Thursday Book: A historian with timeless views

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
HISTORIANS TEND to go mad in later life under the weight of their own erudition. Accumulating so much knowledge of the past, they suffer from delusions of infallibility when confronting the present, about which their opinions are often eccentric and sometimes crazed. Witness AJP Taylor's pre-1939 pronouncement that Hitler would not go to war, and his equally dogmatic pre-1979 assertion that Margaret Thatcher "is no danger as she has such an awful voice".

Nevertheless, just because historians are the guardians of our collective memory, they frequently attain pundit, even guru, status. Their vicarious experience of yesterday may, after all, enable them to act as guides to tomorrow. So David Starkey takes us into the moral maze (and leaves us there). John Keegan prophesies war no more. And David Cannadine publishes a collection of articles that he has composed in "idle moments" over the past decade.

Few academics have spent their idle moments more productively, for these pieces are well worth preserving. All but one are book reviews, the exception being an essay for The Guardian on the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. Nearly a third of the volume concerns "royals in toils". Another third is devoted to knotty issues highlighted by new historical scholarship, such as class, divorce, empire and Britishness. Finally, a biographical section includes such figures as Florence Nightingale, Winston Churchill, Lord Beaverbrook, Harold Macmillan and Margaret Thatcher.

Throughout, Cannadine writes with infectious verve. He can slash with the best: Kitty Kelley's "unblinking look" at the Royal Family suggests that her eyes "are not permanently open but permanently closed". He relishes alliteration, mocking Barbara Cartland's "boudoired and bodiced banalities". His puns, like Victor Hugo's, are "bird-droppings of the soaring spirit": so AJP Taylor "coruscated on very thin ice". Finally, Cannadine need never resort to Roget, for he himself is a practising thesaurus: Churchill possessed "courage, energy, stamina, resolution and determination".

But these essays are not only sustained by bravura style, they are also informed by wide learning and broad understanding. Admittedly, they sometimes betray signs of haste. Cannadine confuses the roles of Sir Horace Wilson, Chamberlain's adviser on foreign affairs, and Sir Nevile Henderson (whose first name he misspells), the British ambassador to Germany. Some of his judgements are also questionable. Did Tony Blair really read the lesson at Diana's funeral with "intelligent eloquence and compassionate authority"? Or did he act out Holy Writ with transparent hamminess and extreme unction?

There is also a disappointingly formulaic quality about the way in which Cannadine seeks to appraise historic figures. Time and again, he declares that they can only be understood in context. Churchill must be identified as "a statesman in an age of decline". Sir Oswald Mosley is best appreciated as "a displaced and disenchanted aristocrat". Lord Beaverbrook should be seen "as a product - though obviously not a typical one - of his late- 19th-century imperial milieu".

That parenthetical qualification reveals the limitations of this mode of personal assessment. Of course, Cannadine knows that human beings are more than mere symptoms of their age. However, it is as a student of the modern age that he excels.

No one better anatomises Victorian values or demolishes the "sound-bite scholarship" supporting their revival as a contemporary shibboleth. No one so well appreciates the irony that today's maligned single-parent family is a throwback to the venerated past when death broke up homes more decisively than divorce does now. No one brings more intellectual rigour to the analysis of class, which is in danger of disappearing into an academic black hole. Above all, no one is such a well informed critic of the monarchy.

This he excoriates as the "visible embodiment of stultifying tradition, obscurantist snobbery, unearned income, hereditary privilege" and so on. It is a secretive vested interest at the heart of our supposed democracy. Its members are remote, under-educated, self-indulgent and self-pitying: Prince Charles is skewered as "the whinger of Windsor". And the title "Royal Highness" is not only anachronistic, but also fosters "demeaningly deferential behaviour".

After all that, you might expect a republican solution. But Cannadine tamely favours a slim-line monarchy, with fewer HRHs, in keeping with our reduced position in the world.

Still, it is in this discussion that his characteristic tones emerge most distinctly. But they will not find expression, according to his valedictory introduction, in more essays of the kind reprinted in this book. That is a pity, for they enable him to communicate the complexity of his subject to a large audience in a way in which even Taylor, who sacrificed explanation to epigram, seldom did. Fortunately, as the new director of the Institute of Historical Research Cannadine will have many opportunities to make his voice heard. It is the voice of intelligent radicalism, incisive but not iconoclastic, witty but far from superficial, provocative but eminently sane.

Piers Brendon