Mr Stark and Mr Staring

Just when you’re starting to think ‘what shall I blog about this week?’, along comes good old David Starkey and solves the problem. (Actually, in true London bus fashion his intellectual soulmate Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Eton – sorry, Education – then came along too, but more of him anon.) For those who don’t know Dr Starkey, and presumably some of my overseas readers don’t, he’s a self-proclaimed ‘Tudor historian’ (see below) who regularly fronts TV programmes about, yes, the Tudors (and, increasingly, anything else too, such as his recent effort comparing John and Winston Churchill). He frequently comes out with controversial, if not downright inflammatory, right-wing remarks, so if you’re American, just imagine Rush Limbaugh with a doctorate in History. Anyway, this week Dr Starkey has come out and savaged the entirety of historical novelists, claiming that it’s ludicrous to suggest they can possess any authority whatsoever about the Tudor period. Of course, it’s possible that part of his outburst is due to the fact that Hilary Mantel’s and Philippa Gregory’s appearances as ‘talking heads’ in a new series about the Tudors presumably reduced the amount of air time devoted to the talking head of Dr Starkey himself, but let’s leave to one side both that possibility and any thought that he might be secretly jealous of the sales figures enjoyed by Hil and Phil compared to those for his own tomes, all of which, of course, have been written for the disinterested pursuit of academic truth rather than for such sordid commercial considerations as selling absolutely shedloads of copies.

(Before moving on, by the way, could I just say how nice it is to see yet another expensive new BBC series about the Tudors coming our way? After all, they get so little coverage on TV compared to the likes of, say, Chinese history, the eighteenth century, or the history of women; just like the equally neglected Nazis, in fact.)

To return to Dr Starkey and his condemnation of historical novelists. Now, I, too, am a mere scribbler of what a friend of mine describes as ‘pretending books’, and thus have no authority whatsoever when it comes to talking about the past; unlike David Starkey, of course, I don’t have to my name a doctorate in History from Oxbridge and several weighty, critically acclaimed non-fiction history books based on rigorous research and published with full academic apparatus.

Oh, wait I minute, I do, actually.

And there’s perhaps the most important of all the many flaws in Dr Starkey’s analysis: the underlying, intellectually arrogant, assumption that only ‘qualified historians’ should pontificate on the past. This ignores the fact that an increasing number of historical novelists have credentials as academic historians that are every bit as sound as Dr Starkey’s, and many others research their novels with a thoroughness that would not disgrace a PhD candidate. Conversely, I know many ‘qualified historians’ whose grasp of the past is actually remarkably weak, often because they can’t see the trees of past lives for the wood of the sources they work on. Perhaps the most revealing of all Dr Starkey’s comments is ‘they [historical novelists] have no authority when it comes to the handling of historical sources’. Au contraire: they probably have pretty much exactly the same level of authority as a ‘Tudor historian’ commenting on, say, the marriage of William and Kate, Scottish independence, the 2011 riots, or, umm, the Churchills.

It’s interesting, too, to see that Dr Starkey claims he can’t read Mantel’s Cromwell novels (and presumably other books set in the same period, like C J Sansom’s Shardlake series), ‘but that’s because I’m a Tudor historian’. And of course, Tudor historians (actually ‘historians of the Tudor age’, Dr S; ‘Tudor historians’ were people alive at the time) would be intellectually consistent in such matters, and would therefore never sully themselves by, say, watching Bette Davis and Errol Flynn hamming it up in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, or going to the theatre to see Shakespeare’s Richard III, that shamefully inaccurate portrayal of the beginning of the Tudor age by a populist hack author of the sixteenth-century equivalent of Mills and Boon. I’m a ‘Stuart historian’, as Dr S would put it, but I have no problem reading novels set in the Stuart period. Indeed, I have no problem writing them, either. It’s called ‘suspension of disbelief’, Dr Starkey: being able to distinguish fiction and history by flicking a mental switch and moving contentedly from one to the other, treating each on its own merits.

Another digression to conclude: it’s a sign of how far knowledge of history has declined in the population at large that, these days, it would be simply impossible to make a film called The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex. Audiences would probably assume it was some sort of smutty sex-laden epic about a girl called Liz encountering the entire population of the nation’s favourite county.

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And so to Michael Gove. The Secretary of State is clearly quite a jolly chap – witness his participation in The Guardian‘s splendid April Fools spoof this year – but his proposed new national curriculum for history continues to stir up a hornet’s nest, and this week he responded in vigorous fashion. The headline came from his assault on teachers who got GCSE students to compare the Nazi leadership to Mr Men characters; or so it was reported, despite the fact that as Gove tacitly admitted, this was simply a resource that had been produced, with no evidence that it had actually been used in a classroom. (Having taught GCSE students ever since the examination began, I would never, ever have contemplated trivialising the Nazi regime in such a way, and I know no History teacher who would dream of doing so.)

