here it is briefly and efficiently presented, inviting further study. The book ranges all over the globe and has numerous other ‘did-you-know?’ topics. It is somewhat pessimistic, pointing out the problems, but there is a reason for this.

The book was published by the Left Book Club, a business that found a gap in the market and exploited it. Finding that there was an absence of factual information and education from a socialist perspective, the book club was established and was a runaway success, surprising its founders, Victor Gollancz and Stafford Cripps. The business model for this book club inspired imitators, leading to the publication of Penguin Specials and Nelson’s Discussion Books.

Horrabin was a gifted cartoonist and also worked as an editor of the Left-wing journal Plebs. Like his paramour, the cruelly forgotten Ellen Wilkinson, he was a Labour MP for a time, but unlike Wilkinson he was ejected from Parliament in the landslide 1931 General Election. Wilkinson went on to lead the Jarrow Hunger March and served in the wartime coalition.

So the book does come with an ideological health warning. It is a worldview from a socialist perspective. But it does have historical value. It is always useful to read of global events described by those who have actually lived through them, and feel what it was like to them rather than depending on historians who cannot help but be influenced by more modern attitudes and ideology. It is also interesting to know how the other side think.

Horrabin was a progressive in his time, and of the kind that Left-wing movements simply do not seem to produce any more, being apparently a more intellectual and creative socialist rather than the stifling and dogmatic talent-free Marxist wannabes that pollute our modern screens. He went on to present BBC television programmes before the war interrupted the service. During the war, he used the same methodology found in this atlas to produce a ten-volume set, published by Nelson, literally charting the events.

It is possible to obtain editions of the Atlas of Current Affairs for a quite modest price from eBay or Abebooks. Alternatively, you may download it here from the Internet Archive, and perhaps consider making a donation to this worthy cause.

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Paul T Horgan
Paul T Horgan
Paul T Horgan worked in the IT Sector. He lives in Berkshire.

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