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The Chroniclers

In assembling his composite portrait of the last century, Robert Fox aimed at the “magical effect of giving the reader the sensation of being there at great and curious events, and with extraordinary people.” For the most part, he has succeeded. His “eyewitness history of the twentieth century opens with a scientific milestone, as Marie Curie recalls the discovery of radium: “I sometimes passed the whole day stirring a boiling mass with an iron rod nearly as big as myself.” It ends on a more turbulent note, as thousands of Iranians pour into the streets of Tehran to protest the sham elections of 2009. In between, we encounter inventors, explorers, poets, dictators, actors, soldiers, novelists (Hemingway makes three appearances, each more swaggering than the last), and a good many journalists. It is an enthralling mix, leavened with the frequent testimony of non-celebrities who just happened to wander into the historical hurricane.

That said, Fox’s book also reflects a very specific and sometimes parochial view of the last century. Fox, a defense correspondent for Britain’s Evening Standard, is a child of the 1940s. This may explain why more than one fourth of his book is devoted to World War Two. I do not mean to minimize the impact of that great existential clash. Still, here the emphasis feels like another unnecessary obeisance to the Greatest Generation—and ultimately, a distortion of history, as if the decades before and after functioned mainly as bookends.

Also, it makes for some occasionally spotty reportage. Nobody will quibble with Michael Howard’s vivid account of trench warfare on the Italian peninsula (“As the hill shook, I fell into my slit-trench and tried to burrow deeper into the ground while the shell-fragments above me buzzed in strange circles, like malicious insects.”) And Theodora Fitzgibbon provides this eerie and indelible snapshot of the London Blitz:

The nurses’ home of the Cheyne Hospital for Children had the top floor blown off: a neat nurse’s bedroom, the ceiling light still shining, looked like a stage set. A warden perilously climbed up the bombed staircase and switched it off, although there was a flaming gas main burning around the corner which floodlit the entire area.

But for every such jewel, there’s also something like this:

It was one of the platoons of the 246 Field Company, landing at five minutes past eight, that made the first exit off White Beach with a borrowed armoured bulldozer, before proceeding, according to plan, to search and clear and mark a forward route to Hermanville. The East Yorks, supported by the surviving tanks of B Squadron of 13th/18th Hussars, and the South Lancs supported by the survivors of A Sqaudron, both accompanied by their affiliated FOOs of the 76th Field Regiment and with one FOO of the 33rd Field Regiment, had begun the advance inland.

My intent is not to ridicule the contribution (and the bravery) of Norman Scarfe, who wrote the paragraph above, but merely to note that it evokes little of the magic that was Fox’s goal in compiling We Were There. So why include it to begin with, especially since the book contains other, more lively accounts of the D-Day landing?

It is also no surprise that Fox views the century through a British lens. There is no need to complain about the preponderance of English voices, not when the likes of Robert Graves, Evelyn Waugh, Robert Byron, Ronald Blythe, Gertrude Bell, George Orwell, and James Fenton are in the choir. Still, it is a little strange to see Britain’s reconquest of the Falkland Islands in 1982 trotted out as a major event of the century and “the last of the British imperial wars.” Why not include the American invasion of Grenada the following year, or the toppling of Manuel Noriega and his capture as part of Operation Nifty Package (really) in 1989?

Yet this is nonetheless a valuable book. It vividly illustrates a general principle of such first-person testimonies: they are most interesting when they surprise us, when some element of human perversity creeps into the picture and messes with our expectations. We know, of course, that the advent of war in 1939 was a sobering, fearful occasion for the British public. Yet we recognize the gleam of reality (and the itchy impatience of youth) in the reaction of a nineteen-year-old named J.R. Frier: “Most peculiar thing experienced today was desire for something to happen—to see aeroplanes coming over, and see defences in action. I don’t really want to see bombs dropping and people killed, but somehow, as we are at war, I want it to buck up and start.”

Equally striking is this encounter in 1989 between BBC correspondent John Simpson and Osama bin Laden in northern Afghanistan. At the time, bin Laden was not yet the international icon of Islamist terror. He was, instead, an obscure mujahedin whose main claim to fame was his personal grooming: “His robes were spotless, and his beard sensational.” He urges his comrades to kill the reporter and his crew, and even offers a reward of five hundred dollars. When they refuse, bin Laden has what can only be described as a temper tantrum:

The figure in white ran off towards one of the archways under the road where the mujahedin slept, and we followed him over there, intrigued.

We found him lying full length on a camp bed, weeping and beating his fists on the pillow out of frustration at not being able to kill us. I almost felt like comforting him, but resisted, of course. We moved on quite soon after that: the tears wouldn’t last forever, and even $500 was a reasonable amount of money.

And finally, there is the son of a village blacksmith in rural England, filling in Ronald Blythe on the economic woes of the 1930s. The gentry, he insists, have gotten a raw deal from history:

It paid us to raise our hats, which is why we did it. I hear people run the gentry down now but they were better than the farmers in a crisis. Theirs was the only hand which fed us which we could see. So we bowed a bit; it cost nothing, even if it wasn’t all courtesy. Nobody left, nobody went away. People were content…The boys had the arse out of their trousers, no socks and the toes out of their boots. My brothers and myself were like this, yet so happy.

This blunt, practical, and oddly nostalgic paragraph is not what we expect to hear from a downtrodden laborer. True, he would not bite the paternalistic hand that fed him. But he is honest about his motives—not something you can take for granted at any point in the last century, or this one—and gladly concedes that the grinding poverty of the era did not prevent him from being happy. Again, it is the element of surprise that is so satisfying. Tell us something we don’t know, torpedo our received wisdom—and as the title would have it, we are there. 

James Marcus is the author of Amazonia: Five Years at the Epicenter of the Dot-Com Juggernaut and an editor at the Columbia Journalism Review.