A society that falls back on miming the creation of its wealth is sick

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LAST Sunday, in a long article in this newspaper, Raphael Samuel "condemned the snobs who sneer at the heritage industry". The named snob was me.

The article was, it turned out, a nervously-diluted extract from a chapter in Raphael Samuel's new book, Theatres of Memory. The original is a good deal ruder. It attacks "The Heritage Baiters" - not only me but the writers Patrick Wright (author of On Living in an Old Country) and Robert Hewison (The Heritage Industry) - for voicing "a chorus of disdain".

In the article, I am accused only of an litist attitude to the masses, because I wrote that some heritage displays "vulgarised" history. In the book, Samuel goes on to convict me of "literary snobbery, an apparent belief that the only true knowledge is that which is to be found in books". He complains that I pose as a "moral aristocrat" who thinks that common people cannot be trusted with pictures and pageants; an intellectual PE instructor who wants the public to grapple actively for their instruction, rather than absorb it passively through spectacle.

Journalists dish it out, and they ought to be able to take it. My excuse for picking up this challenge is that the heritage argument - not a simple one - really matters. I admit to outrage when the most bookish of my acquaintances says that I am the one who believes that nothing is true unless it has been printed. But I am much more worried by the whole line of Theatres of Memory. It suggests that the heritage industry amounts to a victory for the democratic intelligence. And this is because it is not toffs and Tories but ordinary people who enjoy it, find employment in it and to a great extent thought it up and invented it. Some argument! Rupert Murdoch could use it to score heritage status for the Sun.

Most of Samuel's book is not polemic but a solid, fascinating account of what is happening in this field. He describes the history theme parks and re-enactments, the great new outdoor industrial "museums" such as Ironbridge Gorge or the "Northern Experience" at Beamish Hall, the birth of "retrochic" and resurrectionism in decoration or architecture, the growth of "living history" in schools or displays such as the Jorvik centre at York. But the point of the book is a chapter called "Heritage- Baiting". Here the British bulldog leaps out to savage his baiters.

The odd thing about this chapter is that its ideas are mostly borrowed from one of the baiters in question. In 1989, Patrick Wright wrote in the journal "Block 15" that it was time to draw distinctions in the critical attack on heritage. There was a wrong sort of heritage criticism - "sneering at the theme park . . . in the worst traditions of educated snobbery". Wright pointed out that most conservation groups had their ancestry in the Victorian social-reform movement, while the pioneers of open-air museums had roots in the democratic struggle for adult education. But Wright hotly defended the shrewder sort of critique which complained not just that the past was being prettified but that "heritage" was often being presented as an alternative to modernisation - a trick to bolster right-wing ideology or conceal national decline.

Raphael Samuel has taken up Wright's ideas about the popular aspects and origins of the heritage boom. But he ignores Wright's warnings about the downside. What Samuel is trying to do, as far as I can see, is to hitch the boom up to the whole English left-wing tradition of "history from below". He wants to portray the heritage industry as a spontaneous upsurge by ordinary people, determined to reclaim their own past from what E P Thompson called "the enormous condescension of posterity".

Some of the time it is like that. But all too often, it is not. The "history craze", which has brought huge circulations to popular history magazines, made genealogy into a substantial service industry and dotted the country with metal-detector clubs, is spontaneous. But the use of the word "heritage" as a term of obligation, binding people not only to respect relics of the past but also to understand them in one prescribed way as "national symbols", is not spontaneous. It is a form of manipulation, devised by politicians and quangocrats to make the tatty, dishevelled building-site of the present look more imposing .

Then there is the problem of truth. For example, Raphael Samuel gives many affectionate pages to New Age believers in leylines, Astro-Archaeology, Odinism, white witchcraft, Merlin ecology, megalithic trigonometry and so forth. What I could not find was the page on which he noted, even if only for the record, that these beliefs are baseless. They are inventions, or sometimes misunderstandings. The ancient events which they claim as heritage never took place.

This is a familiar problem for those who think about myth. Everyone now knows that there is a sense in which a myth is "valid" if many people swallow it and use it to achieve something worthwhile. The English swallowed a lot of tosh about Druid, Saxon and Norman "blood" as a political heritage - and used it to construct Victorian liberal democracy. The Irish Nationalist version of history was largely mythic, but it helped Ireland to independence. In the same way, a whole bundle of these New Age myths are now helping to power the popular fight against motorway building.

And yet, at some point, the truth or untruth of myth does matter. Somebody has to say: "Yes, but it never really happened!" This, admittedly, is not a way to become popular. But the alternative - to say that something is "subjectively" true because so many good people believe it and have achieved so much in its name - is an abject sell-out. My grandfather's axe, to which my father gave a new head and I gave a new handle, is sharp and heavy - but it is not my grandfather's axe.

Take a famous example - the forging of Czech nationalism. When that cause was struggling for recognition within the Habsburg Empire, the head Prague librarian began to publish sensational Czech epic poetry which he said he had discovered in Dark-Age manuscripts. Czech patriots swelled with pride and confidence. But then Thomas Masaryk, who much later was the first president of free Czechoslovakia, denounced the manuscripts as a fake. They called him a traitor, a German agent, a Jewish spy. But he stuck to his guns. Independence was a moral condition, he said; freedom constructed out of fraud was not worth having.

I disagree with Raphael Samuel on many points. He derides my feeling that a society which falls back on miming the creation of wealth is a sick society; I am certain that it is. He reproaches me for saying that the claim to be able to "recreate" the past is "vulgar arrogance" - but what else is it, unless respect for the irreplaceable loss of the dead and their manner of life is no more than what Samuel dismisses as "Dryasdust scholarship"?

But his evasive populism is what alarms me most. Numbers through the theme-park gates, the leftish antecedents of heritage entrepreneurs, say nothing in themselves about value. That has to be judged case by case, and Samuel seems unwilling to concede that there can be disastrous, dishonest uses of "heritage" as well as sound ones.

Now that coal and fish have run out, the discovery that Britain has almost infinite deposits of past - a layer of easily-mined guano four thousand years thick - has set off a speculative panic. As the product comes on stream, "heritage baiting" (or vigilant criticism, as others might call it) is at least a form of quality control.

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