The Future of History

Gregor Dallas, author of MetrostopParis: History from the City’s Heart, and the War and Peace Trilogy: 1815, 1918 and 1945 takes a critical look at authors and publishers of history today, and suggests that epic and the study of frontiers may be the way forward.

What is the future of history in this world of instant electronic communication? A little over a year ago the Tudor historian, Robert Hutchinson, wrote in these columns that historians with a future should write their books ‘with all the tricks of marketing’ in the forefront of their minds. Their book should be ‘more a novel based on historic events and characters than a history book.’ As for the latter, Hutchinson comments ‘history books in the past were often dry as dusty old bones and redolent to the browser of long boring days in the classroom.’ History, concludes Hutchinson, should be a Thriller, not a Chiller.

Hutchinson’s comments will undoubtedly win plaudits from the marketing departments. But it is not easy to know what is going on in these obscure, influential places. I have a pile of publishers’ catalogues in front of me – there is no surer way of discovering what is going on in the marketing mind these days. In many of these colourful pamphlets the distinction between Fiction and Non-fiction has virtually disappeared; the running heads, which are supposed to tell you which part of the catalogue you are located, are in such small print that you don’t notice them. Let’s see, here is a book about one of the Crusades: ‘1212. The forces of Christendom are on the march again. There is much to avenge… Now the Pope has called for Crusade. Among the troops is Otto (and a ‘mysterious Franciscan’)… In a journey beset by treachery, nothing can prepare them for what they will face…’ Funny, I didn’t think there was a Crusade in 1212. I’ll give that Thriller a miss.

Hutchinson gives some wise advice about writing your Thriller history. In the first place, carefully plan your narrative and don’t get lost in your documents. Second, don’t be shy of the dramatic detail. Third, cut out those huge blocks of documentary text which bore everyone. Fourth, ‘remember the rhythm of your writing.’ And, finally, give your work a catchy title.

These rules should be pasted on the wall of every historian’s study. But I don’t think they are terribly new.

In the Society of Authors’ summer edition of The Author I read in an editorial suggesting things may not be changing as fast as we think. ‘The roles within the publishing business,’ it is stated, ‘have changed far less than those performing them.’ And the article goes on, ‘Printing, publishing and selling in the 18th century were often combined in one shop front, yet today each of the three operations involved in getting a book to its readers remains essentially unchanged.’ The author speaks of a ‘kind of reassignment of roles’ that is taking place. He notes that the appetite for readers of ‘traditional, largely sequential narrative’ has not changed. But he finds one area of change: ominously for us historians, he concludes that the effect of the internet on ‘non-fiction writers may be seismic.’ The internet, he says, has created a ‘hopping-around habit’, copyright is virtually ignoredand – while texts for information and entertainment are, as a result, fast expanding – our knowledge of the world is ‘atomized’.

That is the troubling bit. The new technology is creating a fly’s vision of the world: we see the fragments, but not the world as a whole. Only history can give us the total perspective. But history is under threat.

History is about Epic, delivered with a song – ‘the rhythm of the writing’ as Hutchinson would put it. It goes far beyond the titillating seduction of the Thriller to delve into the passion and adventure, the tragedy and the comedy of our very existence: the epic song is at the root of the Western tradition of historical writing.

Hutchinson’s rules are the essential rules for writing Epic – they are as old as History itself.

One can demonstrate this with an example taken from Hutchinson’s own article. To show how a ‘three or four word sentence’ can ‘stop the reader dead in their tracks,’ Hutchinson quotes from his own life of Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth I’s ‘spymaster’, the scene of Mary Queen of Scots execution: ‘It was now around eleven o’clock. A breathless silence fell in the hall…’ Hutchinson’s ensuing description is certainly dramatic. But actually it is a little too gory. I far prefer Garret Mattingly’s opening chapter and his pithy ‘ “In manus tuas, domine…” and they heard twice the dull chunk of the axe,’ in his 1959 work, The Armada. In just five pages Mattingly describes the great hall at Fotheringay on 18 February 1587, the small platform ‘like a miniature stage’ and the ordinary wooden chopping block rising above it ‘like a little low bench’. After his clumsy chopping the executioner stoops to pick up Mary’s head, and then cries out, ‘Long live the Queen!’ … ‘But all he held in his hand that had belonged to the rival queen of hearts was a kerchief, and pinned to it an elaborate auburn wig. Rolled nearer the edge of the platform, shrunken and withered and grey, with a sparse silver stubble on the small, shiny skull was the head of the martyr. Mary Stuart had always known how to embarrass her enemies.’

