Hell in a handcart

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).

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7 Responses to Hell in a handcart

  1. Gary Smailes says:

    I have the same problems with Peter and Dan Snow…but I can’t put my finger on it either. I think it’s the fact that they have set themselves up as the representatives for British military history. I understand this has a lot to do with TV companies but their brand of ‘dumbed down’ history leaves me cold. You just have to look at the military history blogosphere to see that there are lots of young and intelligent historians there are out there. However, I can’ help but feel like a hypocrite after working as a key researcher on the Horrible Histories book series for a number of years. In fact I recently posted on my blog regarding my own duality between being a ‘traditional’ historian and popular children’s history writer.

  2. Luke_D says:

    As a scholar of history nearing the end of my university studies, the question of ‘who historians are’ is one that is interesting to me.
    Personally I don’t see ‘popular’ history as a bad thing, providing it is accurate (although, granted, what is accurate to one is not necessarily accurate to another…) to a high degree. Providing it doesn’t make sweeping claims or generalisations about a certain period it is ok (I think). My gripe is when the media (in whatever guise) get it wrong. Like the Daily Express and Douglas Haig in ’98. To a lesser extent like Clark’s work in the 60’s. The sentiment “never let the facts get in the way of a good story”, is one which seems particularly apt in the former case.
    My difficulty in working out who can be classed as a “historian” is in working out what a historian should do. Is it enough to present a story of the past in the way the Snow’s do? I think I’m inclined to agree it isn’t. But then how much do we expect from historians, obviously the ‘correct’ answer to big questions of the past is something which will elude all historians, as there is never a ‘correct’ answer; consequently, are we just expecting historians to volunteer an opinion regarding issues of the past? If that is the case, I know people who can very ably (supported by facts, figures and evidence) argue the merits or limitations of Maggie Thatcher. They do not claim to be historians though. That raises the whole issue of when is history, something recently discussed in the BBC History Magazine.
    It’s a tricky beast to pin down I feel. I call myself a historian, and I know what I do in terms of study. But how does that seperate me from what I would term an “amateur” historian who takes a keen interest in the past as more of a hobby? The suggestion from the post is that historians are the ones who write about it. I’m not so sure that is completely true as it has the misfortune of implying that historians only become academic historians once they are published authors of their work. Which I think is wrong. I think that amateur historians are just as important to the overall study of history as academic historians.
    Amateur historians are the ones who keep history relevant to the masses I feel and this, I think, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. History needs to be relevant to people for it to relevant to academic historians (if that makes sense…), as that gives them something to write for. Even if just one person sat up and thought “hold on, was Douglas Haig really that bad, I will go and research it” following the Express’ article, then the academic historians have something to work with.
    I’m not sure all that made sense, sorry for going off on one!

  3. Andy says:

    I don’t really feel that the distance between professional and amateur isn’t as big as that between good and bad history.
    It’s worth reading Damian Thompson’s Counterknowledge: How we surrendered to conspirary theories, quack medicine, bogus science and fake history.
    He writes at length about how the publishing industry can be too complicit with bad history and in particular he focuses in on 1421: The Year China Discovered the World.

  4. Alan Allport says:

    Did you see Francis Beckett in the Guardian on Saturday?

    This young Australian’s [WWI] memoir is lacking one thing that you find in most British accounts: bitter, angry disillusion. The sad remains of Britain’s army came home, forever scarred from seeing things no one should ever see, and some of them were reduced to begging in the streets, so little did their nation seem to value their sacrifice.

    I think I can hear your teeth grinding from here …

  5. […] just ran across an interesting post about the ongoing conflict between “academic” and “popular” history on a […]

  6. […] just ran across an interesting post about the ongoing conflict between ?academic? and ?popular? history on a blog by Dan Todman, a […]

  7. Just stumbled upon a wiki called Broken World that has been produced by a year 9 high-school students at an international school in South Korea.

    I particularly liked their referencing a YouTube video of the Simpsons on the page about Stalinism.

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