A poetic jumble of mishaps and traumas

Nothing that still calls itself an almanack would be complete without s ome dotty-sounding wisdom WHITAKER'S ALMANACK 1995
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The Independent Online
Every year, as the Christmas lights go up all over Britain, a new Whitaker's Almanack thuds into the shops, crammed with up-to-date statistics on everything from nautical terms and weights and measures to world trade figures and sports results. F lickingthrough the pages, with their minuscule print (the Whitaker's office must be full of people with very thick contact lenses), you do at times have the giddy sense of having the whole world at your fingertips.

The section that moves most obviously with the times is the list of 1994 events, all very succinct and suggestive of a fast-moving and busy year. Sometimes the juxtapositions are too good to be true. On the 6 January John Major "defended his back-to-basics policy and said that it was not a crusade about personal morality". The very next day rain and melting snow caused severe flooding in parts of southern England. And what about the day John Smith died: "The party's deputy leader, Margaret B eckett, took over as acting leader. An earthquake registering 3.1 on the Richter scale hit central England." It never rains but it pours, eh?

It is tempting to imagine that the events are mysteriously linked, that the Queen breaking her wrist in a riding accident made it inevitable that four Romanian stowaways would be found dead on a ship in Felixstowe the next day. But on the whole it is notpossible even for excitable students of chaos to see a pattern in the jumble of mishaps and traumas that fill the page.

There is an especially gruesome section on disasters. Here is what happened in July 1994: "2. 37 people were killed when an aircraft crashed in North Carolina, USA. 5. At least 28 people died in severe flooding caused by a tropical storm in Georgia, Alabama and northern Florida, USA. 6. At least 13 firefighters were killed by bush fires in Colorado, USA. 14. Over 580 people were killed in monsoon floods in India. 24. 26 people were injured when lightning struck an oil refinery near Pembroke."

Are there macabre quiz shows that require this sort of specialised knowledge? So far as trends go, it does seem that Britain is falling behind when it comes to accidents. We have fires that destroy books in Norwich library, and the odd falling girder; the rest of the world has tornadoes and hurricanes and floods that kill "estimated" thousands. It is odd that Whitaker's, in most ways so lofty, should be happy to adopt routine news values, with their reflex emphasis on death as a better story than life.

Whitaker's is traditional in another way: it offers a revised but essentially unchanging view of Britain. It is unbeatable on hallmarks, medals and decorations, the composition of the ecclesiastical household or the royal almonry, the wage levels of officers commissioned from the ranks and the correct form of address for a Viscount's wife (The Rt Hon the Viscountess). But it is almost silent on the new anarchic age of information technology, splintering media and politics, and there is nothing about thesupple forces that govern daily life. Whitaker's likes formal institutions such as banks and building societies; it is not much interested in supermarkets. There are 32 pages on the Christian churches - lists of stipends, a breakdown of bishoprics and athorough summary of the Anglican communion overseas, right down to the three Rt Reverend Bishops of Korea. But there are only three pages on other faiths, thumbnail sketches of Buddhism, Hinduism and a laughable couple of hundred wor ds on Islam.

But Whitaker's does reward the browser with a barrage of immaculate facts. One and a half million cars were stolen in America in 1992, for instance. Even the weather data is rewarding. The hoteliers of Torquay will no doubt be glad to have it confirmed that their town is the warmest and sunniest spot in England, though their cousins in Penzance probably didn't need telling that theirs was the wettest, just pipping damp Tiree. Perhaps they would be happy to know that nearly two yards of rain (73.62 inches) fell on the Ile de Reunion on a single day in 1952. You had to be tall to survive that one.

The economic statistics are full of revelations also. The figures are for1993, before the fruits of the present exciting low-inflation export-led recovery became so clear, but it is interesting to note that a year ago the pound was falling slightly not just against European currencies but also against the Estonian Kroon and - appropriately enough - the Christmas Island dollar. Not all is lost, thank goodness: the pound strengthened noticeably against the Belize dollar, the Burundi franc and the Laotian Kip.

It would be wonderful if all this data were on-line. Bizarre connections could be drawn between the number of gallons per second that fall over Cauldron Snout (England's top waterfall) and tidal fluctuations in the North Sea; unusual comparisons could bemade between, say, defence spending in the developed countries and wars in the third world. All those trade details - imports of oil seed and oleaginous fruit, hides, skins and furskins, raw - could be massaged and polished and referred to at will.

There is an undeniable poetry in all these facts. Next year's night sky, in particular, is described with frosty calm. Cancel your plans for February and check out this: "Mercury passes through inferior conjunction on the 3rd and remains too close to theSun for observation throughout the month ... Mars is a few degrees north of Regulus at the beginning of the month but its retrograde motion takes it to the wester edge of the constellation of Leo."

Astronomy is a zone of wonder so rarefied we can hardly blame the authors for sounding sniffy about worldly concerns. "The evening cone," they write, "may be observed in the western sky after the end of twilight from the 16th onwards. This faint phenomenon is only visible in good conditions, in the absence of both moonlight and artificial lighting." For most of us the moon is a big enough thrill, but for these medieval stargazers it is merely a blot on the stellar landscape.

It is possible, indeed, to find something of the same remote astronomical zeal running through the entire volume. It assumes, like all the best reference works, that knowledge is somehow unequivocal and fixed and well-ordered, or at least that you can always clobber uncertainty on the head with the right bit of information. It assumes that questions do have definite answers, and that if they don't they can't be worth asking. In the end there is something a bit rum and glum in the assured, sober tone.

But nothing that still calls itself an almanack would be complete without some bit of dotty-sounding wisdom. I was glad to see that Dr Alexander Buchan's list of climatic tendencies in 1897 has been refined and updated. It shows that 18-24 December is usually anticyclonic - cold and sunny - while 25 December- 1 January tends to be "stormy". So there we have it. I'm dreaming of a white Christmas.