Is the ‘history boom’, like a toxic algal bloom, poisoning itself? Some possible evidence for the prosecution – the problems caused for a new biography of the Sun King’s mistress by its author’s belated discovery that Louis XIV’s ‘secret diaries’ were nothing of the kind, and Peter and Dan Snow’s Battle Theatre at ‘Who Do You Think You Are Live?’
Maybe these aren’t signs of the historio-pocalypse however. My colleague Jerry Brotton is right, in his comments on the ‘diary’ cock-up above, that there’s a lot of duff ‘history’ about at the moment, but I fear it has frequently been thus. There was an awful lot of dreadful popular history published about the First World War around the time of the 50th anniversaries in the 1960s. (Yes, shade of Alan Clark, I am pointing the finger at you). I think what angers and frustrates those of us who’d like to think we do ‘proper’ history is the way that some publishers’ choices seem both to underestimate the reader and to block the way to the really good work we know is being done
And should I be complaining about the Snows and the theatre of war? (and perhaps equally to the point, can I do it in such a way that I don’t appear jealous of a) their success, b) Dan Snow’s choice of shirts (sponsored by Aquascutum?) and c) his status as historical totty?) They are, after all, showcasing the Battle of Amiens, and making the point that it was the first combined arms victory and a triumph for the BEF, even if their version of the Battle of Britain looks a bit more dodgy. I suppose that my frustration here is the very limited view of military history that looks like it will get put forward. Even if the interpretation of a battle is different, the context in which it is displayed is the same – war is for men, it is entertainment, it is about technology above all else (see real military historical vehicles! count the rivets!) and the decisive battles are those that can be easily represented. I don’t deny that any of those things has a right to be part of the field, but I’m not sure that ‘edutainment’ really works for me if it isn’t making the audience think
The problem with grumbling at ‘popular history’ in any of its forms is that it can appear elitist, which is particularly inappropriate at a time when the internet is making it easier for people who wouldn’t count themselves as professional historians to carry out high quality research. So let’s be clear – my difficulties aren’t about who gets to take part, but rather about the lack of ambition that means that history has to be presented as easy, and the consequences of that. History is hard – it involves the weighing of incomplete and often contradictory sources to analyse the past as well as to construct a narrative. You have to be able to make judgements about that evidence – as writer and as reader – to improve your understanding of the past. You don’t always get it right the first time. But being hard doesn’t mean that it’s impossible, or only for those with the right combination of letters after their name. All of these things are not complicating barriers to entry: they are the very essence of what we do, and the reason that history can be such a wonderful intellectual education. They are what good public or popular history should be about too.
We live in a world in which the title of ‘historian’ is handed out or claimed by all and sundry. But if you don’t acknowledge – and try to understand – the complications and complexities of history, or that your work builds on that of others and will itself be built on and improved, then you shouldn’t think you’re a historian (that’s why Jerry Brotton, although he’s a Professor of Renaissance Studies in an English department, is a historian, and Veronica Buckley and Nicholson Baker are not).