In the wrong hands, such a book could be a catchpenny device for a strong coffee-table, a millenarian cliche: the Somme, Lenin, Pearl Harbor, Marilyn Monroe - we have all been here before. Its ambition is patently ridiculous.
The fact that it succeeds as a comprehensive but also surprising visual record - for every half-familiar photograph in it, there are 50 unfamiliar, all of them striking and illuminating - owes everything to the man who had the idea and who found and chose the pictures, Bruce Bernard. By way of an old-fashioned and often unrewarded virtue, that of knowing and loving his subject, Bernard has made a wonderful book, and also, at pounds 29.95, a bargain one.
This ringing endorsement is completely sincere, but comes with a small caveat: friendship. I've known Bruce for 20-odd years. He is or was what used to be known as a "Soho figure", leading a quieter version of the life that his younger brother, the late Jeffrey Bernard, publicised in his Spectator column, which was later turned by Keith Waterhouse into a hugely successful play, Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell, with Peter O'Toole.
Pubs - the French, the Coach and Horses - were a big feature. You could often find both brothers in the same pub. Bruce was the more stolid, meditative one, eyes fixed on the beer pumps in the middle distance and sporadically muttering, apparently, to a glass close by, on his left. In fact, he'd be having a conversation with his friend on his right. Bruce can tolerate long and companionable silences. If you try to fill these, nervously, with your own gabble, you'll miss his witty and interesting observations that are shyly being directed sideways to some other point in the room.
Like most brothers, Bruce and Jeffrey had their ups and downs. Last week, when we met for lunch, I asked Bruce whether he had resented his younger brother's success and celebrity. "No, I was rather proud of him," Bruce said, "but I think Jeff wanted me to resent him, and I resented his wanting my resentment." He said he sometimes felt "horribly responsible" for what had happened to Jeff, meaning waywardness, the cycle of drink and remorse, and the habits that eventually killed him. When Bruce was a young student at St Martin's School of Art, he'd introduced his little brother to his friends. Jeff had insisted on going with them to the pub. He must have been 12 or 13 at the time - and as Bruce himself was only 16 he was already nervous on his own behalf about being chucked out by the barman. But Jeff had gone with them. "And as we all know," Bruce said, "he eventually got served."
Of the three Bernard brothers, the eldest, Oliver, has led the most conventional and best-organised life: a family, a job as a teacher and translator, a house in Norfolk. Their mother was an opera singer, their father a successful stage and interior designer. In Bruce's book, there is a picture - the contemporary, hand-written caption describes it as "the last photo" - of the liner Lusitania steaming towards the horizon and the fateful German torpedo in 1915. Bruce's father was on the ship, survived its sinking, and drew the watercolours of the disaster which were published in the Illustrated London News.
Later he worked devising camouflage - a new art, invented by the French - for the Army on the Western Front. He won the MC. He designed two Ring Cycles for Covent Garden. In the Twenties, he became an Art Deco man - the foyer of the Strand Palace Hotel, the inside of every Lyons Corner House (all destroyed in the Fifties) - so that by the time Bruce was born, in 1928, the family must have been at the height of their prosperity. Then, in 1939, Bernard senior died. Life began to go wrong. Funded by a charitable foundation, Bruce went to a succession of boarding schools, eventually ending up at Bedales (arty, "progressive") where he learnt to be anarchic.
Persuading him to describe the next two decades is difficult. Bruce simply doesn't want to go on about it. He wanted to paint, but (like his brother Jeffrey) earned most of his money as a stage hand. There were other jobs - navvying, office work - but manhandling scenery and looking after the wardrobe seems to have been the mainstay. Soho was never far away. It is difficult now to estimate quite what this locality meant to the young of the Fifties (by 1970, when I first went there, it had come to mean men in bars saying they had once known Dylan Thomas and asking to borrow five bob), but Bruce and his brothers cut fine, dashing figures in it. They are there in the pictures of John Deakin, the Soho photographer, looking like young men who want to surprise the world, to whom the word "mortgage" will never be known.
What changed his life was an encounter with an Italian graphic designer, Germano Facetti, in 1967. Bruce, as he writes in his book, was "as good as down and out". Facetti offered him a job as a picture researcher on a partwork magazine called, prematurely, The History of the Twentieth Century. From that day on, most of his working life has been spent among photographic archives and among photographers. He developed an alert eye for the interesting and the subtly beautiful print, particularly in documentary photo-graphy. He would remember what he had seen, in which collection; a truly photographic memory. All this was before the trade in old photographs took a grip among collectors and auction houses.
Today photographic prints, vintage and otherwise, can sell for thousands of pounds. Bruce, through the celebration of his discoveries, played a part in this new valuation of the photograph, though he never profited from it, not being rich enough to buy prints even before the boom and also, perhaps, not wanting to. Painting is the skill he most admires.
I first met him in the late Seventies, when he was picture editor of The Sunday Times magazine and working on a series called Photodiscovery which eventually became an influential book. My job was to write or rewrite Bruce's captions. It was quickly obvious that Bruce, though in some ways chaotic, had a very certain taste in both words and pictures. It was later obvious that he had an equally uncertain temper. Rewrites, rewrites of rewrites, rewrites of rewrites of rewrites. Bits of paper went back and forth between us for days at a time. As his friend, Alexander Chancellor, observes: "Integrity oozes from Bruce's every pore - which can be rather annoying."
It can also command loyalty. People such as Don McCullin and Lucian Freud (who painted Bruce's portrait), have been his friends for a very long time. On the other hand, the same quality has not made him rich. Bruce tends to spend his money on food and drink. He lives in a small rented flat and listens to Beethoven; he has never owned a car; his clothes always seem to be much the same as those he was wearing the last time you saw him.
In the introduction to his new book, he writes: "Those of us who have come through a significant part of the century unscathed might accept this book as a welcome souvenir on leaving a territory which they have partly explored, but will never be able to visit again, and which will always seem to contain all the larger human problems set out in the clearest possible form. It has in some ways been the most thoughtless, but in other ways the most thoughtful, hundred years in human history... offering nothing to provide us with any firm grounds for either bright hope or black despair."
Today he's in Italy, where he has gone to present an early copy of his book to his first photographic mentor, Germano Facetti. Another half-million of them will soon be in bookshops across the world. I estimate the total weight at about 3,000 British tons. Its success - and it should be a great success - devolves finally on one man's deep photographic knowledge and his wise and compassionate eye for photographs that, taken together, tell such a complicated story.
At lunch, I said to Bruce, half-teasingly, that this was a wonderful late flowering of his career. His face creased in distaste. "That," he said, "is one of the most horrible things I've ever heard. Disgusting! Awful!"
Now, looking at the picture of the Lusitania sailing to its doom with Bruce's father on board - how odd it must be for Bruce to imagine him there, invisible to the camera, perhaps stretching his legs on the boat deck - I think how quickly this century has passed, of its swiftness rather than its length.
`Century: One Hundred Years of Human Progress, Regression, Suffering and Hope' is published by Phaidon Press on 23 September. Photographs from it will appear in `The Independent' Magazine on Saturday, 25 SeptemberReuse content