Headline Health: Health Service Journal History of the NHS Edited by Wendy Moore Emap Healthcare 125 pages 13.99

A decade or so ago, the NHS didn't have much of a history. Aside from plenty of books on its founding period, and Rudolf Klein's magisterial The Politics of the NHS, precious little was available on the story of the service after that.

Today, in part stimulated by its 50th anniversary, there are half a dozen histories of varying quality and focus, with HSJ itself clambering aboard by way of Headline Health, the story of the NHS drawn from its own pages.

It isn't, in any real sense, a full history. The nature of a weekly journal, whose own quality has had its ups and downs over half a century, make it a good source for historians, but a far from comprehensive teller of the tale of the NHS. Back in 1948, the Hospital and Social Service Journal, as it then was, had just one page of news and comment with which to cover the momentous events of the founding of the service.

But this compilation of snippets from HSJ's news columns, excerpts from its features and leaders, together with a selection of the advertisements, photographs and the odd cartoon it ran, still has its value.

Everything changes but nothing changes might be the message. 'The Problem of the Waiting Lists' ran a headline in 1949. In the same year there was controversy over doctors' merit awards and - ever so topical with the government's plans for the supernurse - a suggestion that matrons might get distinction awards.

Back in the sixties, HSJ's pages were debating the merits of chief executives - way before Sir Roy Griffiths' report led to their introduction. The horrors of industrial action in the seventies and cost-cutting in the eighties are well captured, and there is plenty to provoke a smile - whether nostalgic (a busload of TB patients being shipped off to Davos for a cure on the NHS in the fifties), cruel (the glittering rise and plummeting fall of social services secretary (check) John Moore) or quaint (the need for 'courting the married woman' back to work, and the health ministry's assessment that the fax - or 'facsimile telegraphy' - was unlikely to catch on).

Being a journal of health service management, the trials of women being accepted as administrators (let alone as managers) are neatly chronicled, as are the endless worries of the profession about its status. Past advertisements for Rothband's Red Rubber Sheeting, and for the Vendo Hospital Milk Machine, lend a touch of sepia-tinted nostalgia to the pages.

Headline Health may not tell the full story of the NHS, but it does shine illuminating shafts of light down into it, at times picking out some of the service's darker and least considered corners. Read it and smile.

Nicholas Timmins

Financial Times.public policy editor