That is the marvel of Mattingly’s book. The head rolls to an unexpected edge of the platform, and he leaves the execution scene just there. Right through the book Mattingly rolls the reader to the unexpected outer edges of his platform: across the Channel, across the mountains and the frontiers of Europe, and even across the Atlantic. From London, to Greenwich, to the barricades in Paris; over the flat, flood soils of the Spanish Netherlands, down the Rhine and across the Alps into Rome, to the Escorial in Spain and back to London and Plymouth again. The book is a geographical extravaganza. It is a European epic. Nothing like this had been written on the Armada before.

Mattingly explained the source of his inspiration in an introduction: the defeat of France and the retreat of England across the Channel in June 1940. Late 19th-century accounts of the Armada dealt almost exclusively with the naval campaign and the future of England as a shipping empire. After 1940 the issue of Europe became more pressing and Mattingly’s revolutionary, epic approach to history imposed itself. ‘It seemed,’ as Mattingly put it, ‘there might be some interest in replacing the narrative of the naval campaign in the broader European context.’ He pointed out that that was the way the men of 1588 saw things: ‘All Europe watched the battle in the Channel with breathless suspense because upon its outcome was felt to hang not just the fates of England and Scotland, France and the Netherlands, but of all Christendom.’

Half a century later we have lost that epic sense of Europe, and we are paying the price. Over the last fifteen years books categorized as ‘European history’ – I am excluding books on the ‘First World War’ and ‘Second World War’, since most of them slip into the category of the ‘campaign history’ that Mattingly considered the antithesis of European history -- floated around the level of one half of one per cent of the total number of books published in Britain. One half of one per cent! For example, of the 119,000 new books sold in 2007, only 600 new books were published in European history.

Nobody, but nobody can argue in Britain that too many books are being published today on European history. Whether one likes it or not, the Continent of Europe, just twenty-one miles across the water, is playing an increasingly important role in the lives of the British.

Yet the most educated sector of the British public, the reading public, appears to be turning its back on Europe. What has dominated British literature over the last thirty years has been the introspective ‘Identity of England’ question. We are being set in our little cells or, in the words of The Author’s editorialist, we are being ‘atomized’.

The trend against Europe could be more perverse than one may think. I return to the publishing catalogues I have recently collected. While this is hardly a scientific example of what is going on in Britain, my fourteen trade catalogues do represent a major part of the British book trade today; they advertise 2,709 new books, 843 works of fiction, 85 books in history of which just 22 are in European history. It is a disheartening task indeed to perusethese pages; the vast majority of them are filled with titles like Ex-Girlfriends United, Desperate Romantics:

The Private Lives of the Pre-Raphaelites,Stepping into the Dream, Woman on the Verge of Nervous Breakdown,Waiter Rant: Behind the Scenes of Eating Out, The Body Language Bible, The Importance of Being Trivial, What Are You Optimistic About? and Potty Training for Boys. No sign of Mattingly’s kind of European epic here.

I have received a pile of catalogues from Routledge and its senior partner the Taylor & Francis Group, covering another 1,508 books, 391 of which are history books, including 193 European history books. I would be proud to have several dozen of these books in my library. But look at those prices! They are charging you £70 a book, a sure sign that none of these books are selling. What is the point of writing a book if people don’t read it? Routledge is an academic publisher; in academia the chief motive for writing is promotion within the ranks, not being read. I am not including the university publishers here for that simple reason.

My inspection of publishers’ catalogues is not at all innocent. My suspicion is that the main trade publishers are giving up on history. It takes at least three years to research and write a good history book. A grand biography is in the range of six or more. Publishers don’t like that; they want a fast turnover. Books like Ex-Girlfriends United, Waiter Rant and Potty Training for Boys come short and fast. And they bring in the money. Why waste all that time on history?

What these firms are doing is shovelling their history ‘titles’ into a sack and discarding them -- either into the academic presses or liquidating them for good. It works! Penguin show for 2007 UK profit up 20 %, though actual sales have marginally dropped. Bloomsbury has doubled its turnover. Sales were up 140 % for Quercus. And even some of the academic publishers have been doing well, though the Blackwell bookselling chain lost £ 7.6 million last year (against a loss of £ 6.9 million in 2006).

Nobody can really tell where history isheading over the next years. General economic depression may change a few minds at the top. But the major trade publishers are riding high today and they have no financial motive whatsoever to adopt a more enlightened view towards history. And the signals they are sending out are bad. Orion, which administers the Weidenfeld & Nicolson imprint, has delved out hundreds of thousands of pounds in cancelled contracts rather than face the embarrassment of publishing too many history books.

