I love history, declared George W Bush in a television interview. "It's amazing to be interested in history and living--making history. It's an interesting coincidence." Here in Britain, we may not all be as confident as Bush that we are making history, but we do apparently share his taste in reading. History is the new gardening. Or maybe the new cookery? If only the Jamie Oliver of history could be found, then history programmes would take the networks by storm. The past has never been more popular, drawing readers and viewers from all walks of life and of all levels of income.
History offers rich possibilities for helping us to understand ourselves. The past can shine a bright beam on the present, challenging commonplace assumptions and inspiring dramatic new directions for thought and action. Its precedents can help give clarity to the confusion and apparent chaos of contemporary events. So one might imagine that our fascination as a nation with history means that we are preoccupied as never before with our origins, how we came to be as we are today, the way events and individuals in history have defined our nation and shaped and given meaning to the age in which we live.
Alas! On closer inspection, it seems that the market for history is more like the high-street market for socks. Buying that interesting-looking history book looks depressingly like another piece of retail therapy: a handy, modestly priced commodity purchased to cheer ourselves up. If history is the new cookery, what we want appears not to be imaginative and innovative cuisine, but yet another recipe for rhubarb crumble or toad-in-the-hole.
The trouble is, the version of "history" that becomes a bestseller or wins the ratings battle is more often than not the one that offers the reader or viewer comfort and consolation for a world we have lost. A short while ago, there was a run on books documenting the history of a single commodity--histories of chocolate, salt, coffee and cod. Each was widely reviewed and snapped up by non-fiction readers. Each celebrated the emergence into consumer prominence of a familiar feature of our everyday lives. Each author had diligently discovered things we never knew about our addiction to salt, coffee and cod.
It seems almost churlish to point out that these snappy little books did not choose to dwell on other, equally inexorable outcomes of European demand--the march forward of colonial control over global economies, or oppression of indigenous peoples. Globally, we stand at an important crossroads, at which our concern for sustainability and the fight against poverty surely ought to mitigate our hunger for more or less exotic consumables from overseas. Perhaps authors feel that such concerns are not compatible with the "entertainment" that history is supposed to offer at present.
Costume history on TV has also proved itself in the ratings battle. Sometimes this consists of presenter-led or voice-over commentary, combined with key re-created episodes, particularly from the two world wars. These take the viewer back to a time when terms such as "patriotism" and "national pride" seemed simple and unproblematic, when we could unapologetically celebrate the confounding of our "enemies". Docudrama re-creations offer an animated window on to a past Britain whose inhabitants are reassuringly organised into distinct social classes, and are largely of a single ethnicity.
Some of these successful costume docudramas have been colourful versions of the lives of "great men" (Isaac Newton, Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke have all aired to acclaim). There has been a corresponding boom in print biographies, carefully detailing landmark life stories in which gifted individuals and towering intellects influence the world in which they live and work by brilliantly intervening to alter the current of the nation's affairs (I've written a few of these myself). Once again, the …