By Lisa-Marie Griffith
I have always known there was a certain smugness radiating from The Observer but this fact was driven home at the weekend by a an article called ‘They’re too cool for school: meet the new history girls and boys’ that claimed six Oxford and Cambridge graduates were finally making history cool (included in the piece are 6 pictures of these ‘young historians’ looking ‘trendy’). Their literary agent said of them: “They have brilliant new ideas, excellent writing and they’re exceptionally clever”- Well of course she would say that- she is trying to sell their books! Ok- I know what you are thinking: Yes- I grumbled that we were actually just jealous of Simon Schama and that we should be grateful because he is selling our industry for us BUT there was something especially irritating about the lot that greeted me when I opened The Observer at the weekend. So, with mixed feelings and reluctant to feel like a hypocrite, I asked around to see what others thought.
I was reassured that they do seem rather irritating especially as the author of this piece claimed they would fix the history discipline by making the British youth interested enough in history to take it up in school. The only problem in their master-plan, the literary agent complained, is that ‘they might be “too pretty” to be taken seriously’ in their attempt to do so. This particularly irked me because these people are young and presumably wealthy- of course they are pretty! Why is that worth mentioning? To reiterate the point that they they were out to make history more popular with the kids and they sought to rival ‘men of a certain age’ wearing ‘Dusty tweed’ and sitting ‘in ivory towers’ they were fashionably dressed in the accompanying photos.
My main problem with the piece is the way these history graduates are being represented by this journalist and the literary agent quoted in the piece. Can history be saved by these 6 individuals and does it need to be saved as this journalist suggests? Rather then being the saviours of the history discipline are they not just the next generation? As the younger generation of historians are they not just rallying against the older by questioning the material being studied, methods of investigation and how material is presented. This can be seen across all disciplines and in all professions and is the natural order. They will replace the old order and then become established and when they do there will be a younger generation to grumble that they have become stale, boring and dull. I also think that some of their publications to date, including the biographies and A History of Pineapples and A history of the English Peasants’ Revolt, while interesting are not ground breaking and going to change the world of history so what is it trying to say?
This piece does seem like it is written by a journalist for a literary agent in an attempt to sell some history books for those not yet established enough to rival the more established Starkey and Montefiore. It most be noted that both of these historians mentor the group. Is this just prominent Cambridge and Oxford historians pushing their favourites into the limelight?
Before I am forced to resign my position as an editor of this blog for the over-use of exclamation marks, I would like to say I would be interested to know if these historians are happy with how they were portrayed in this piece. Is there something more to this than I can see?
I will have to admit it may just be that as historians closer to my age are being put in the public eye I am suffering from Schama syndrome that I complained last month all the other green-eyed historians had.
To be continued…