The Observer. – Sunday July 9, 2006



At the launch of a new campaign last week to promote the study of history, Stephen Fry made a passionate appeal that we use the gripping narratives of the past to make sense of the world today. Here we publish the remarkable speech that dazzled an audience of writers and historians


Why does history matter? A better man might be able to answer with far more questions than answers. Whenever the importance of history is discussed, epigrams and homilies come tripping easily off our tongues: How can we understand our present or glimpse our future if we cannot understand our past? How can we know who we are if we don't know who we were? While history may be condemned to repeat itself, historians are condemned to repeat themselves. History is bunk or possibly bunkum. History is a comedy to those who think and a tragedy to those who feel. History is written by the victor. Historians are prophets looking backwards. Or we could paraphrase EM Forster on the novel. 'Does history tell a story? Oh, dear me yes, history tells a story.'

Historians, more than any other class, spend a great deal of time justifying their trade, defining it and aphorising it, seeming to lavish more attention on historiography than history. After all, is there such a thing as history or are there only histories? For all the oddities of some arcane scientific research, we all know that science eventually leads to making light bulbs work, car engines run and failed hearts pump again. Can we test the value of history in the same way? Can we prove that a politician, a financier or a spot-welder is better, happier or more fulfilled for possessing a feel for history?

But ... isn't history now just point of view, tribal assertion, cultural propaganda? After all, the days of Burke, Macaulay, Gibbon, Trevelyan and Froude are over. Historians are no longer grandees at the centre of a fixed civilisation; they are simply journalists writing about celebrities who haven't got the grace to be alive any more. Certainly, some people sense in our world, even if they can't prove it, a new and bewildering contempt for the past. In the high street of life, as it were, no one seems to look above the shop-line. Today's plastic signage at street level is the focus; yesterday's pilasters, corbels and pediments above are neither noticed nor considered, save by what some would call cranks and conservationists.

There are those who wonder if the whole of history is now valuable only as a politically correct lesson in the stupidity and cruelty of monarchs, aristocrats, industrialists and generals. Stern, loveless voices tell us that history as we know it is an irrelevance, with its obsession with dead white men, or with Judaeo-Christianity, or classical antiquity, or the West, or enlightenment, or wars, dynasties and treaties. Marxists, Althusserians, formalists, revisionists, historians of Empire or against Empire - forget them all. You don't even have to dignify it with ideological abstractions any more; history is really the story of a series of subjugations, oppressions, exploitations and abuses.

Or history is heritage studies: cotton mills, marshalling yards and collieries smartened up as 'resources' for school trips; take the kids into the kitchens and servants' quarters of the stately home and ignore the saloons and great rooms above stairs for fear of giving offence. British culture, besieged on all sides by guilt: guilt at empire, guilt at English domination of the United Kingdom, guilt at slavery, at industrial wage-slavery, at Boer Wars, Afghan Wars, mutinies, massacres and maladministrations.

History, then, as one long, grovelling apology or act of self-abasement and self-laceration. A history in which historians have to stand on one side of an argument or another, for, in between, they are nothing but dry-as-dust statisticians. Or we see historians as creepy hindsight critics who can, in the safety of their studies, point out to Alexander the Great and Napoleon where they went wrong and how they would have done it better.

And yet, against this, we measure the exponential growth in the public appetite for history. Has it ever been a better time to be a historian? In publishing and in broadcasting, history is a phenomenon that continues to exceed expectations. Enthusiasts bounding about from battlefield to palace and castle and back again, filling more air time then ever before. From Melvyn Bragg's matchless colloquies on Radio 4 to documentary series bearing the proud epithets 'landmark', 'flagship', 'prestige' 'must-see', 'event TV' and 'water-cooler moments'. Just recently, we've had themed evenings on BBC 4 on the 18th century as well as documentaries and big news items on the Somme. Certainly, history is popular in grand traditional forms, but new subgenres of history have, for the last 20 years, exploded in popularity, too. The history of science, philosophy and thought: sidelights are more popular than floodlights - small histories of the cod, tulips, salt, sugar or the pepper gardens of India, little books with names like 'Darwin's Walking Stick', Newton's Trousers' or 'Brahi's Nose'; whole genres on voyages of discovery, at least 10 books on Joseph Banks of the Endeavour and Captain Fitzroy of the Beagle, books on the transit of Venus and longitude and Sumerian counting systems all seem to be flying off the shelves.

Family history has exploded in popularity, too. I was involved in the BBC's Who Do You Think You Are? programme and received more mail and feedback from that one programme than from anything else I've ever done. 'I never knew what the Holocaust meant until I saw your programme,' one viewer wrote to me. We might find this a little odd, but it tells us that many people cannot see links between facts and historical narratives, unless those facts are brought absolutely to life, mediated by personality. Is that cheap celebrity culture at work or is it the perfectly human truth that while the slaughter of a nameless six million is hard to fathom, the murder of a named and delineated family can move us inexpressibly?

