Who’s for a ‘warm, fuzzy embrace of the past’

At risk of becoming a little bit obsessed with what politicians have to say about history I feel the need to jot down a quick response to last Sunday’s Observer article by the Hon. Dr. Tristram Hunt M.P.. In the article the historian and M.P. comments on the decline in the numbers of historical biographies being optioned by publishers. Hunt spends most of the article giving us a potted history of Britain’s embrace of the grand biography and briefly charts a move toward the history of the masses. The 20th Century saw an eventual balance between history from above and from below; the biography of great men beside the left wing story of the people. This is very interesting and Tristram Hunt is very much qualified to make such observations. However, I did object to what is the only real argument in the piece, which is that modern popular history has become unhealthily focused on empathy and what I would call community history or micro-social history. The examples Hunt specifically refers to are recent BBC programmes ‘Edwardian Farm‘ and ‘The High Street‘, but there are many more examples in the schedules. He seems to be intimating that the smoking gun in the case of declining interest in grand biography is what he calls ‘a retreat into the warm, fuzzy embrace of the past’.

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Before pointing out why I object to Tristram Hunt’s position I should admit that while political biographies are not exactly my thing I do on occasion enjoy them, the last ‘history’ book that I read was Jenny Uglow’s ‘A Gambling Man: Charles II and the Restoration‘. While Uglow’s book is a biography it is essentially a personal one, explaining less about wider politics and more about one man’s complicated personality and how that interweaved through his decisions and relationships. Academic study of those in power and those that influenced the direction of society are important and relevant, if not always my cup of tea.
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What bothers me about the article is that it unquestionably sneers at popular social/community history. Here is perhaps the most telling quite:
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‘It also points to a broader truth about how we now approach the past: less concerned with learning from our forebears and more interested in feeling their pain. Today we want empathy not inspiration.’

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I had to read that line a couple of times as it seemed so very odd to me. Perhaps I’m the one in minority here? Surely it all depends where a person needs their inspiration and what they need to learn. If you wish to be helicoptered into Parliament and apply your knowledge of the great men to the machinations of the House of Commons, then by all means take broad social trends and decision makers as your inspiration. What about the rest of us? Can we not find inspiration in the way in which our counterparts in the past went about the challenges of daily life? I think we can, and to say otherwise is academic snobbery.

I would also argue that we do not suffer from a surfeit of empathy in our society, not always. Empathy is important in an increasingly detached and individualistic world. Does it matter if empathy is exercised in respect to ‘close by’ communities, in the minutiae of family life? Looking at those past communities and prompting empathy and understanding with the ‘other’ can only be good in my eyes. If people can understand that even their ancestors, their own community, were capable of unusual, even bizarre things to modern eyes and understand why, then history is surely moving people closer to understanding others. Who is to say that cannot also then be applied in their modern lives, to those ‘strange’ and ‘other’ like people around them? I’m not saying watching ‘Edwardian Farm’ or ‘Who do you think you are’ is going to apply balm to our nations cultural wounds, but I do reject the idea that it serves no purpose but ‘entertainment’. So the programmes might contain a little too much marvelling at the orginal Twix packaging, so what? If by doing so it draws us into other more remarkable difference and similarities then great, marvel at the twix as much as you like.

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Actually, on that point, what’s wrong with history as entertainment? Surely it’s better to introduce people to the subject in an entertaining manner than not at all. Some will then dip their toe further into the complexity and lessons of the past. Who knows, they might even dust of one of those old fashioned biographical tomes.

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Rant over. You can read the article on the Guardian website here.

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p.s. I should confess that I’ve not actually watched ‘The High Street’ in full, but I’ve had a quick look, so I’ve got the gist. Can anyone confirm if in the 1930s Grocery one Greg Wallace said ‘History, doesn’t get any harder than this’?

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p.p.s. I’ve not read any of Tristam Hunt’s work either, so I’m basing this on what I know of him and his article. he may well display less snobbery elsewhere, but I’ve commented on what he said. I’ve added his book to the list.

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p.p.p.s. I can totally do that intense historian look too you know, I can.

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