FROM THE PULPIT
surely the non-academic, nonhistorians who if anything should have worked harder to check Baker’s mangled, distorted quotations (‘I used Wikipedia during the writing of the book,’ Baker told amazon.com, ‘especially to check facts’).
ON15 JUNE the Prime Minister invited a dozen or so historians and their wives to dinner with President Bush at Number Ten, which turned out to be a fun and fascinating occasion, despite the collective noun for historians being ‘a malice’. It might therefore seem perverse to choose this moment to argue that historians are becoming a persecuted minority in British society, but that is what is happening. As a reactionary Tory, I have little time for trade unions, but I’d now like one set up for historians, whose marginal class privileges are being steadily eroded by the assault of amateurism from all sides. Perhaps a regulatory authority – Ofhist – would do the job just as well. For our books are no longer being reviewed by our peers, who usually have important and interesting things to say, but by novelists, newsreaders, actresses and C-list ‘celebs’ who, by and large, do not. Literary prize judges are all too often not other historians, who have a sense of the quality of research necessary to make a good history book, but chefs, weather girls and soap stars. Worst of all, the entire history brand is being contaminated by publishers commissioning history books from people who seem to know next to nothing about any period other than a tiniest slither about the one on which they are writing. This ought to be the paragraph in which I fearlessly name names, ignoring the possibility of making enemies for life by castigating the ignorance, negligence and sheer lack of professionalism of dozens of novelists and amateurs who are presently reviewing, judging and, worst of all, writing history. Partly out of social cowardice – what if I meet them at a party? – but also partly out of career self-preservation motives, I’m not going to do that; after all, my books get reviewed by these people too. But just as I wouldn’t consider trying my hand at being a surgeon for an afternoon, so unqualified people really oughtn’t to muscle in on the history trade. All right, I will be specific for a moment. The American novelist Nicholson Baker, an acknowledged expert in writing about phone sex and masturbation, recently published a book called Human Smokein which he insinuated that Sir Winston Churchill was an oafish, bloodthirsty, sadistic, hypocritical anti-Semite. Quite apart from Simon & Schuster’s decision to publish a work largely based on gobbets of quotation wrenched entirely out of context, often to imply precisely the opposite of what the original quotation implied, what did the reviewers make of it? The proper historians who know Baker’s sources intimately – David Pryce-Jones, William Rubinstein, Noel Malcolm, and so on – laughed it out of court. Yet the non-historians, led by Colm Tóóibíín in The New York Times, broadly welcomed it as a valuable contribution to the sum of human knowledge, when a moment’s research in Baker’s sources would have proved otherwise. Yet it is
Of course, it’s fine when comedian-journalists such as A A Gill write jokey rants against Churchill – his job is to be consistently contrary, after all – but when a 500-page book is published attacking the memory of the greatest Briton of the past millennium, as voted by 456,000 people in 2002, it is incumbent on literary editors to focus proper historical examination on the claims made. When publishers commission books on what seem like historical subjects from celebrities, which then do not do well, the effect is that booksellers conclude that history in general is not selling, with negative knock-on effects on our bookshop prominence, advertising and ultimately advances. When sweet-but-dim pop-singers are appointed to literary prize judging panels, the chances of victory for serious works of history are likewise diminished. There are a few history prizes where the judges are other historians – the Duff Cooper, Longman-History Today, Elizabeth Longford Historical Biography and Wolfson among them – and these tend, unsurprisingly, to be rated more highly than the ones where they are not. The story is told in literary circles of a singer who recently had to drop out of being a judge of a major literary prize because she hadn’t realised that (in her words) she ‘Would actually have to readall those books!’ My only response to that is Hallelujah: if only more utterly unqualified people dropped out, these prizes would be rated as highly as those I mentioned above. Above all, it is up to literary editors to appreciate that when an historian has put three or four (or frequently more) years of his life into a serious work of non-fiction, it is an act of premeditated cruelty to send it to a chicklit author or romcom actress for review. You know who you are. Only a decade ago, the House of Lords had no fewer than seven historians as members; today, with the sad deaths of Conrad Russell, Robert Blake, Alan Bullock, Hugh Dacre and others, there are hardly any. The first requirement of any great national senate ought to be a first-class memory, so the government should boost the number of historians back to its 1990s levels as soon as possible. People like Martin Gilbert, Ian Kershaw, Donald Cameron Watt and Keith Thomas would lend great weight to the deliberations of a parliament that needs the best possible collective recall. They would dignify debates and warn of the pitfalls of the past, just as their parliamentary predecessors have since the days of Macaulay. Compared with the hundreds upon hundreds of ex-civil servants, trade unionists, local government officials and passed-over politicians, would having half a dozen historians there really be such a bad thing?
