DJ Taylor: An outdated curiosity becomes an arresting work of art

'No prizes for guessing which significant event in early September is missing from its pages'
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The Independent Online

I greeted the extra-large thump made by this year's edition of Whitaker's Almanac as it landed on the door-mat with an enthusiasm not usually lavished on unsolicited book parcels.

As a teenager I grew up on squat library copies of Whitaker's: what little political and scientific lore I knew was wrested from them, and the statistics they harboured filled me with awe. In this spirit I once spent most of a school holiday in the local library, stout volume to hand, devising a kind of primitive Peter Snow-style swingometer based on the results of the 1974 General Election – an activity which, a quarter of a century later, seems about on a par with collecting bus tickets.

Regular patrons – and there are presumably people who purchase this and other almanacs in the way that racing punters fork out for guides to the turf – will not be disappointed by this year's edition. In the way that one picks up a record not played for 20 years and whistles along to the opening track, I spent a happy moment or two reassuring myself that I knew how to address formally by letter the wife of a baronet ("Dear Madam", apparently) before moving on to check how to get in touch with Agricultural Land Tribunals (c/o the Rural and Marine Environment Division of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food) and the date of Tony Blair's birthday (6 May) on the grounds that this kind of thing can sometimes come in useful.

It did not take long, however, in among the list of officers of the Houses of Parliament and the composition of Aberdeen City Council (C 6, Lab. 22, LD 12, SNP 3) for a faint sense of unease to declare itself. Almanacs, one always assumed, belong to a world which moves slowly, or at any rate not quite fast enough to prevent what happens in it being categorically nailed down on a year-end basis.

Naturally enough, this assumption was false even when Whitaker's first ground into production back in 1868: time is never seamless; stretches of it cannot be expected to seal themselves off automatically each 31 December. But in a landscape ever more subject to the lure of on-line information, where – presumably – you can track down the addresses of Agricultural Land Tribunals by pressing a couple of computer buttons, it becomes artificial.

Then there are the inevitable delays brought about by the traditionally slow-turning wheels of publishing. A novel or a book of poems can wait a few months between completion and publication without losing its savour, but surely anything as official as an almanac needs immediacy to prosper? Lose a day between the final scouring after information and its dispersal to a data-hungry world, the argument runs, and cracks will start to appear in the statistical ice.

Sure enough, a rapid trawl through Whitaker 2002 reveals substantial amounts of material that are reaching towards superannuation, not to mention curious half-built bridges whose unfinished state has something to do with the publication's lead times. Judging by some of the cut-off dates that prevail, I should say that Whitaker's probably goes to bed, to use the trade term, at around the end of August.

No prizes for guessing, then, which significant international event in early September is missing from its thronged pages (in fact it comes squeezed into the stop-press) but even at the mundane domestic level this late-summer demarcation line can have unfortunate consequences. A judicious account of the 2001 Booker Prize longlist, for example, was somewhat marred by the absence of any details on the eventual winner. He, no doubt, will turn up in the 2003 edition, a good 13 months after he won the prize and nearly two years after his book was published.

Then there is the thought that no almanac, framed as it is against the age-old backdrops of government, administrations civil and military and precedence, can convey anything of the pulsating, multicultural, 24-7 universe that newspaper style sections would have you believe that we inhabit. Certainly the Whitaker summaries of significant events read like Times leaders from the era of Stanley Baldwin, and you would get very little idea from its punctilious files of civic events, Scottish clan chiefs and historic monuments of daily life in these isles.

And yet in some ways this is not the point. No almanac can ever be entirely accurate or up-to-date or comprehensive, in which case it might as well be idiosyncratic. In this way, it stops being a simple assemblage of data and becomes a work of art, full of abstruse and arresting bits of information that one could not find housed under the same roof in any other format.

Glancing at the current Whitaker's, I was charmed to learn that the national anthem of Brazil is Ouviram do Ipiranga às Margens Plácidas, that the Botswanan army owns 36 armoured personnel carriers and that the inflation rate of Dominica is 1.2 per cent. The person responsible for these bright juxtapositions is an artist in his way.