Skip to content

Response to Review no. 300

On the day of this book’s publication, Simon Jenkins praised it in a Times column for guarding the gates of intellectual rigour and struggling to maintain standards against a flood of ‘distorted, biased, glamorised and perverted’ popularisation. ‘History’, he writes approvingly of my treatment, ‘is too important to be left to journalists and movie-makers.’ In this review, Roger Spalding excoriates it for doing exactly the opposite, selling the discipline short, recommending a role for academic historians as ‘errand-boys and proof-readers for journalism and the entertainment industries’. They can’t both be right.

In fact, neither is. Jenkins wanted to portray History and National Life as championing history as national identity, helping people ‘take confidence and pride from stories of their collective past’, only more accurately than the journalists and movie-makers. Spalding wants to portray it as an uncritical defender of popular history as it exists today. Neither has accurately reproduced the argument of what is a short and straightforward book, but which by problematizing the relationship between popular and academic history will naturally offend advocates of both.

History and National Life seeks to identify what academic history can contribute to popular history, and what it can’t. Excuse a longish quote:

First and foremost, history remains an intellectual discipline as the scientific historians had always insisted. It is, as Elton said, ‘an activity of the reasoning mind’, though surely not exclusively so. In common with the social sciences, history ought to develop the capacity to identify problems, to accumulate relevant evidence, and to assess that evidence: to measure, to judge, to balance, to compare . it has special claims to being able to assess change over time, to separate and determine causes and effects, and to identify and compensate for scarcity of data . it also lays special burdens upon the memory; most of its data are not machine-readable and they must be mastered, juggled and ordered by the naked human mind . The integrated, multi-factorial history that is rightly insisted upon nowadays tasks the mind to keep in play a bewildering host of dates, facts, actors, levels of causation, spheres of human activity and shades of meaning in order to produce the best resolutions. (pp. 143-4)

That’s not a quote dug out of context from some remote corner of the book – that’s the opening salvo of the final, programmatic chapter. The chapter goes on to identify some of the problems involved in engaging with popular calls upon historical knowledge, especially people’s desire to find in the past a reaffirmation of their present identities. ‘If we travel into the past keeping our own standpoint intact, we may be tempted to find too much of ourselves there.’ (p. 148) (Spalding acknowledges, in a backhanded way, that I say this – but doesn’t like to admit that he and I are saying the same thing.) The next argument of the chapter is – pace Jenkins – that national identity is a subject peculiarly tempting to historians, but a hazardous and not always very historical subject on which they ought not to claim too much special expertise. There follows a similar argument about ‘memory’. (Spalding skips over all this, perhaps because he agrees with it.) Only at the end do I enter a cautious case for engaging critically with popular treatments of history in the heritage industry and the mass media.

Spalding’s misrepresentation of that case is based on a total travesty of my account of the recent rise of popular history. I do not say that Going for a Song, Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Poldark, Stalingrad or even Schama’s A History of Britain are examples of ‘serious’ history. In fact, I don’t discuss Schama’s A History of Britain at all. Beevor’s Stalingrad I only mention neutrally as an example of the enduring popularity of military history. The others – and more – are touched on to chart a growing appetite for history in popular culture that can be traced back to the early 1960s, a phenomenon which is documented only briefly here but which is given lavish coverage in Raphael Samuel’s Theatres of Memory (Verso; London, 1994). As my final chapter seeks to argue, some – by no means all – of this appetite for history in popular culture offers opportunities for ‘serious’ historians to reach a broader audience with more bracing stuff.

On much of this, Spalding and I probably agree, though he is too blinded by anger at what he sees as my Blairite fawning over dumbed-down popular culture to acknowledge it. Undoubtedly, however, I do have a higher estimation of those opportunities presented by contemporary popular culture than he does. I do think that higher levels of prosperity, education, mobility and social tolerance – and lower levels of snobbery, bigotry and class prejudice – prevail in Britain today than, say, in the heroic days of the British marxist historians which Spalding celebrates. I do think that, as a result, when serious historians engage seriously with popular culture today, they can produce intellectually challenging work that stretches more people further than was possible a generation ago. (I give many carefully calibrated examples in the book, seeking to distinguish education from entertainment, whereas Spalding seems to think all media presentations of history are equally risible.) I also think that the reach of the ‘significant minority version of popular history’ to which Spalding genuflects was limited by class and educational barriers that the British Left, for all its protestations, was hesitant to breach. And I do think that the development of mass higher education, for example, has made more of a contribution to a ‘democratic society’ than ‘the success of Scargill’s NUM pickets at the Saltley coking depot in 1972’. It is a narrow view of democracy that only counts a certain kind of radical political activism and scorns widening access and horizons in education, travel, leisure and, yes, entertainment. Spalding is entitled to his alternative views about the proper contribution of history to a democratic society, but he is not entitled to re-write my book to provide a crude foil for those views.