History is a subject I found painful at school, did badly in, and gave up as soon as I was allowed to. It's only later that I came to understand that the subject concerns turning points which would have left a very different world if they had gone differently. I would have found that really interesting if it had been the theme that underpinned the school teaching, and I find it interesting now. I therefore sought this book out eagerly when I heard about it. I found it a considerable disappointment.
Articles that consider different outcomes for well known historic events are necessarily works of fiction. But in some of the contributions to this book, I wonder whether I am reading something of educational value or an episode of some TV cartoon. David Frum has President Gore hesitating over sending the US army into Afghanistan because the tanks will emit too much CO2. "Whatever we do, I want this to be the first environmentally sensitive war in history. Wes, you make sure our troops know: they're to watch out for migratory birds when they march. And no littering!"
I can't tell whether this is intended as a serious interpretation of what Gore would have done, or a ridiculing of Gore's ideas. I am not sure whether the fact that I am in doubt is my shortcoming or the author's. But if it's the latter it isn't the only place in the book that is scathing. Simon Heffer makes a convincing argument that had Mrs Thatcher been among those killed when the IRA bombed a hotel in Brighton, Michael Heseltine would have been her successor. But he then goes on to shred the man, as "showing, again, a resolute determination not to learn from the mistakes of previous prime ministers". I hold no brief for Heseltine but to me the tone here is just nasty.
It is the efforts of the editor, Andrew Roberts, that are in the most questionable taste. Pages 3 to 8 of the introduction are almost unreadable, because - like this, except some are several lines long - nearly every paragraph has an aside in parenthetical dashes which is meant to be an interesting affirmation of or exception to the main argument. The device is used so much that the result is wide eyed and jerky and leaves one wondering if there is a main argument at all.
In his own article, on Lenin being shot at the Finland Station, he Russifies his name to Andrei Simonovich Robertski. He identifies the assassin as Lev Harvievic Oswalt, "whose motive has never been satisfactorily established since he himself was murdered in police custody the very next day by a man with underworld connections". Is this scholarly, or is it corny?
And is citing that "if he had not sat next to the biographer Leonie Frieda in the Poissonerie restaurant in Sloane Avenue, she might not be his girlfriend today", in the biographical blurb on the dust jacket and repeated in the publisher's review here on Amazon, charmingly romantic or just plain cheesy?
These lapses of judgement (in my opinion of course, which is not necessarily anyone else's) are unfortunate companions to intriguing and persuasive contributions from others, notably from Anne Somerset on what would have happened if the Spanish Armada had landed in England, and Anthonia Fraser on the Gunpowder Plot succeeding. Perhaps it's easier to write alternative history about topics that are further in the past.