Inevitably, Gove’s comments led to both satirical counter-attacks and spirited defences of materials that get students interested in history, no matter how left-field they might seem to be. For what it’s worth, I’m on the side of the spirited defenders. I once started teaching the Spanish Inquisition by showing my students the scene from History of the World, Part 1, with Mel Brooks as Torquemada (and, yes, a bit later on we had Monty Python too – ‘nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!’). I often introduced sixth formers to the perils of historiographical debate by showing them some of the Newman and Baddiel ‘History Today’ sketches, which were painfully true to some of the older historians that I knew. Such strategies aren’t trivialisation, Mr Gove; they are ways of engaging students’ interest, from which one can proceed to the rigorous teaching of hard facts that you evidently crave so much. In fact, this is pretty much exactly the same principle as those snappy little videos that political party conferences play to get the audience quiet and attentive before, say, the Secretary of State for Education comes on to speak to it. And if you don’t believe that such strategies are needed with, say, a bunch of unengaged fifteen-year-olds on a wet Friday afternoon, a look at David Starkey’s catastrophic classroom performance in the series Jamie’s Dream School should disabuse you.

Ultimately, the crucial fact that the likes of both Michael Gove and David Starkey entirely ignore is that history can no longer simply be handed down to the ignorant masses from an Olympian height by enlightened pedagogues, whose words said masses should absorb immediately, silently and gratefully. So please, let’s stop obsessing about and rubbishing some of the means by which children, students and readers develop an interest in history; let’s just rejoice in the fact that many still do somehow manage to acquire such an interest, despite all the obstacles that politicians, ‘professional’ historians and, yes, many teachers too, place in their way. And if it takes Disney’s Robin Hood, Mel Brooks or Wolf Hall to get someone to that goal, then so be it.

12 Comments

  1. Oh, those endless TV series about the eighteenth century, or the history of Abroad, or of women, for goodness’ sake. When will they ever… er, begin? I would have added the C17th, too, but there has been some on the box recently, thus scuppering my argument.

    Great post! Good points well made.

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  2. rjblakemore says:

    What worries me is that Starkey was openly racist on TV last year (the infamous ‘whites have become black’ comment) and yet is still treated as a serious public voice. Also ironic that Niall Ferguson claims he went to America because ‘to get anywhere in UK history you have to work on kings and queens’ (or words to that effect), a strikingly inaccurate claim which seems to assume we’re all like Starkey. And yet they agree on the curriculum.

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  3. Grant says:

    I have a 1/2 written article inspired by Starkey’s statement a few months ago that Mantel wrote “Historical Tosh” and Beevor’s “The better the novel it is, the more dangerous it is because readers are more likely to think it is true”. I will get around to polishing an publishing one day! Starkey is a professional arse and some of his TV programmes make me think he has somewhat of a nerve criticising novellists for a populist patina but he does have a quite nice turn of phrase on occasion and the world is a richer place for people like him. After all, as you said, before he pontificated, you had nothing to blog.

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    • Absolutely – I have no problem with his work as a Tudor historian, much of which is brilliant, but the problems start once he strays outside what should be his comfort zone!

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  4. Bravo, sir. A tour de force, with additional points for the title.

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  5. (i) I think that ‘Oikey’ Gove was one of the few cabinet ministers not to have been a school chum of David Cameron at that school near Slough.

    (ii) David Starkey is on the box because he’s a professionally grumpy old man, not because he is an outstanding historian.

    This carping aside I agree with everything you say, not that Starkey would consider me qualified to comment as I gave up studying history several years before those awful exams, ‘O’ levels.

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    • Carping? Come on, Steve, you haven’t carped once in the 38 years I’ve known you. (Nose grows exponentially.) I wasn’t implying that the Govester went to South Slough Comprehensive (and the fact that he was actually educated in Aberdeen is too bizarre for words), merely that his educational policy seems designed to turn the country’s education system into a clone of that at SSC. But I must disagree about Starkey; true, he’s now a professionally grumpy old man (but then, aren’t we all?), but he originally started getting TV air time because he was an (allegedly) outstanding historian, which remains his principal claim to any kind of fame at all.

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  6. Tobias R. Philbin (Toby Philbin) says:

    Mel Brooks/Harvey Korman “Its great to be the king…” doth teacheth some lessons. Its actually worse Rush Limbaugh entitles himself as head of the advanced institute of conservative studies. Would this be a US equivalent of a RED Brick UNi? Cheers Toby Philbin (Warships for the King and all that.).

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