Between fact and fiction

This article first appeared in the January 2016 issue of History Today.

What does it mean to write history today? What claims can historians make about their work? These are just two of the questions that sprang to mind after listening to Niall Ferguson tussle with the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jane Smiley on Radio 4’s Start the Week in October.

Ferguson was attempting to clarify the distinction between historians and writers of historical fiction. ‘What happened and how it felt are not separate things’, he said:

Historians are as much concerned with how it felt – the difference is, we are actually basing it on research rather than our imaginations. People who write historical fiction are telling you what it must have felt like. But that’s not what it felt like, because essentially they’re projecting back, in [Jane’s] case early 21st century ideas. 

Ferguson, Harvard’s Laurence A. Tisch professor of history, has long been a proponent of the counterfactual, which – whatever its virtues and vices – is at heart an imaginative project. Indeed, Ferguson edited one of the leading books on the subject, Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals (1997).

Yet how do historians justify what they do? Certainly they can no longer pretend to Olympian distance and uninterested authority. We are all a product of the times we live in, fed by the oxygen of our experiences, and it is disingenuous to claim otherwise. We live in a multi-channel, multi-vocal era, which is sceptical of singularity and authority, but paradoxically attracted to narrow certainties and averse to self-doubt. How should historians adapt their practice to reflect these competing tensions? Doubt is central to intellectual enquiry, but by the time a work arrives in print, doubts have usually been effaced. The goal of historical research is to work our way out of doubt towards authority; perhaps work that articulates explicitly that process would better represent to the wider public what historians actually do.

Likewise, do historians challenge themselves enough to find an appropriate form for their ideas? They strive for originality of research and analysis, but how often do they strive for originality or inventiveness of form? The book or long-form essay may still be the best format historians have for sustained and rigorous argument. But do they default to it out of admiration, laziness, or cultural deference? After all, today’s cultural and technological fragmentation and diversity offers enormous opportunities for generically – and therefore intellectually – satisfying creativity to those with the requisite talent, ambition and desire.

To take two examples in different media: Ruth Scurr’s My Own Life (2015) might best be described as an autobiographical biography of John Aubrey, piecing the great antiquarian’s life together out of the voluminous chaos of his published and unpublished writings. Elsewhere, and largely unmarked in the press, BBC television’s Footballers United, an innovative historical drama, recently won a Prix Italia for Best Digital Storytelling. It used its medium to create a touching and thoughtful narrative illuminated by archive materials actually embedded in it. Rather than a drama-documentary, it was a new thing: a documented drama.

To write history is to fill our glass with water from the Thames and claim we have captured the river. This is as true of Jane Smiley as it is of Niall Ferguson, but the author of fiction makes no claim to objective truth or authority and so may be more true to our times.

Certainly, the boundary between fiction and non-fiction is more porous than we like to think. Perhaps an approach to non-fiction historical writing that was more comfortable in acknowledging its subjectivity, its contingency and its intellectual frailties would challenge readers to think more deeply about the nature of history and its place in our culture.

Safe spaces and comfort zones

This piece first appeared in the July 2015 issue of History Today. While I still think this makes some good points, on the whole it feels a good deal more ancien regime than I intended it to be, and fails to address some important aspects of the debate. Rachel Moss wrote a blog post in response which I think is a much better – more thoughtful, nuanced and perceptive – take than mine.

The Multicultural Affairs Advisory Board at New York’s Columbia University recently recommended trigger warnings be placed on Ovid’s Metamorphoses – and implicitly other classic texts in the western canon – because it contains material that is difficult for ‘a [rape] survivor, a person of colour, or a student from a low-income background’.

For those who do not know, a ‘trigger warning’ is akin to the descriptive notes that accompany DVD classification ratings. So, for instance, my copy of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is described as containing ‘intense scenes of verbal and physical abuse’.

The immediate cause of this pronouncement was a female student who had been sexually assaulted finding a discussion of the Persephone and Daphne myths traumatic in the classroom environment, which is entirely understandable.

Yet it is not to demean her pain when questioning whether the anxiety and distress she felt is sufficient reason to remodel the course for all students; or whether, more generally, we have the right to go through life without encountering texts, opinions and experiences that we find too emotionally difficult to deal with. As individuals we are surely entitled to evade distress. Whether we are entitled to demand society remodel itself around our trauma, to expect absolute public obeisance to the private tyrannies of our hurt is much less certain.

It is only a matter of time before such sensibilities are brought to the study of history, where we do not have the comfort of fiction or the consolations of literary aesthetics with which to distance us from the darkness.

