Charles Emmerson has set himself an exceptionally difficult task. Global history is fashionable, but it is very hard to do well. Like a soufflé, which won’t rise without whipped egg whites, global history falls flat without a thesis or polemic. At its best – in the hands of historians at the top of their game, such as Paul Kennedy or Christopher Bayly – this sort of history is mind-blowingly good. Done badly, without an overarching argument or strong narrative, it is disappointingly bland.
Nor are books about single years easy to write. A year does not form a narrative arc: you need strong architecture to make the thing stand up. There have been plenty of books about years, but there has to be a good reason for choosing the year. The only distinction, it seems to me, of 1913 is that it came before 1914. Oh, and perhaps no one has done it before.
You can imagine the conversation with the publisher. The hundredth anniversary of 1914 is going to be huge – we can anticipate an avalanche of books and television documentaries on that year alone. The government has earmarked £50 million for commemorating the centenary of the start of the