This page includes, in addition to news about historians, news about political scientists, economists, law professors, and others who write about history. For a comprehensive list of historians' obituaries, go here.
Sholto Byrnes, in the Independent (June 28, 2004):
[Headline:] Arrange to meet Britain's highest-profile historian and you never quite know who'll turn up, says Sholto Byrnes. Will it be the charming, erudite David Starkey, or his terrifying, hypercritical alter ego?
"I bet you've been here for some scandalous liaisons," says a hopeful David Starkey, as he takes in the discreet surroundings of the Franklin Hotel in Knightsbridge, where his chauffeur-driven Jaguar has just dropped him off. "Not yet," I reply. He cackles appreciatively. The television history man par excellence (his only rival is Simon Schama) revels in the personal detail, the human nugget that lets the light in on characters from dusty old documents, such as the "groom of the stool", about whom Starkey wrote his doctoral thesis.
Today, however, he has let it be known that he doesn't want to talk about his personal life, particularly his rather weird upbringing in Cumbria, as he feels he's done that quite enough. He wants to talk about his career as a historian, his forthcoming Channel 4 series, Monarchy, and - rather more than I'd been led to expect - about his book on the six wives of Henry VIII.
Two-thirds of the way through the interview, during which Starkey has been entertainingly tart, he nips off to the loo. On his return he has an announcement to make: "Now I'd like to talk about my book." He taps the paperback edition of Six Wives in front of him commandingly. My heart sinks. This doorstopper of a tome arrived only the day before, and I haven't read it.
We've already been discussing lots of the issues of Henry VIII's reign, I say. "Sort of, ha ha ha." His laughter has an unnerving quality to it. "I was assuming you'd read it and had lots of questions." I tell him that I thought he wanted to concentrate on the TV series. "Ahhh, right. Despite the fact that it was explained very clearly what the interview was to be about. Sorry, we are really at cross purposes. I'm sorry to be awkward. I'm not really being awkward, but I am disappointed."
Being told you have disappointed David Starkey must be akin to the feeling early Christians experienced when they found themselves being eyeballed by a pride of lions. This is a man for whom the phrase "doesn't suffer fools gladly" could have been coined. The "rudest man in Britain", as the Daily Mail called him, is famed for the viciousness of his putdowns, such as when he said of the former Archdeacon of York on The Moral Maze: "Doesn't he genuinely make you want to vomit - his fatness, his smugness, his absurdity?"
Although off duty he is utterly personable, he is now in professional mode: what he calls his "Dr Rude" alter ego, a magnification of Starkey's natural argumentativeness, which he puts down to a Quaker upbringing of "wonderful obtuseness" whereby the popular opinion was regarded as being invariably wrong. It is a mantle he has gladly worn on his path to success, and one which, once donned, turns him into the most unforgiving of interlocutors. I brace myself for the onslaught.
"We've done the usual voyage around David Starkey," he continues in a tone that suggests he could explode at any minute, "and that's boring, that's a boring subject. The only reason why anyone will remember anything about me will be because of what I've written. You began interestingly, didn't you, with the argument about cheapening or sensationalising" - actually, he brought that up, but now does not seem the time to point it out - "and I think the ultimate form of sensationalising is reducing the work that people do to little biographical sketches. That is a form of trivialisation. You obviously haven't read the book."
I would love to have done, I say, desperately trying to mollify him. But the cannon have not ceased. "I think the great difference between here and America is that if you're invited to do an interview, you can guarantee that the person will at least pretend to have read the book."...
THE NEW History Phenomenon - the flourishing of history in the media since the late Nineties - now has its own history. Professor David Cannadine of the Institute of Historical Research has collected a group of 11 historians and media folk who - with one signal exception - have written interesting and illuminating essays on diverse aspects of this recent cultural and intellectual revolution.
In a thoughtful introduction, Cannadine advances a number of explanations himself, including the advent of the anti-historical New Labour government, the Millennium, the end of the British Empire when Hong Kong's lease expired, the demographic explosion of history graduates, the IT revolution and even the Golden Jubilee and the death of the Queen Mother.
My own theory, that history is being taught too cursorily in schools, leaving people with an unslaked thirst for it in later life, also gets an airing. We're the only country in Europe to allow children to opt out of history at 14, which is a national disgrace.
Senior practitioners in the media-history industry, such as Simon Schama (who focuses on the problems with television history), Melvyn Bragg (on how he made his The Adventure of English series), David Puttnam (on how history fares in Hollywood) and Max Hastings (on academics' love-hate relationship with journalists), have written insightful, thought-provoking and occasionally amusing short pieces - the book is only 166 pages long - based on their experience in the profession.
