Tuesday, 28 July 2009

15,000 notes on 2,000 years

I enjoy reading obituaries, not so much in a morbid way, or with schadenfreude (good, I've outlasted him), but to marvel at the extraordinary things that have been achieved by people of whom I have never heard: Farewell then, whoever you were.

Anyway, my eye was caught the other day by the sub-head Prussian noble who wrote the Companion to British History.

Wolfgang Charles Werner von Blumenthal came to England with his English mother after she divorced his father, Baron Albrecht von Blumenthal; she later married a solicitor, Percy Arnold-Baker. Wolfgang, now Charles Arnold-Baker and a British citizen, joined the army as a private at the outbreak of the second world war, ended up as a captain in the Royal East Kent Regiment and was later recruited by MI6.

After the war he read for the bar but later became Secretary-General of the National Association of Local Councils. Then he was appointed a lecturer in law and architecture (in which he had no formal training). Around the same time he became deputy traffic commissioner for the east of England despite never having learned to drive.

He sounds worthy and slightly dull, OBE and all; he was clearly a Good Egg. But throughout his career he was compiling a masterpiece: he had been commissioned to write a Companion to British History. He worked on it almost every evening, getting by on four hours sleep, writing out at random the whole of British history from 55BC, then chopping it up into bits and putting it into alphabetical order. The project lay dormant for four years and when he returned to it at the prompting of his son he was distressed to find that 4,000 entries had disappeared but wrote them all out again, always by hand, ending up with 15,000 entries. He died earlier this month at the age of 90.

The definitive edition of the book was published last year to widespread acclaim. I have a copy, and if ever there were a book providing an almost inexhaustible source of quotations, this is it.

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