And then there is that really curious phenomenon, surely unique to Britain, the publishers’ hope that some bright spark from Oxford -- or the Other Place -- will pick up the tab, get the publishers off the hook for investing such little in the career of their own authors, and put history on the pedestal once more. This seems unlikely. Academia, I have already pointed out, is becoming increasingly introspective and over-specialized. Most academics write nothing significant beyond their PhD theses; it is most difficult to get them to speak about subjects outside their speciality. In academia, as the saying goes, ‘one knows more and more about less and less.’ No epic history will emerge here. Oxford and Cambridge have given us well-known historians, but neither university has produced a major historian in more than a generation -- I am thinking of historians on the level of A.J.P. Taylor or Hugh Trevor-Roper who crossed frontiers and changed our view of both the past and the present. And they wrote so well.

The publishers are as sure as ever that they will find this bright young saviour. It is not just any old historian from Oxford that they want: they are seeking a woman historian, and they have been seeking her for the last twenty years. Some time ago my good former editor at John Murrays was having lunch with me in Paris when the subject came up. ‘You’re main problem, Gregor,’ he said to me, ‘is that you are a man.’ I had been a bit peeved at all the attention that had been going to an Oxford woman with a famous political grandfather, who had just published a book on the end of the First World War -- which had been the subject of my last book. She seemed to sweep everything else aside, including my book, despite the great reviews I was getting. Yet I could not see any particular merit in this woman’s work. Nor could my friends. ‘It is a question of social justice,’ said my editor.

‘All the major historians so far have been men; we need a woman.’ ‘How many physically disabled men do you have on your list?’ I facetiously asked. There were a few seconds of pregnant silence while my editor tugged at his yellow braces. Then we went on to discuss the much more intriguing subject of the frontiers between war and peace -- a problem that has obsessed me for more than two decades.

That lady did not provide a solution. The search went on. A biography of a sixteenth-century French queen was published amidst much fanfare, also by an Oxford author, this one a stunning blonde. It was an excellent book, but nothing followed on. The search turned desperate when Amanda Foreman, daughter of Carl, the director The Guns of Navarone, and also an Oxford history doctor, was persuaded to pose nude behind her blockbuster on the eighteenth-century Duchess of Devonshire. There has been a recent uproar. ‘Biographers are challenging our conception of the genre,’ replies Foreman, ‘in extremely exciting ways…’

Actually, it is not so much Dr Foreman who should be blamed; she wrote, more than a decade ago, quite a competent biography. The finger should be pointed rather to her publisher’s marketing department, whose brainlessness degrades all historians, the women and the men. This pointless and now destructive search for the Holy Grail at Oxford has got totally out of hand.

To each their responsibilities. We cannot go on like this. Publishers at some point are going to have to concentrate on what they are paid to do: to seek out and cultivate genuine talent. It is their job to market and distribute books, not authors’. It may take a major economic crisis, of the type we appear to be entering, to turn publishers around. Bring to us what the nation needs, inspiring history, and stop this cultural vandalism. The current marketing and publicity departments are not even marketing our books: they often begin their campaigns after

publication date, even weeks afterwards, and they only keep up their efforts for a couple of months. By any stretch of the imagination, this cannot be considered the cultivation of talent; it is a mindless, scattergun technique that will lead nowhere. To those who argue that publishers neither have the money nor the time to do more, the answer is obvious: publish less crap, reduce your lists by half, less Ex-Girlfriends and Waiter Rant, and more good European history -- your country needs it. Under duress, governments and businesses cut, to concentrate on the quality. That’s what publishers must do.

As for authors, they have a lot of tricks to learn from marketing. There is always room to improve one’s presentation, even one’s looks -- so essential in a media-oriented world. With the internet, there are many ways in which one can heighten one’s platform, improve one’s manner of speaking in public, and make one’s words a pleasure to hear. But all this can only be considered an aid to those whose job it is to publicize an author’s work: the publishers. Authors will never replace publishers. They do not have the time, nor do they have the financial clout. The author’s job is to write books, good books.

The historian’s job is to write inspiring history. I return to my theme of epic. All of Mr Hamilton’s sensible rules are to be found in Homer. But he left one rule out, which I regard as critical, the matter of frontiers. And here, I think, one may find the way forward -- through this ancient epic formula of frontiers.

The first city in the written history of the Greeks was Troy. It was not Greek, it was across the waters in Asia Minor, and it was doomed to be destroyed. We do not know for sure that it was the Greeks who destroyed this bronze-age city -- it could have been the Hittites.

