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Preface, January 2006By Lawrence Goldman
Welcome to the fourth online update of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Each January we publish the biographies of individuals who died a few years previously. Last January we added entries on those who died in the year 2001. In this update we include 202 biographies of men and women who died in the year 2002.
Our latest update illustrates very well the purposes and the range of the Oxford DNB. The dictionary is a compendium of notable lives, but notability is understood in the broadest terms to include not merely the leaders of our society but those who have shaped the way we live now. The lives chosen for inclusion will present to future generations a record of the issues and problems as well as the achievements of our age. The great and the good find their places besides the popular, and also, sometimes, the bad and the infamous. In this way the dictionary seeks to represent national life in all its variety and significance.
Some lives define national experience. Queen Elizabeth, the queen mother, who died in March 2002 and who is now added to the dictionary, was one such person. Born in 1900, a child of the Edwardian aristocracy, her life was bound up with the great events of Britain in the twentieth century—among them two world wars, the transformation of an empire into a commonwealth, and the decline of the imperial, governing class from which she came. She is remembered for her remarkable spirit in adversity, above all during the blitz on London in 1940 and 1941, her fidelity to the monarchy, and also for her endearing personal qualities and charm. Very few figures in British history can have ended their lives as admired and loved as she was. She is joined by her daughter Princess Margaret, who predeceased her by a matter of weeks, and whose life embodied the transformation of the monarchy itself from a remote institution at the apex of state, church, and society to an aspect of our everyday culture.
Shapers of the 1960s
Another woman, the fiery Labour MP and minister Barbara Castle, leads the list of recent political lives added to the dictionary in January 2006. She was the most notable female politician of the 1960s and was involved in some of the most controversial issues of that time, including the attempted reform of trade unions. Remembered as the minister of transport who introduced the breathalyser test, she also lived on to become a much loved elder stateswoman.
She is joined by other shapers of Britain in the 1950s and 1960s, among them the social innovator Michael Young, a pioneer of the Open University; Brian Simon, the educationist known for his advocacy of comprehensive schooling; Karel Reisz, the film director remembered above all for Saturday Night and Sunday Morning; Lonnie Donegan, the 'king of skiffle' who became the first artist to go straight to number 1 in the British charts with the inimitable 'My Old Man's a Dustman' in 1960; and John Entwistle, bass guitarist of the Who. Kenneth Wolstenholme was the voice of football commentary in the 1960s and for that alone might have been included in the dictionary. But, above all, he will be remembered for his words—that are forever 1966—as Geoff Hurst scored England's fourth goal in the world cup final: 'Some people are on the pitch, they think it's all over . . . It is now!' The Oxford DNB usually records achievements amassed throughout a lifetime, but some of its subjects are remembered especially for a single action or line, as Wolstenholme may be.
National achievements: science, humour, and enterprise
In contrast our new update also includes three chemists and one biologist who were awarded the Nobel prize for their painstaking research over many years: the chemists Archer Martin (1952), Max Perutz (1962), and George Porter (1967), and the molecular biologist César Milstein, who won the prize for medicine in 1984. Together they are a salutary reminder of the great strengths of British science in the mid-twentieth century and, in the case of Perutz and Milstein, of the contributions made to it by the influx of political and religious refugees at that time. In quite another aspect, the national talent for humour is represented by the addition of two great comedic lives: Spike Milligan completes the dictionary's coverage of the Goons, and Dudley Moore is reunited with Peter Cook in one of the most famous of comedy pairings. Respectively at their peaks in the 1950s on radio, and in the 1960s on television, Spike and Dud remind us of a great age of post-war comedy to which we still refer and which is still part of national life.
The post-war era of mass consumption and rising living standards was also an era of mass leisure. Alongside the leaders of science, industry, and politics we therefore remember Erna Low, the tour operator and pioneer of skiing holidays who in 1948 began selling two-week winter holidays in Mürren for £38; Sidney De Haan, the founder of Saga Holidays; and Sam Alper, the caravan manufacturer and founder of the Little Chef roadside restaurant chain. John Russell, duke of Bedford, is remembered for his pioneering development of his ancestral seat, Woburn Abbey, as a tourist venue. That this peer of the realm 'did the twist' on television was also a sign of the times. The enterprise of men and women like Low and De Haan is also evident in the entries on Arnold Weinstock, who built GEC into one of the most successful British companies only to see it decline spectacularly after his retirement; on Lawrence Batley, the pioneer of cash-and-carry; and on Gerald Whent, who as chief executive of Vodafone was a key player in the early stages of the mobile phone revolution.
The oldest entrant to the dictionary in this release is the queen mother, who was born on 4 August 1900. To get a sense of perspective, note that on her fourteenth birthday war was declared against Germany. In total some sixty-three entrants (31%) were born before the outbreak of the First World War. Seven (3%) were born after the end of the Second World War, of whom Andrew Blake, the medical research campaigner who was born in 1963, is the youngest. Forty-two of the new subjects (21%) are women.
In some cases, where the subject died young or achieved much in old age, the biographies in this update focus on very recent history and contemporary achievements. One example is the author Mary Wesley, who only became known in the 1980s for novels written towards the end of her life. The actors Richard Harris and John Thaw were likewise working up to their deaths, and their films and television series are still current. So too is the music of Joe Strummer whose band, the Clash, gained a new generation of listeners during the late 1990s. In general, however, those who died in 2002 made their most notable contributions to British life in the years after 1945. The memoirs contained here will remind us of Britain more than a generation ago, when television and pop music were in their infancy; The Guardian's women's page had just been reinvented by the journalist Mary Stott; 'Professor' Stanley Unwin was mangling the English language to such comic effect on the radio; and the 'breath test' was a hated innovation rather than the accepted aspect of public safety it has since become.
New online resources
We have added links from 10,400 biographies to the corresponding records of sitters in the National Portrait Gallery's online database. Many of the NPG's portraits are illustrated online, and so these links provide both further iconography and, in many cases, illustrations of our subjects.
Our next online update
Our next online update, to be published in May 2006, will extend the dictionary's coverage of noteworthy men and women from the earliest times to the year 2000. In particular May's update will add to the dictionary's existing biographies in three areas: early modern lawyers and litigants; social reformers; and Britons in and people connected with South Africa between 1806 and the country's departure from the Commonwealth in 1961. Other lives record regional figures who gained national prominence between the twelfth and twentieth centuries.
May's update will also include new reference materials for the 'themes' area of the online edition. As well as feature essays and reference lists the update will add our second set of 'reference group' articles. Reference groups—of which thirty were published in October 2005—highlight connections between men and women (many of whom have their own entries in the dictionary) who were members of well-known groups or associations in British history.
Lawrence Goldman, editor