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Chronicler of giants itself a giant

London, Sept. 23: It lays claim to being the greatest cultural enterprise on earth. But there was no champagne, red carpets or air kisses when it was launched yesterday.

This was not a Hollywood film or a fashion range. The celebrations were for a new book ' and they made a vicarage tea party look like a rave.

The editor, Brian Harrison, retiring (in both senses of the word) professor of modern history at Oxford, sat behind a stack of the blue buckram-covered volumes, politely answered a few questions and concluded that posterity would be the judge of his great undertaking.

And what an undertaking. The new Oxford Dictionary of National Biography is the granddaddy of all books, the greatest reference work on earth, compiled for '30 million (Rs 247.98 crore), and one of those peculiar testaments to Anglo-Saxon scholarship. It is unlikely to cover its costs, let alone make a profit.

The successor to the Dictionary of National Biography (published 1885-1900), it stretches to 60 volumes, each set weighs 282 lbs and contains more than 62 million words. It costs '7,500 (Rs 6.20 lakh) and has taken 12 years to compile.

With a mix of gravitas and humour, the volumes contain essays on the lives of 54,922 'Great Britons' who died before the cut-off date of December 31, 2000.

'Great Britons' is a loose definition which includes scores of visitors and non-Britons ' such as George Washington, a 4th century explorer called Pytheas (the first man to chart the coast of Britain) and Julius Caesar (for obvious reasons) who are all deemed to have made a significant mark on the British nation.

The new DNB is, in the words of Colin Matthew, who was appointed editor in 1992 but died in 1999 and was replaced by Prof. Harrison, 'not merely a roll-call of the great and the good but also a gallimaufry of the eccentric and the bad'.

The new DNB is a much expanded version of the old. It includes all the old entries (freshly written and expanded) along with many more women, many more immigrants and many examples of the new 20th century celebrities ' chefs (Escoffier and Elizabeth David), pop stars (Sid Vicious, Ian Dury and Freddie Mercury) and footballers (the Busby Babes get a collective essay).

There are even half a dozen hairdressers, including an Indian-born shampooing surgeon and the restaurateur Deen Mahomed (1759-1851) who shaved, cooked and cured for the East India Company before running a steam bath in London.

Criminals ' Blueskin (d. 1724), Dr Crippen and the Krays ' have their day as do several murder victims ' Stephen Lawrence, James Bulger and Philip Lawrence.

All the above, said Robert Faber, the project director at Oxford University Press which has paid the lion's share of the dictionary's costs, deserve to be included alongside the kings, queens and prime ministers because in one way or another they have had great influence.

One of the trickiest biographies was of Diana, Princess of Wales. The essay by Kim Reynolds, a historian and expert on courtly and political hostesses, deals frankly with the princess' lovers, bulimia and personality and is, said Prof. Harrison, 'a warts and all account'.

The scale of the achievement struck Prof. Harrison last week. He said: 'We tried to stack the volumes on top of one another but the pile toppled over long before we got to 60. We tried two stacks of 30 but they still fell over. But we did succeed with three stacks of 20.'

The first print run is 5,000 and 1,000 copies have already been sold, mostly to institutions.

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