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Here, in order from oldest to most recent are the not-exactly-numerous posts that have appeared on the other site in the past two and a half...

Monday, 30 June 2014

The Siege: the Chalke Valley front reopened

Last year I was invited to speak about Worlds of Arthur at the Chalke Valley History Festival.  I turned it down ... and later regretted it but they were full by then.  I turned down the invitation because I looked down the list of speakers and, apart from Amanda Vickery, could not see anyone that I recognised as a historian rather than a writer, broadcaster or media celebrity who dabbles in writing about history.  I had a horrible feeling that I would not be able to resist opening my talk by paraphrasing a line from a Rowan Akinson monologue and saying 'there comes a moment in every history festival when an actual historian gets to say a few words...'

Here is the news from this year's festival.  Oh dear.  Poor old Dan Snow.  I used to be relatively tolerant of Snow jr.  Then came his Royal Navy series.  Quite apart from the mind-numbing stupidity of the comment about Elizabethans gathering 'under the dome' of St Paul's, the story was just a triumphalist, jingoistic master-narrative - no mention (that I noticed) of the mutinies at Spithead and The Nore, no mention (that I noticed) of the fact that British captains were paid enormous bounties for capturing French or Spanish vessels because they were so much better built than British warships; just hearts of oak and jolly tars.

Then I noticed his Twitter moniker as 'the history guy' - 'the', not 'a'.  THE history guy.  L'histoire, c'est lui.  Regardless of the fact that he has no historical qualification beyond a BA.  A bit of humility perhaps?  It is all very revealing of what I have called 'the Siege', the taking over of historical discourse by untrained or barely trained amateurs, its reduction to the lowest intellectual common denominator - 'who we are and how we got here' - and their promotion of the most conservative national master narratives.  Snow's piece 'debunking' the so-called myths of the Great War was the summation of this (see also here for my general ire with this piece).

Oh but poor Dan has allegedly received hate mail because of this.  What, in his delusion (to be generous) he appears to think is that he was debunking these myths.  Note the reference to 'the work I was doing'.  In reality, Snow has done nothing but paraphrase the writings of a small, linked, not disinterested, coterie of reactionary military historians (most of whom I don't hold in high regard but they are at least historians, discussed in the previous post), amateur enthusiasts and retired army officers.  The military historians have done the actual historical research here, parroted and paraphrased by the popularisers.  Maybe he hasn't even done that, but left it to his researchers.  Leaving aside the strange comment about 'glorifying awfulness' (how does one do that, Dan? And isn't it you or rather the writers you are piggy-backing on who is/are putting glory into the war?) and the factual error ("I've got people saying for example, the first day of the battle of the Somme 60,000 British soldiers were killed or injured in a day. That's the worst day in the history of the British army.  People would say to me, emailing tweeting, saying 100,000 people were killed in a day. I'd say actually they weren't, 60,000 were."  No Dan, about 20,000 were, the rest were injured, missing or captured), how does he think actual historians, actual people who have got their hands dirty in actual historical research feel about his posturing?  I doubt he cares.  I doubt his audience does.  If I were sending him hate mail it'd be about that pretentious stance rather than the First World War (or World War One as he likes to call it, à l'Américaine).  

While I am on this subject, recently-outed one nation Tory Jeremy Paxman has also been touring 'his' book about the First World War, doubtless also researched second-hand by BBC employees.  He had the nerve, while correctly castigating Cameron for suggesting that there be street parties to celebrate the war, to refer to someone who could have been a great historian but instead was a charlatan.  Whom could he mean?  Not our old chum Fire His Ass Ferguson, surely?  I'm not often in the frame for defending Ferguson, or whoever, but it seems to me that writing and publicising a book, written parasytically off other people's research, as 'history' and a status as a 'historian' while having no qualification is the very definition of charlatanry.

That is the threat actual history is under.  As government cuts threaten to slash history departments' coverage down to the 'popular' areas, any chance that historical research might be able to serve the purposes it is there for is stifled by the likes of these fraudulent media "historians" who dominate public access to the subject.