History books and years

I’m currently reading Robert Service’s bio of Stalin. It’s good so far, but it has one annoying aspect to it that almost every other history book or biography shares, and that is that it just doesn’t remind you enough of what the year in question is.

What I mean is that there will be plenty of lines like ‘”In March this issue became urgent, and X started to do Y as a result”. But what year is it? It’s never that clear what the year is. Is it 1931 or 1932, or have we jumped ahead to 1933 here? You go back over the pages you’ve recently read, but there’s no mention of a year for ages. Eventually you find one by going back further, and then you have to do some deducing to work out what the year is on your current page. It’s like the writer knows what year it is, they’re keeping track of it in their head, so they assume you know too, but you don’t, you’re not as expert on all this as the writer.

With some topics this may not matter so much but with political history it does. And you want to get the timeline right in your head, so you want to know whether it was 1923 that X happened, or 1924, not least so you can fit this in with related developments which you knew happened in 1923 and 1924.

It’s like cricket commentating on the radio. It’s really important that cricket commentators keep telling the listeners the score. That’s one of their most important jobs. But so many of them fail to. You turn on the radio to hear the score, and you have to listen to them waffling on about all sorts of rubbish, and eventually you might hear them say that Jenkins has turned one off his hip for a single, as though they’re slightly annoyed that Jenkins has interrupted their story, like a parent who barely stops the story they’re telling to their friends when they tell their child to stop doing something. If you’re very lucky they might tell you that Jenkins has moved on to 32 after the tuck, but you won’t get the team score. Eventually after ten minutes, if you’re lucky, they’ll deign to mention it.

This always drives me nuts. The only British radio commentator who regularly gives the score is Jonathan Agnew (although in all other respects he’s an extremely annoying commentator). History writers should not be making the same sort of mistake. Never just say ‘July’. It should always be July and the year, unless the year has already been given on that page.

There are also some other strange aspects to what otherwise seems a very good book. Stalin has to give up this job he has at the Tiflis (ie. Tbilisi) observatory and leave where he’s living because the authorities are persecuting the Marxists. The next few years he throws himself into being a dedicated revolutionary. But there’s nothing at all about how he gets any money to live on. And nothing at all about where he lives when he moves to different towns. He also escapes a prison, but there’s nothing at all about how this happened. Many people — colleagues, editors — read drafts of the book. Did none of them not think to raise these points? Were they already so familiar with the facts about Stalin’s life that they didn’t notice that Service hadn’t addressed some of them?

There also seem to be many episodes of Stalin’s life that are missing that I know from other sources. I don’t know whether Service thought the evidence for these was lacking, or whether he just couldn’t fit everything in.

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