Boyd Tonkin: A Week in Books

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The Independent Culture

Popular history has a glorious past in British publishing, and a robust present. But does it have a future? Last weekend in Granada, as a starry platoon (a disputation?) of UK historians descended on the first Hay Alhambra festival to speak in and around the great Moorish citadel, the prospects for their craft looked as bright as the April sunshine of Andalucia. Simon Schama scintillated as he wove Thomas Jefferson's ideals of toleration into Barack Obama's journey of hope; David Starkey traced the Granadan childhood of Katherine of Aragon in the shadow of the re-conquest that turned the Alhambra from Muslim treasure to Christian trophy; Paul Preston remembered the literary reporters of the Spanish Civil War who filed the first drafts of history. And Claudia Roden, a historian to relish as much as a food writer to savour, stirred a heated debate with a Spanish counterpart, Alicia Ríos, over whether those omnipresent chunks of ham in the local cuisine stemmed from the need of forcibly converted Jews and Muslims to hoodwink the Spanish Inquisition when it (unexpectedly, of course) came calling.

In the company of such chart-storming galácticos, the written past still glowed with wonder and excitement. Back home, that lustre soon wore off. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, for decades the guardian of one of London's strongest and broadest history lists, is planning to cut its annual output of non-fiction in half – from 100 to 50 titles.

Elsewhere, bitter after-shocks persist from the collapse of the NPI group – which owned the Sutton and Tempus history imprints – and its mutation into a new outfit, The History Press. Anecdotal evidence abounds that high-quality works of history fail to arouse the level of support in the retail trade that they once did. That, in turn, inhibits editors who seek to commission more of the same.

Since the heyday of David Hume and Edward Gibbon, historical narrative aimed at the general reader has hugely enriched literature in English. It still does: JH Plumb's fears about "the death of the past" as a coherent story proved misplaced when that historian's own gifted students (such as Schama) began to write bestsellers and stride over the TV screens. Still, the cult of celebrity takes more than it gives. Without the media profile of a Schama or a Starkey, or the affinity with a mass-market genre (in her case, cookbooks) of a Roden, history in the marketplace faces the same suspicion as all other non-fiction that aspires to non-trivial status. Even the military history of two world wars, for so long a source of eager boots on the bookshop ground, has to fight against the invincible enemy of time as veterans fade away.

Too often, even the most dedicated houses have been content to print good popular history rather than really publish it. That attitude no longer suffices. Given high-street resistance, 50 per cent and more of likely sales for many top-notch histories will soon come from online outlets. Which means that publishers have to toil to recruit and retain virtual communities with a passion for the past.

Fashions in education, in politics, even movies, always deliver windfalls to a handful of historians: China up; Romans down; Tudors holding firm. But only the integrated use of online resources – allied, very soon, to widespread print-on-demand options – will save the sector as a whole from a spiral of decline. South of Granada lies the viewpoint where, in 1492, the ousted king Boabdil turned and wept for his abandoned realm as he rode into exile: the Moor's Last Sigh. Swift action now to thwart the forces of celebrity re-conquest can prevent the first decade of this century from looking, in nostalgic retrospect, like the Historian's Last Hurrah.