LITERARY REVIEW July 2008 CONTENTS
THIS MONTH’S PULPITis written by Andrew Roberts. His next book, Masters and Commanders: How Roosevelt, Churchill, Marshall and Alanbrooke Won the War in the West 1941–45, will be published by Penguin in September.
LISAJARDINE’s most recent book is Going Dutch: How England Plundered Holland’s Glory(HarperPress).
GERARDBAKERis the US Editor of The Times.
PHILIP DAVIS’s Sudden Shakespeare appeared in 1996, Shakespeare Thinking in 2007. He is also editor of The Reader magazine.
RICHARDOVERY’s The Morbid Age: Britain and the Crisis of Civilisation 1919–1939will be published by Penguin in the spring.
ADAMLEBORis the author of City of Oranges: Arabs and Jews in Jaffa.
G W BERNARDis Professor of Early Modern History in the University of Southampton and Editor of the English Historical Review. His most recent book, The King’s Reformation: Henry VIII and the Remaking of the English Church, was issued in paperback by Yale University Press last year.
GERALDBUTT, a former BBC correspondent, is a pilot and writer on aviation.
PATRICIADUNCKER’s latest novel, Miss Webster and Chéérif, is published by Bloomsbury.
AIDANHARTLEYis the author of Zanzibar Chest. Whilst making a Channel 4 Dispatches recently, he was blown up by a roadside bomb, and owes his life to his Somali fixer Duguf. In the year of Dith Pran’s death Aidan says we should remember the unsung heroes of the news business.
THE STATE WE’RE IN
WORDS, WORDS, WORDS
JONATHANMIRSKY Into the Darkness: An Account of 7/7 Peter Zimonjic MICHAELBURLEIGH Descent into Chaos: How the War Against Islamic Extremism is Being Lost in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia Ahmed Rashid CAROLINEMOOREHEAD Standard Operating Procedure: A War Story Philip Gourevitch & Errol Morris GERARDBAKER The Post-American World Fareed Zakaria
DONALDRAYFIELD The Forsaken: From the Great Depression to the Gulags – Hope and Betrayal in Stalin’s Russia Tim Tzouliadis RICHARDOVERY ‘We Danced All Night’: A Social History of Britain Between the Wars Martin Pugh LESLIEMITCHELL 1848: Year of Revolution Mike Rapport LISAJARDINE Vermeer’s Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World Timothy Brook SIMONHEFFER The Kit-Cat Club Ophelia Field ALLANMALLINSON Dunkirk Major General Julian Thompson Dunkirk: The Men They Left Behind Sean Longden
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AIDANHARTLEY The Translator: A Tribesman’s Memoir of Darfur Daoud Hari ADAMLEBOR The Last Jews of Kerala Edna Fernandes MIRANDAFRANCE Long After Midnight at the Nino Bien Brian Winter ROLANDHUNTFORD Fishing in Utopia: Sweden and the Future that Disappeared Andrew Brown DEABIRKETT Bandit Roads: Into the Lawless Heart of Mexico Richard Grant
PETERWASHINGTON House of Wits: An Intimate Portrait of the James Family Paul Fisher PAULJOHNSON Samuel Johnson: A Biography Peter Martin GWBERNARD A Daughter’s Love: Thomas and Margaret More John Guy
SUDHIRHAZAREESINGH Children of the Revolution: The French, 1799–1914 Robert Gildea ALLANMASSIE The Man Who Outshone the Sun King: The Rise and Fall of Nicolas Foucquet Charles Drazin SARAHBRADFORD The French Renaissance CourtRobert J Knecht
LITERARY REVIEW July 2008
Editor: NANCYSLADEK Deputy Editor: TOMFLEMING Editor-at-Large: JEREMYLEWIS Editorial Assistant: JONATHANBECKMAN
Contributing Editors: SEBASTIANSHAKESPEARE, PHILIPWOMACK Advertising Manager: TERRYFINNEGAN Classified Advertising: DAVIDSTURGE Founding Editor: DRANNESMITH Founding Father: AUBERONWAUGH Cover illustration by Chris Riddell Issue no. 356