This year marks the 150th anniversary of Whitaker’s Almanack, a reference book whose history is intertwined with the history of British literature, both as a tool for writers and, occasionally, as a plot device.
The Almanack, which stretches in the 2018 edition to 1141 pages (plus colour plates and index), covers subjects from the workings of the British government to tide charts; from a brief guide to politics in every country of the world to a series of essays on the year’s developments in a range of art, political, and financial fields.
Want a quick rundown of the past year in literature? It starts on page 999. Decide it’s time to find out how the European Union is actually run? Pages 611 to 620 will do their best to fill you in. Pages 365 to 377 list the current fees of (almost) every private school in the UK, while an explanation of the differences between the NHS in England, Wales, and Scotland begins on page 382. It’s effectively a user’s manual for residents of the United Kingdom.
Dracula and Sherlock Holmes both consulted Whitaker’s in the course of their adventures. A character in Somerset Maugham’s story ‘The Round Dozen’ passes on Trollope’s advice that ‘the two most useful books to a novelist [are] the Bible and Whitaker’s Almanack’ (admittedly Maugham’s narrator isn’t convinced, and doesn’t himself possess a copy). Whitaker’s crops up in Orwell, too: his early novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying contains the observation that, ‘After all, all works of reference are pornographical, except perhaps Whitaker’s Almanack’.
Of course, all of the information here – aside from the various essays – is also freely available online. Isn’t a reference book like this a bit of an anachronism? Something for retired civil servants to snooze over while they digest their Christmas dinner, rather than a genuinely useful tool? It’s not a cheap book, either: the RRP of Whitaker’s Almanack has climbed rapidly over the years, to the point where the complete 2018 edition is priced at £90 for a single hardback book. That price is largely academic, though: it sells at around £55 online, and is clearly priced to be discounted. (That’s not great for bricks and mortar bookshops, who tend to get a raw deal out of this kind of pricing strategy.) There’s also a concise edition available, containing a selection of the UK material, priced at a more High Street-friendly £25.
But if you can afford it, or settle for the concise edition, it might just be worth getting hold of a copy.
For general usage, it’s good to be able to consult Whitaker’s rather than disappear down the rabbit hole of the internet, or indeed going near a screen at all. Even using a book, you might very well find yourself starting to browse the pages and read up on other topics once you’ve found what you were looking for, but still, the context is at least relevant. There’s no clickbait, no advertising, no notifications, nobody trying to message you.
If a question comes up when you’re with friends or family, it’s a lot more pleasant to pull a book from the shelf, rather than have everybody cluster around an iPhone, or get drawn into one of those tedious information races where everybody is trying to be the first to Google the prime minister’s salary (p.177) or what happens if you die without leaving a will (p.545), or what the flag of Ghana looks like (unpaginated colour plates, following p.800).
For a writer, having a copy of Whitaker’s Almanack nearby – shelved somewhere close to the dictionary and the style guide – means that when a question comes up about the workings of the UK, you don’t have to leave the environment of your work-in-progress in order to open a browser window, with all the dangers to concentration and productivity that entails. And much of the information contained in Whitaker’s is useful for fiction: if a character dies intestate, you won’t want to give your readers a three-paragraph summary of the relevant legislation, but you probably want to make sure that whatever happens next in the story is realistic. If you’re writing crime, your chief inspector’s lifestyle is going to need to be funded on an annual salary of roughly £55,000 (p.309) – unless he’s bent, of course.
The other benefit to having all of this information in a physical book is that although most of it might be available online, that doesn’t mean writers will actually access it. Most of the short fiction written today doesn’t take the national context into account; there’s no suggestion that the writer is aware of the workings of the country, or the particular social and political backdrop against which their story is taking place. Again, it’s not necessarily information you’d use explicitly in your fiction, but it’s background that’s worth having at your elbow. A copy of Whitaker’s on the desk of a fiction writer might get consulted less often than it would be in the hands of a political journalist, but it could also serve as a reminder of the importance of context.
In a book printed late last year, there are obviously things that are out of date. Political appointments change, as do politics themselves: perhaps a little optimistically, p.613 tells us that Brexit negotiations are due to conclude in December 2017. There will certainly be times when you’ll want to confirm a detail online after consulting the book. There’s something comforting in this, though, in being able to step outside of the eternal ‘now’, the telescoping of time in the digital age, and to look at the world from a fixed, defined point in time. (This might explain why some people find themselves trying to collect a complete set of Whitaker’s, all 150 volumes from the last 150 years.)
You can even access Whitaker’s online, purchasing chapters at £1 a time, or sections for £5 – although this rather defeats the purpose of the whole thing, and anyway the execution feels a little rushed, with for example the list of abbreviations separated into 25 different chapters of just a few words each. (At least they don’t charge you for X, which has no entries.) Given that people going online will be able to find the information for free elsewhere anyway, the future of Whitaker’s would probably be best assured by embracing its merits as a physical object, and fundamental difference to the world of digital information.
One purpose of Whitaker’s Almanack is to describe in uncritical detail the workings of the British establishment. Depending on your own politics, some of the content might feel redundant or complacent to the point of being objectionable. The sheer breadth of the topics covered also means that most people won’t find every section useful. But think of the book in its entirety as the real-world equivalent of all those notes JRR Tolkien made for himself as background to the Lord of the Rings, or simply as a handbook to the great machine of which your characters – if they live in modern Britain – form a part, and you may just find a place for it on your desk.