Sir Ian Kershaw, the biographer of Hitler and the historical consultant for the Bafta-winning BBC2 series"The Nazis: A Warning from History", believes that the sheer power of the medium gives television history the force it wields today."A few seconds of TV coverage can convey a message more movingly and starkly than acres of print," he writes, and with many more historians at British universities than in the 1970s much more history finds its way on to our screens.
For John Tusa, the former managing director of the World Service, it is the political relevance of television history that keeps ever-increasing numbers of us tuned in. Yet despite"the utility of history" for modern-day politics, he pessimistically records how"All the same attitudes, the identical prejudices and, of course, the same mistakes are repeated despite the available lessons of history...."
Benjamin Wallace-Wells, in the Washington Monthly (June 2004):
In early May, Niall Ferguson, the celebrity Scottish historian, looked out at a packed house seething with antagonism. He had come to Washington to deliver a talk at the Council on Foreign Relations defending his idea that the war in Iraq had not only been the right thing to do, but also ought to be the first step towards a wide-ranging American empire. It would be difficult to imagine a moment when the capital's bipartisan policy elite --Ferguson's audience--were less inclined to be receptive to his ideas. The first accounts of the torture at Abu Ghraib had just appeared, and the cause in Iraq was beginning to look more hopeless than ever. And the crowd had come to see someone answer for all of this, to see how Ferguson, whose ideas had help get us into the war, would defend himself. Ferguson didn't defend himself. He attacked.
Within three minutes, he'd lost the liberals in the crowd, arguing, improbably that the problems in Iraq proved that America ought to be more of an empire, not less of one. A bald-headed scholar from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace asked him whether the United States ought to be morally willing to slay thousands of Iraqis to stabilize Iraq. Ferguson retorted, "Perhaps you would wish Saddam back in power; that's the implication of what you're saying." The liberal think-tankers around me started guffawing openly, and shooting each other is-this-guy-for-real smirks.
With one leg crossed over the other, his hands folded in his lap, his pale face issuing a dispassionate monotone, Ferguson pressed on. Not only were the problems in Iraq the direct fault of America's unwillingness to call itself an empire, he said, but they were also predictable. "In behaving the way they did," Ferguson said, "those soldiers and military policemen [at Abu Ghraib] were largely doing to their prisoners what routinely people in the American military do to new recruits."
This was too much for even the conservatives in the audience. The guffaws grew louder, the muttered protests reached the front of the room. In the row in front of me, a broad-shouldered, uniformed officer stood up. "Big disagree here, sir," he bellowed. "Big disagree with your characterization." (Fleetingly, I wondered if this was how colonels address one another in private). "The institution I have spent my life in abhors what went on in Iraq," he said. "It's not the way we treat anyone-- a fresh recruit or a plebe at West Point." The crowd clapped vigorously. In less than 10 minutes, Ferguson had pulled off that rarest of Washington double plays, alienating liberals and conservatives alike.
Ferguson didn't flinch. "I'm glad to hear that," he said. "But you have to recognize that power will corrupt inevitably. It comes with the territory of empire." Transgressions like this, Ferguson said, were common to "all imperial armies."
The colonel stood there for a second, not knowing quite what to say. Eventually, he sat down. Ferguson hadn't quite satisfied the crowd, but he had displayed a mastery of just enough history to disarm them. The audience grumbled at Ferguson throughout the question-and-answer session, but no one really challenged him again. As the panel ended, they clapped grudgingly and then shuffled out of the room, vaguely dissatisfied. Ferguson had replicated his role from the lead-up to the war: In a moment of profound, and deeply felt, confusion at what our national direction ought to be, Ferguson offered extreme certainty. And his claims caught on when no one was able to make a counter-argument with such confidence and clarity.
Ferguson is, at just over 40 and a few months short of a scheduled appointment
to a history professorship at Harvard, indisputably one of the world's most
famous and influential historians--he was recently named one of the planet's
100 Most Influential People by Time, beating out Tony Blair. His influence comes
from his dramatic, sweeping intellectual style, whose theme is, more or less,
"Everything you thought you knew about history is wrong." Ferguson's
genius is for counter-conventional thinking, urging radical reinterpretations
of topics that everyone else had pretty much considered settled. Ferguson is
out of sync with the academy in style, politics, and manner, but he has been
a useful intellectual prod, the appeal of his radical theories forcing mainstream
academics to refine their own thinking. Read Ferguson for any real stretch of
time, and you begin to imagine what it might have been like had Andrew Sullivan
chosen as his topic the entire breadth of human history. ...