The advisory board at Columbia was well intentioned, but to avoid discussion of sexual violence, racism and oppression is not to fight such evils; it is to pretend that there are public spaces in which they cannot exist. To live in a prison of your own design does not make you any less of a prisoner.

Is this not contrary to what the study of literature and history is about? Surely both are at least in part concerned with understanding how and why horror rises in the human heart, about the ebb and flow of power and resistance, of humanity against inhumanity, the moral and political struggles of individuals and societies, the fight of hope and faith against hunger, fear and death? Are not both subjects ultimately about the infinitely complex varieties of experience flowering endlessly into events, patterned yet unique, as we all are?

This desire to dissociate from reality is not a problem unique to education. It seems endemic in society, from the section of the US population which turns to Fox News or the Drudge Report for information, to the echo chambers of the bourgeois political elite which led the UK Labour party to its worst electoral defeat since the war. No party has a monopoly on moral squalor. It is a human characteristic, not a political one.

Characteristic of the mindset is the othering of your opponents, delegitimising contrary and challenging opinions by demonising those who hold them. There seems to me little intellectual difference between those who consider Barack Obama a socialist dictator because he believes in the efficacy and virtue of government and those who privilege the most reactionary elements of Salafi Islamic thought over women’s rights because opposition to any aspect of Islam is de facto Islamophobic. How far are we from declaring parts of literature or history hate speech? Not far enough.

It is the historian’s duty as much as the novelist’s or poet’s to understand what people think and why. We must resist anything that pushes us towards the comfortable and the familiar rather than challenges us with the arbitrary and exceptional.

Neither serenity nor strength come from avoiding difficult thoughts and feelings. Experience inures us; only by accepting reality can we begin to change it. Safe spaces and comfort zones, whether emotional or intellectual, may be invaluable for dealing with personal trauma, but they diminish us all if they do not equip us for the multiplicity of the world as it is.

Humanities without humanity

This article first appeared in the November 2015 issue of History Today.

The British government’s vision for university funding – as outlined by Jo Johnson, minister for universities and science – seems both promising and alarming. That it seeks to elevate teaching to the same level of importance as research is to be welcomed. But to do so via a model based on the Research Excellence Framework (REF), as promised in the Conservative party manifesto, would seem to exacerbate many of the problems the government wants to address.

A great deal of university funding in the humanities is based on the REF, most recently undertaken in 2014. It is officially said to cost £250m, but it has been estimated by some critics to come in at four times that figure, or much if not more than is spent annually on all the humanities.

I turned to it – and in particular to the report from the 2014 History Sub-Committee – for a sense of clarity and intellectual rigour with regard to university finance and the reward of excellence. I did not find it. If there are measurable criteria that can be used to judge the quality of research in the humanities, they are not readily apparent. Rather, one forms the impression that, in the absence of such criteria, proxies and ersatz benchmarks have had to be found.

According to the latest REF, 31 per cent of the submissions in the UK’s history departments are ‘world-leading’, which is defined as:

1. A primary or essential point of reference.
2. Of profound influence.
3. Instrumental in developing new thinking, practices, paradigms, policies or audiences.
4. A major expansion of the range and depth of the research and its application.
5. Outstandingly novel, innovative and creative.

Points 1, 2 and 3 are self-evidently not measurable in anything like the time frame within which REF operates.

More generally, these are large claims that are being made. Is there anyone who thinks nearly a third of all work in UK history faculties reaches such an exalted level?

This is not a criticism of the work itself, merely of the absurd process by which individual excellence is distilled, refined, sieved, ground and otherwise reduced to a heap of lifeless data by the very funding body which should, in fact, be nourishing it.

I doubt whether many History Today subscribers have read the REF report. I cannot encourage you to do so. Take this sentence, picked at random:

In the case of impact and environment, the same materials were used in both the sub-panel and the main panel calibrations to ensure that sub-panels calibrated material from across the main panel UOAs [units of assessment] as part of the calibration exercise for impact and environment.

Possibly the report was outsourced to Google Translate, but it is hard to respect the judgment of anyone who could write – or sign off on – that kind of sentence.

Our higher education institutions are bureaucratised to an absurd degree. Managerialism and corporatisation are rampant. The quality of both education and research in the humanities is being seriously undermined as a result. The REF is fond of outputs, impacts, calibrations and other wildly inappropriate nomenclature. Yet this is not the language of the humanities. It is as if some benighted administrator has stumbled across the Dummies Guide to Mechanical Engineering and energetically rifled its index to gussy up his or her vocabulary. It is, in short, pseudo-science of the highest order, the intellectual equivalent of the spray-on tan.

