Edinburgh Book Festival gets off to a cracking start

It’s that time of year again, and for once it’s not yet raining!

This morning I listened to Charles Emmerson’s fascinating presentation of his new book, 1913 (Bodley Head). It’s a period in which I have more than a passing interest, even though it’s centuries away from my usual focus of Renaissance Italy!  My grandparents were closely involved in the War and in the years leading up to it (this is a link to an article about my grandmother), and so Emmerson’s book is particularly relevant – together with the fact, of course, that here we are, 100 years later, looking back at these events.


Emmerson deliberately does not examine the reasons for the War, rather – as he said this morning – “this is a global portrait of a year”, and the standpoint is, as much as possible, one that looks forward, not backwards.  In other words, he wants to counter the view that the period immediately prior to the War was “a doomed generation”, the last moments of peace, lived out to the drumbeat of the approaching war.  There is, he said, “an aura of inevitability” in our view of this period, yet this is not how contemporaries saw the world in 1913.

The world then felt modern, and interconnected (think Cubism and Duchamp, the suffrage movement, Ragtime). Quoting Kipling’s poem, Deep-Sea Cables, Emmerson remarked how we often are distracted by the local, how our vision is often narrow. For Kipling the advent of the deep-sea telegraphic cables, which by the end of the nineteenth century connected Europe to America, brought an unprecedented sense of unity:

Joining hands in the gloom, a league from the last of the sun.
Hush! Men talk to-day o’er the waste of the ultimate slime,
And a new Word runs between: whispering, ‘Let us be one!’

In all, it is this sense of possibility, rather than predestination, that Emmerson stated that he wants to stress. Above all, he brings a global viewpoint that is valuable: the book spans all the continents, with chapters on events in countries and cities as far apart as St Petersburg and Los Angeles, Jerusalem and Buenos Aires.  Interestingly, he said he had been greatly helped by the fact that much of the source material (newspapers, diplomatic dispatches, etc) was written in English, French or German (all of which he speaks). This in itself also highlights a certain degree of linguistic unity – no coincidence, certainly, given that these were the three major imperial powers.

Divided into three parts, the Centre of the Universe, the Old New World, The World Beyond, and the Twilight Powers, this is truly a global history, but seen through the intimate eyes of personal recollection drawn from diaries, letters, published accounts. I think this will be a key book for the many accounts of the War that have already started to emerge prior to next year’s centenary. I can’t wait to read it!

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