We do not know who Homer was, or even if he existed -- current scholarly opinion maintains that the first epic poems of the Western world were composed in the form of a mixture of writing and memorization over a period of several generations. History began with a song, a hypnotic language adapted to the hexameter of dactyls and spondees, short and long units, that could well have been improvised at each performance -- great feats of memorization that entranced the public with evocative images of passion, violence and tragedy, chanted in a regular, inexorable rhythm. The poetic effect of the frontier is at the heart of the Homeric song and it is twofold: the Greeks live in tents on the other side of the sea and their own cities are but a half-forgotten, distant memory; before them is the exotic civilization and treasure of Troy. This frontier, between the tent city of nomads and civilization, provides thedramatic setting for the single narrative line which leads to the mortal duel between Hector, the civilized warrior, the family man of Troy, and Achilles, raw brute of a Greek, self-absorbed in his destructive anger. The final drama of the first poem, The Iliad, opens when Hector and his Trojan army advances on the Greek ships and the Greeks are forced to build a great protective wall around them, another frontier. The Olympian gods themselves -- demonstrating how man’s action is tied to divine fate -- join in the battle to destroy that wall:

The channels of all those rivers -- Apollo swung them round

Into one mouth and nine days hurled their flood against the wall.

The second great poem, The Odyssey, is of course devoted entirely to the frontier of the sea and the return of the Greeks home after ten years of war and the final destruction of Troy.

Dramatic narrative, poetic detail and the rhythm of the telling have been the mark of Western historical style ever since those first epics. Edward Gibbon’s classical eighteenth-century prose in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empireis famous for the way it mirrors not only the tale of the doomed city but also, in its crafted phrases, the hypnotic effect of the epic hexameter. But what is truly remarkable is the way in which Homeric epic was fed into the whole formative Romantic phase in the Western story of history. And incorporated in this was that central theme of frontiers.

The key figure here was the inventor of the historical novel, Sir Walter Scott. We have forgotten today what an extraordinary influence Scott exerted on Western thought, and particularly Western historical imagination, in the first decades of the nineteenth century. For the historian Thomas Carlyle, whose southern Scottish background was similar, Scott was ‘the song-singer and pleasant tale-teller to Britain and Europe, in the beginning of the artificial nineteenth century’; he was the ‘old fighting Borderer of prior centuries’; Scott created ‘the Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border,’ from which flowed the ‘great river of Metrical Romances.’ His reputation was truly European. Jules Michelet, often regarded as the father of modern French history, spent much of his youth and early manhood -- his journals prove -- reading the novels of Walter Scott.

Every one of Scott’s great historical romances is the story of the crossing of a frontier. In Waverley, the English protagonist makes his way over the Pass of Bally-Brough into the Highlands to discover the medieval world of the clans of the ’45. ’Tis Sixty Years Since was the sub-title, for Scott also deals with the frontier of living memory. Scott remembered meeting, in his childhood, an old man who had witnessed the executions of the Jacobites at Carlisle that followed the Battle of Culloden. ‘I think what a godsend I must have been while a boy to the old Trojans of 1745 nay 1715 who used to frequent my father’s house,’ Scott wrote in a letter to Lady Louisa Stuart. They were old Trojans. Like Homer’s old citizens, their world was doomed -- one more morbid frontier to be crossed. In Rob Roy another Englishman crosses the frontier to get embroiled in the turbulence of the ’15. One of his most fantastic creations was Scott’s Old Mortality. Scott actually met ‘Old Mortality’, Robert Paterson, in a Borderlands cemetery when he was collecting songs, in the 1790s, for his Minstrelsy.

Old Mortality had set himself the task of re-engraving the tombstones of the Covenanter martyrs of south-western Scotland who died in the ‘Killing Time’ of 1679 -- the doomed rising of these religious fundamentalists against the government of Charles II. Scott realized that with the death of Old Mortality the memory of the savagery, and of a society in which a cash economy barely existed, would be forever gone. Scott used Old Mortality as a step in a framing narrative that crossed memory’s frontier into those times.

Epic is at the heart of good history writing. It excites, it inspires, it provides a global view in a way that no mere ‘thriller’ can, because it crosses those frontiers of man. At its very best it opens up a window of understanding the world and offers models of human behaviour that are valid in all times. The danger in a world of instant communication, dominated by publishers and media uniquely concerned with marketing techniques is that one will actually fail to notice trends of thought -- for marketing is famously backward looking -- and fail to see the world as it is.

History is not a luxury that a modern society can dispense with; it is a necessity. History is not like the weather; its future does not lie with the stars and is not determined by anonymous market forces -- it is up to authors to determine which way it will turn. But the current trend, fragmented and with little sense of a broad view,is unhealthy. It is up to both publishers and authors to correct this.

For ‘A Historian’s Diary: Weekly Thoughts from Gregor Dallas’, press ‘Diary’ at