After all, isn't that what poetry and novels show, that humanity is best comprehended by understanding humans rather than ideas? But for some, this leads to the worry that history can now only mean witness. And some of us fear that even the most respectable documentary programme now cannot get through two minutes of screen time without some preposterous reconstruction involving wigs, candles, actors, ponderous music, scratching quills and even more wigs, so afraid is television of telling without showing.

Might this lead us to suspect that the history phenomenon is akin to that of television cuisine? More and more of us watch cooking, yet fewer and fewer ever wield a skillet in anger. Such a suspicion doesn't really make sense. You can cook, but you can't history, can you? You can carry what you learn of history inside you, at least. You can connect. And that's the point. We can never measure how much history has penetrated the consciousness of the nation.

We all know the cliches; the middle-class man reads biography and history, especially military history; the wife carries on reading novels, because men 'get' abstraction, numbers and grand strategy and women 'get' relationships. Men do seem to like history; history becomes their bedtime reading, their sitting-down version of golf, dare one say?

For men, history can seem to be a kind of Higher Sport (no coincidence perhaps that we still talk of Waterloo being won on the playing fields of Eton and still describe the little 19th-century dance between Russia and imperial Britain over India as the Great Game. Napoleon should have played with two up front; we didn't win the war, but we saved the follow-on). At the dinner table, the wives break up the boy-girl, boy-girl placement and gather down at one end to talk about friendships and books, while the men stay up the other end to discourse on von Paulus's surrender or Clive at the Battle of Plassey. Very NW3, very dinner party, but, in the meantime, what about the young? Is history like Radio 4, something you only turn to when you are middle-aged and middle-class? Are the young too busy living to look back?

The biggest challenge facing the great teachers and communicators of history is not to teach history itself, nor even the lessons of history, but why history matters. How to ignite the first spark of the will o'the wisp, the Jack o'lantern, the ignis fatuus [foolish fire] beloved of poets, which lights up one source of history and then another, zigzagging across the marsh, connecting and linking and writing bright words across the dark face of the present. There's no phrase I can come up that will encapsulate in a winning sound-bite why history matters. We know that history matters, we know that it is thrilling, absorbing, fascinating, delightful and infuriating, that it is life. Yet I can't help wondering if it's a bit like being a Wagnerite; you just have to get used to the fact that some people are never going to listen.

No, it isn't exactly political correctness that dogs history; it's more a pernicious refusal to enter imaginatively the lives of our ancestors. Great and good men and women stirred sugar into their coffee knowing that it had been picked by slaves. Kind, good ancestors of all of us never questioned hangings, burnings, tortures, inequality, suffering and injustice that today revolt us. If we dare to presume to damn them with our fleeting ideas of morality, then we risk damnation from our descendants for whatever it is that we are doing that future history will judge as intolerable and wicked: eating meat, driving cars, appearing on TV, visiting zoos, who knows?

We haven't arrived at our own moral and ethical imperatives by each of us working them out from first principles; we have inherited them and they were born out of blood and suffering, as all human things and human beings are. This does not stop us from admiring and praising the progressive heroes who got there early and risked their lives to advance causes that we now take for granted.

In the end, I suppose history is all about imagination rather than facts. If you cannot imagine yourself wanting to riot against Catholic emancipation, say, or becoming an early Tory and signing up to fight with the Old Pretender, or cheering on Prynne as the theatres are closed and Puritanism holds sway ... knowing is not enough. If you cannot feel what our ancestors felt when they cried: 'Wilkes and Liberty!' or, indeed, cried: 'Death to Wilkes!', if you cannot feel with them, then all you can do is judge them and condemn them, or praise them and over-adulate them.

History is not the story of strangers, aliens from another realm; it is the story of us had we been born a little earlier. History is memory; we have to remember what it is like to be a Roman, or a Jacobite or a Chartist or even - if we dare, and we should dare - a Nazi. History is not abstraction, it is the enemy of abstraction.

The bizarre but wonderful William Gerhardi wrote a polemical introduction to his book, The Romanovs, a foreword he called a 'Historian's Credo', a series of furious and marvellously eccentric aphorisms. One paragraph reads: 'History must at last convince of the uselessness of insensate mass movements riding roughshod, now as ever, over anonymous suffering and claiming priority in the name of some newly clothed abstraction. If it does not teach that, it does not teach anything.'

It was appropriate to write that as he did in 1939, and it is appropriate for us all to remember it today.


© History Matters - pass it on

Take part - It's your heritage

History Matters - pass it on is a campaign to raise public awareness of the huge contribution that history, heritage and the built environment make to our quality of life. It unites the whole heritage sector, led by the National Trust, English Heritage, the Historic Houses Association and the Heritage Lottery Fund, and events will be held over the next six months at hundreds of historic locations across England and Wales. Supporters include David Starkey, Tristram Hunt, Simon Thurley, Stephen Fry, Bill Bryson, Shami Chakrabarti, Tony Benn and Boris Johnson.