All of which leads me to wonder whether the future of the humanities in Britain is in the public sector at all. Perhaps smaller, student-centred institutions modelled on the kind of liberal arts colleges found in the United States are the next stage in the evolution of higher education in the UK. If the sector is not soon radically restructured, it is very hard to see it being capable of fulfilling any meaningful purpose whatsoever.

Young academics: the great betrayal

This piece first appeared in the September 2015 issue of History Today. I discussed the issues it raised with Catherine Fletcher in a related podcast which can be heard here. Catherine wrote a THE blog in response to my article and the disagreements it aroused, which can be read here.

Supporters of the status quo in higher education are about as common as authentic autographs from Abu Qatada. Yet I am not sure many of those who have attacked successive governments for the short-sightedness of their policies are aware of how systemic the problems are.

Let us look, for example, at those at the very beginning of their careers. One of the great pleasures of my role as a public historian is getting to meet PhD students and early career researchers in both History and the broader humanities. Their intelligence, creativity, ambition, energy and dedication is extraordinary and leaves me, for one, deeply humbled.

It also leaves me acutely aware of my good fortune in having been born a couple of decades earlier, because today it takes a brave person to undertake postgraduate study in the humanities – and then to seek a career in academia – without the security of a private income, or rich parents, or, more commonly, both.

Increasingly, early-career researchers are offered only poorly paid nine-month teaching contracts. They receive little or no support from their faculties. Indeed, in many cases they are essentially non-people within the faculty, denied access to office space, telephones, email addresses and all the other facilities one might take for granted in any other organisation. They are offered no career development or pastoral support either.

Naturally, because many if not most academics disdain teaching themselves, these young historians receive little or no pedagogical training. Which is doubly a shame, because most are far more committed to providing a high-quality education to their students than many of their supposed superiors.

These people represent the future of the academy, if there is such a thing, but not only are they invisible within their faculties, they are invisible within academia. They appear to be – and often are – invisible tout court to administrators and academics alike, who prefer to pretend they do not exist, because to admit there is a problem might require them to do something about it.

As with the introduction of student fees, there is something deeply nauseating about a generation which benefited from free education to degree level and generous support into postgraduate study denying precisely those same opportunities to their children. This is not a new phenomenon. There are none who guard their position in society so jealously as the nouveau riche.

By the time the second term of the early-career researcher’s contract begins their minds will be focused on gaining the next nine-month job. It is an intellectual environment in which publication, that perverse desiderata of today’s academic world, becomes almost impossible. Never mind the fact that publication in a ‘good’ journal can take up to 18 months.

Again and again, talking to early-career researchers, I hear the same stories. Four moves in five years. Five moves in seven. Young academics are expected to uproot repeatedly, often internationally, too, in order to maintain the hope of a career. For most, this is destructive of their personal lives and their ability to develop research that will help them progress. For some, who have families or other dependents to care for, it is impossible.

Then there is the money. As a University and College Union survey recently revealed, over 40 per cent of higher education and further education staff on short-term or zero-hour contracts have struggled to pay bills. Some 30 per cent earn less than £1,000 a month. This is in a sector where the average senior academic salary in the UK for 2013-14 was £82,545 for men (women averaged £10k less). It is a sector in which the amount spent on administration – £4.7bn – dwarfs that spent on the humanities at £0.9bn.

To what end has such a system developed? No end. That is what is most contemptible about it. To save a little money, perhaps. More generally, to satisfy some well-paid administrators and civil servants that all is well, when all the evidence that cannot be fed into Excel spreadsheets suggests that the opposite is true.

History Today column: Taking history out into the world

My eyes were caught the other week by a news story in Haaretz, the Israeli newspaper, which reported an interview with the Iranian foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif. Defending his country against accusations of anti-semitism, Zarif cited, among other things, the role of Cyrus the Great, who led Persia in the mid-sixth century BC, in rescuing the Jewish people from Babylon.

It’s not often that politicians reach quite so far back in history for their examples. Indeed, as a rule few politicians are much interested in history at all – even those, like George Osborne and Gordon Brown, who studied it at university. Even if that were not the case, I would have thought the gap between the Achaemenid Empire and the Islamic government of Iran was unbridgeable.

