Books: It's always a waste of time to ask what the truth really is

History of the Present: Essays, Sketches and Despatches from Europe in the 1990s by Timothy Garton Ash Allen Lane pounds 20
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The word "history" has a wonderfully authoritative ring to it. We bow down before the god of gravitas. And yet, it is a flexible friend. Anybody who has witnessed a historic event knows that what is reported to have happened soon becomes more important than the scruffy reality itself. Early news reports are quoted and requoted, and themselves soon become gospel. Which is more real: a politician's original words, or a mangled but dramatic version of his words, as spoken to the television cameras by a dodgy interpreter or a spinmeister? The second, naturally. The precise number of people who went on the streets for a mass protest that overthrows a regime is much less "real" in the history-books than the guesstimate of the uncounted crowds that a gaggle of reporters hastily come up with, as deadlines loom. Once that guesstimate has appeared on the news agency wires and in print, it takes on the status of holy writ.

Academia is often little better. The word "academic" implies that somewhere in a quiet library an unsullied account is being assembled which will reinstate Perfect Truth. And yet, academic accounts of recent events are sometimes littered with more blunders than even the sloppiest journalistic accounts. Such books are decorated with copious foot- notes - but the footnotes themselves often rely on sources which are far from pure. Trying to de-mine the minefields is a delicate business.

In History of the Present, Timothy Garton Ash - academic, journalist, historian and all-round central European - is all too conscious of these pitfalls. He seeks to provide at least an approximation of objective truth, even while providing context and reporting from the inside. The book's title is taken from a comment by George Kennan, a leading Russia expert and former US ambassador to Moscow, on Garton Ash's distinctive style. Kennan explains the phrase thus: "Garton Ash writes primarily as a witness to the events he is treating, and not just as an outside witness but often as an inside one as well: for his own involvement in those events, intellectual and emotional, is of such intensity that he can speak, in a sense, from the inside as well as the outside."

This is tricky, of course. Embarking on a scrupulously detailed description of his journalistic modus operandi, Garton Ash implicitly admits the partial fuzziness: "If I had a tape recording of what he actually told me, it would probably be slightly different - a bit more awkward and less sharp. But I don't have a tape recording. You just have to trust me." But even that admission is intended as a form of candidness. In implied contrast to those for whom literary fireworks are everything, Garton Ash insists: "The reader must be convinced that an author has a habit of accuracy, that he is genuinely trying to get at all the relevant facts, and that he will not play fast and loose with them for literary effect."

The health warning is necessary. As Garton Ash rightly remarks, "We all know about fabrications at the bottom end of journalism, in the gutter press. Unfortunately, the frontier with fiction is also violated at the top end of journalism, especially in reportage that aspires to be literature."

Garton Ash argues that the familiar phrase about journalism as the "first draft of history" does not always deserve to be so self-deprecating. "This implies that the scholar's second and third draft will always be an improvement. Well, in some ways it may be, having more sources and a longer perspective. But in others it may not be, because the scholar will not know, and therefore will find it more difficult to re- create, what it was really like at the time. How places looked and smelled, how people felt, what they didn't know."

As Garton Ash himself points out, he occupies a sometimes uncomfortable no man's land between journalism and academia, two areas that (at least in Britain) regard each other with deep suspicion. "In journalism, to describe a piece as 'rather academic' - meaning boring, jargon-heavy, unreadable - is the surest path to the spike. In academe, it's a putdown to say that somebody's work is 'journalistic', meaning superficial, racy, and generally not serious." He sums up his own view: "The characteristic fault of journalistic writing is superficiality and that of academic writing is unreality." Any working journalist has to plead guilty (at least on occasion) to the first. Deadlines are deadlines, and that's that. As for the unreality: to travel around the collapsing Soviet Union in the late Gorbachev era - seeing an empire obviously and visibly in decay - and then to compare that with the starry-eyed nonsense being spouted by learned Kremlinologists at the time was a truly surreal experience. As Garton Ash tartly notes, "Witnessing real life is not what they are supposed - or funded - to do."

Garton Ash, Fellow of St Antony's College, Oxford, is different in that respect. He likes real life - and likes writing about it. Not that he needed to do all that much writing when putting together History of the Present. It is, above all, a mosaic of already published articles and essays from the New York Review of Books, the New Yorker and elsewhere (including at least one from the Independent). But the fact that the book was (presumably) born without the traditional agonising labour pains does not make the project less worthwhile. Each of the portraits is a neat jewel - on subjects ranging from anti-Milosevic protests in Belgrade two years ago (O happy days!) to Britain's confused relationship with Europe, to a portrait of Helena Luczywo, the brilliant dissident-turned-editor of Poland's most successful paper, who stands as a symbol of the new Poland.

Occasionally the essays, though only a few years old, feel strangely other-worldish. As Garton Ash admits in the introduction, "Reading my own pieces for this book, I am again reminded that nothing ages more quickly than prophecy - even when it was prescient." Equally, however, it is astonishing how fresh most of the accounts remain.

If there is a quibble, it is that the book can be a teensy bit self-regarding. Perhaps we do not need to be reminded of every grand personage - from George Soros and Vaclav Havel to Helmut Kohl and the Pope - with whom the author has casually sat round an intimate dinner table. But it's forgivable. He does know the people in central Europe who count; he listens intently and intelligently; and he writes with remarkable elegance. More than that, one should not ask.