I Wish I'd Been There
edited by Byron Hollinshead and Theodore Rabb
I Wish I'd Been There is such a good idea it could be a series instead of a single volume. An invitation to 20 historians to recreate scenes they can inhabit, the book is a novel way to inject life into times of yore. Not all the essays work well. The fun aspect is lacking in several, but still the exercise of using informed speculation to dramatise politics, war, science, the arts and more produces enough to engage most readers. For the pure spectacle of the passage, Tom Holland chooses to join Hannibal in 218BC as he crosses the Alps into Italy with his wretched elephants. Josiah Ober wishes he had been present at the deathbed of Alexander the Great: he chose the moment simply to experience what it felt like 'at a moment when human history had reached one of its great turning points', he says. Margaret Macmillan chooses a more recent past event: she wishes she had been at the meeting in November 1918 between Georges Clemenceau and David Lloyd George. Why? Because she would love to know whether either statesman hesitated 'as they cheerfully doled out territory in the Middle East'.