It is a reminder that history – the history of peoples, of nations, of empires, of cultures – is perhaps more salient politically now than it has been for a very long time. Across the Middle East, the nation states largely created by colonial powers in the last century are being pulled apart by social and ideological forces that long pre-date colonialism. Islamic State avowedly pursues the fantasy of an idealised Caliphate in the Arab dust; it would be laughable if it weren’t so steeped in blood. Putin’s neo-imperial Russia is looking hungrily at its old territories in Ukraine and elsewhere. Nationalist parties across Europe are on the rise, peddling dubious rhetorical tropes dressed up as calls to ancient liberties. The UK itself is straining under the force of Scottish nationalism and the national British parties’ confused and inept response.

The past is everywhere in the present. I cannot recall a time in which people have looked forward more to the past, or to an idea they have of the past that offers some kind of Utopian escape from the difficulties of the global now.

The news media is not short of political pundits and commentators to chew over the bones of these issues. But where, in the public sphere, are the historians?

Surely now more than ever we need historians to be a part of national and international debate – of public life – to provide informed insight and, perhaps more importantly, an informed doubt that challenges the pseudo-pious certainties others hold about the past. The quality of doubt is public life is at its lowest point and the media’s fondness for talking points and for facts so trite they are indistinguishable from factoids makes it difficult for individual historians to cut through. History resists simplicity, we know. But how can the public reach us – or how can we reach the public?

There is no lack of hunger for seriousness, for intellectual challenge in public life. Look at the phenomenal success of the TED talks. Why is there no forum for historians to foster and inspire debate? Is it that we are too used to talking to ourselves, in a language designed to exclude non-specialists, to engaging only with coteries of like-minded men and women focusing on ever-smaller disciplines and sub-disciplines? Or is the problem elsewhere?

For all the modish talk of public history in faculties up and down the country, there is very little actually being done at a significant public level. Most people’s idea of a public historian would probably be David Starkey. Starkey is among our finest historians but too often in his appearances on Question Time he seems cast in the role of an irascible don escaped from a minor piece by Terrence Rattigan. That is not good for anyone.

Perhaps, though, the problem is organisational, as well as cultural. Perhaps what we need is an organisation that loudly asserts and argues the value of history – an Institute of Public History or similar. It would be both think tank and bully pulpit, organising debates and talks on current issues and aggressively pushing them out into the world as TED does, across all media. It would be a platform from which historians could challenge the mendacity of politicians and the banality of media alike. It would push back against the glib simplifications that make decision-makers sleep easier at night. It would take the public seriously – and offer seriousness and intelligence in return.

After all, intelligence – in its old sense of information – is the lifeblood of a democracy. It is our duty to take our wares out into the public square. The people need us.

History Today column: Charlie Hebdo and the judgement of history

As I write this, millions of people are on the streets of France to protest about the murders of eight writers and artists at Charlie Hebdo, of four Jewish patrons of a kosher food store, and of three police officers.

Much comment in the media has identified the slaughter in Manichean terms, reflecting a battle between religious sensibilities and free speech, between the forces of reaction and modernity, between Islam and the West – and so on.

We, as historians, have to judge such claims – both in the present and where they arise in the past. Discerning motive – or finding a way to calibrate the balance of motives in individual acts – is perhaps the hardest task we face. It is an intellectual challenge of course; but it is also a narrative challenge. How far to use the individual act to explain wider societal, cultural and intellectual forces; how far to claim those forces diminish the role of the individual actor, diminish the extent to which his or her uniquely personal experiences shaped and defined their choices.

It is curious that journalists and politicians on both left and right have been much happier discussing the murders in Paris in terms of sweeping cultural wars than in terms of individual actors. For some, they arose out of racism, ‘Islamophobia’ and various kinds of economic and political imperialism. For others, they were another bloody skirmish in the West’s war with ‘Islamofascism’.

It might be glib to suggest the attraction of such responses lay in their simplicity and neatness. Glib, but not necessarily untrue. Few people like to let events redefine their worldviews; editorial writers and politicians like it less than most. Historians, I like to think, are made of sterner – if more supple – stuff.

One of my first thoughts on hearing of the killings at Charlie Hebdo was Milton’s dictum in Areopagitica: “as good almost kill a man as kill a good book; who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God’s image; but he who destroys a good book kills reason itself, the image of God”. Milton’s language as the passage extends is emotive, powerful: massacre, homicide, martyrdom. Censorship is a kind of murder. The concept of murder itself – and the threat of murder – as a kind of censorship does not seem to be in his vocabulary.

