The Books Interview: Home and Colonial Stories ; as a Historian, David Cannadine Has Potted Plenty of Sacred Cows. but Has the Empire Spiked His Guns?

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David Cannadine, a biography

David Cannadine was born in Birmingham in 1950, attended grammar school in the city, and graduated from Clare College, Cambridge. After a DPhil at Oxford, he became a fellow of Christ's College, Cambridge in 1977. In 1988, he went to New York as professor of history at Columbia University and, in 1998, was appointed Director of the Institute of Historical Research at London University. His books include The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy (1990), G M Trevelyan (1992), Aspects of Aristocracy (1994), Class in Britain (1998), two collections of articles and now Ornamentalism, published by Allen Lane. David Cannadine is general editor of the Penguin History of Britain, and author of its forthcoming volume on the 19th century. His wife, Linda Colley, is professor of history at the LSE.

Perhaps you enjoyed a government-approved Easter weekend in the "open" British countryside. Assuming, of course, that you knew exactly where that entity began: "These two monolithic concepts of the Country and the Town are ludicrously over-simplified," snorts David Cannadine.

The prolific, and provocative, historian is now bedded down in Bloomsbury as director of the Institute of Historical Research, after an expatriate decade at Columbia University in Manhattan. Yet he and his wife Linda Colley - who returned from a post at Yale to take up a chair in history at the LSE - always kept one foot in their native soil through a home in Norfolk. So real life defeats glib binary oppositions: a great Cannadine theme. As for the idea of the countryside as "the home of essentially English and decent rustic virtues, whereas towns are full of pinko intellectuals who are quite unwholesome - this is a rhetorical trope that goes way back".

One of David Cannadine's enviable gifts as a historian is his ability to shift the mental furniture that governs British life to reveal the mould growing beneath. Fluent, piquant and mischievous, his eight books and innumerable articles often skewer the foibles of politicians or patricians with crisp forensic glee. They draw, in their perennial vim and occasional venom, comparisons with A J P Taylor.

Unlike the beleaguered Taylor, however, few potholes have dogged the path of Cannadine's career. At 27, director of studies in history at Christ's College, Cambridge; at 38, professor at Columbia; now, at 50, in charge of the signal-box at the research centre he calls "the Clapham Junction of the British historical profession": this is the gadfly as gaffer, the maverick as magnifico. Rather than Taylor, the relevant ancestor is G M Trevelyan - that populist grandee whose biography Cannadine published in 1992, and whose gripping Whiggish narratives (such as English Social History) sold in their hundreds of thousands to a lay readership.

Indeed, one reason for Cannadine's repatriation was his desire to rescue British historians, that bunch of "underfunded, under- esteemed and underpaid" Cinderellas, from their musty corner of the public sector. But our fiscal furniture moves as slowly as the ideological kind: "We seem to be in a world where raising taxes to pay for better-funded universities... is no longer seen to be a political option". A "massive expansion" in British student numbers has been in part financed "by reducing academic salaries in real terms".

At least "bravura performances" from the likes of Simon Schama (another disciple of J H Plumb at Christ's College, along with Roy Porter, Norman Stone, Colley and Cannadine) keep history's media profile high. The allure of such figures can help resist "the Spielbergisation of history" that bedevils the subject in schools: "an enormous interest in dinosaurs, and an enormous interest in the Holocaust, with the period in between skated over rather rapidly".

Which brings us, rather neatly, to the Jurassic Park of the British aristocracy and Establishment, where Cannadine the historian has roamed more as a hunter than a game-warden. …