Sure enough, writing in The Times this week, Jonathan Clark berates popular historians for the "bland agreeableness" of the messages they are currently disseminating to general readers. The trend in mass-marketed history books is, he tells us, "the historical equivalent of Hello! magazine". These are feel-good-about-ourselves books, books that endorse our contemporary preoccupation with money-making and consumerism. They are so much pap, today's opium for the masses. Real historians, meanwhile, according to Clark "think of the past as a body of evidence of which they ask hard questions and demand important answers".
It would be easy to suggest that there was an element of sour grapes about this kind of pronouncement. When his best-selling Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution was savagely attacked by historians within academic journals, Simon Schama demanded to know why the disparaging remarks made by professors should carry more weight than the enthusiastic response of well-informed general readers. Norman Davies might ask the same question following an extremely ungenerous review by Theodore Raab of Europe: A History in the New York Times Book Review, which had absolutely no effect on sales (still booming) - particularly in view of the fact that the editors of the New York Times Book Review themselves subsequently selected Europe: A History as one of their "books of the year".
What we seem to be seeing is growing numbers of readers making their own attempts, by assembling a diverse body of imaginatively presented historical work, to make sense of a past that is being reshaped at an alarming rate. If you stand in a quality bookshop you'll see history readers selecting their new purchases three or four at a time. I don't believe for one moment that those who are prepared to buy books with 500 to 1,000 pages imagine that they are going to get cut-and-dried answers to resolve all current uncertainties. I do think that thoughtful members of the general public know that the history they were taught - and history is generally rather well taught at school - no longer encompasses or can account for the world they inhabit. We are unsettled, unsure of ourselves; we turn to history for understanding and reassurance.
Which means that the knee-jerk hostility to "popularising" that we get from the likes of Clark and Raab is fundamentally retrograde in its comfortable conviction that only traditional academic historians can set the agenda of "hard questions" that need answering. They have failed to consider that those hard questions may also be the wrong questions, irrelevant to our current predicament. They have not noticed that answers that seemed important 10 years ago now seem partial and imprecise.
Instead of castigating authors such as John Brewer (whose information- packed new book The Pleasures of the Imagination: English Culture in the 18th Century was the subject of Clark's outburst), academic historians should look around them, and then take another look at their own "recondite research". Perhaps that, too, is worth writing up in a form in which non- initiates may be tempted to try reading it. Only a couple of years ago, the same doom-mongers were telling us that the book itself was dead, that reading was a thing of the past. Instead we find that, almost talismanically, the written word seems to offer more in the way of solace than the TV or computer screen. In my experience general readers are prepared to have a go at understanding almost anything - as long as they are not told patronisingly, in advance, that it's too hard for them.
The current mood is for diversity, for histories and world views that embrace the widest possible range of contexts and types of experience. If 2 May 1997 was the beginning of a new era for Britain, let's give those fortunate enough to be in pursuit of enlightenment about our past, in this country, at the end of the 20th century, a ranging book-learning worthy of those newly enlarged horizons and ambitions.
New Labour, New History
The writer is professor of English at Queen Mary and Westfield College, University of London.Reuse content