Not that Milton would have approved of Charlie Hebdo, of course. Far from it. His lines

“Licence they mean when they cry Liberty;
For who loves that must first be wise and good:
But from that mark how far they rove we see,
For all this waste of wealth and loss of blood.”

could almost have been written with the recent events in Paris in mind. For Milton – as for some of those who would import rigid Islamic standards of blasphemy into European society – a free press was intended to enable God’s Englishmen and women to find a truer path to revealed wisdom. He did not understand why the people, in their wisdom, had thought to use it otherwise.

There have always been people like those at Charlie Hebdo who, wherever the boundaries of free speech are, can be found pushing against them. Causing offence is almost a raison d’etre for it, and the magazine’s savage glee at doing so places it somewhere in the arc between South Park and Jonathan Swift.

But, given the magazine’s many provocations, were the forces of history such that the killings were inevitable? Or should we allow more for the role of contingency and chance in what happens – in the present as much as in the past?

As historians, we try to make patterns out of encounters and events, to sift for meaning beyond the oddities and quirks of each human actor. But surely we must resist the temptation to fit each of us wholly and neatly into a wider ideology or identity, to make coherent rational wholes of humans who are rarely less than contradictory and impulsive at the best of times.

Arguably, perhaps, the true definition of civilisation is the absence of a demand for too much intellectual clarity and precision in each other. As individuals and as societies, perhaps the more tolerant we are of both our own contradictions and those of our fellow humans, the more civilised we shall be.

 

History Today column: Herodotus, Camden and the reclamation of history

I have recently been reading Tom Holland’s superb new translation of Herodotus’ Histories. I am by no means an authority on classical writers, but I have always enjoyed Herodotus. He is so irrepressibly inquisitive and, in every sense, a pleasure to read. Holland has always been a fine writer, both in the clarity and subtlety of his intellect and the spare, evocative lucidity of his style. Reading the two together, as it were, has made me more aware than ever before of the exquisite tension between writer and translator.

I have also wondered why we still read Herodotus, aside from the gifts of the translators he attracts. It is partly a question of style, I think, partly of intellectual attitude and partly his distinctive collation of data. We are delighted when we believe him to be accurate; but accuracy is not a standard we demand of him. If we want a reliable account of the classical world, we read a modern historian. Herodotus we read for a first-hand sense of the world as it was understood and experienced by its people.

We do not, though, apply the same standards to our own antique historians. I am not wholly sure why.

Since I encountered him first at university, I have always been an admirer of William Camden, author of the Britannia, first published in 1586 in Latin and revised a number of times over his lifetime. He oversaw an English translation in 1610. It is a volume that lays claim to being the first truly great work of English history, but it is also so much more than that. It is a work of historiography, linguistics, chorography and numismatics, too. Its primary organising principle is the pre-Roman English tribes – the Belgae, Iceni, Trinobantes and so on – and, within those, the county. Chapter by chapter, Camden pieces together landscape and language, history and archaeology, research and observation, always as aware of the deep and hidden history of the past as he is the visible innovations of the present.

Camden has not only taught himself Anglo-Saxon and Welsh: he has studied a dauntingly vast range of archival material; he has read every authority; he has talked or corresponded with every expert; and, importantly, he has travelled to every part of the country. We see England through his eyes as we understand it through his learning; the flux of both history and historiography becomes startlingly present. He is everywhere in his work, sifting, evaluating, commenting, observing, weaving together what we would now regard as wildly disparate disciplines. It is a mighty testament to the historian’s greatest asset: a restless curiosity. This is not to say Camden is always right, but, as with Herodotus, he is usually wrong in thought-provoking, revealing and entertaining ways.

In the age of the Internet and the car, his industry is exhausting. For the 1570s and 80s it is almost unbelievable and it is a sobering thought that he did all this and saw the Britannia into print by the age of 35.

It is even more so, perhaps, when you consider that the study of Britain’s antiquity was by no means highly regarded as an intellectual pursuit.  ‘Some there are’, he admits, ‘which wholly condemn and avile this study of antiquity as a back-looking curiosity.’ But part of Camden’s achievement was simply to make the study of history intellectually credible in England and this rebuke to his critics is magnificent: ‘If any there be which are desirous to be strangers in their own soil and foreigners in their own city, they may so continue and therein flatter themselves.’

I plan to memorise that and repeat it next time someone questions me about the value of history. We could do with some of his scholarly defiance.

Yet who reads him today? We read classical historians, flawed though they are; but we disdain the great historians of our own culture and tradition. This is a loss to us culturally as a nation and a loss to us professionally as historians.

The study of antiquity ‘hath a certain resemblance with eternity’, Camden wrote. It is time we rescued him from it.