After diarising the phony war with details of eggs, premature frosts and seed prices, George Orwell has finally decided to start writing about the war. It seems to be Dunkirk and the threat of imminent invasion that persuaded him to to turn his attention from the back garden to world affairs.
The first few entries for May 1940 have been gripping. Orwell’s description of the return of the British expeditionary force and the demeanour of public life on the eve of the blitz gives an impression of immediacy that’s difficult to capture in the selection and summary you need to practice if you’re trying to write history.
In my view, history’s at it’s most engaging when it’s written in the style of a good op-ed column: the reliable (but slightly gossipy) assessment of a morass of detail.
Still, I have to admit that it’s the detail – especially the human detail – that has always attracted me to history as a discipline (it is, after all, a Humanity). Compared to a diary, or a pile of personal letters, reading the secondary literature is a bit like listening to the muffled shouts of your neighbours as they fight on the other side of a thick wall.