Past Masters: The Best of History Today
ed Daniel Snowman
SUTTON pounds 14.99
As academic history becomes ever more esoteric, with many learned monographs being aimed at an audience of three and written in the first place only on the "publish or be damned" fetish that has gripped higher education, it is all the more important that the crucial link between Clio and the "intelligent ordinary reader" (not, one hopes, a mythical beast) be maintained. For the past 50 years History Today has been the main transmission belt for this process. At its best, History Today provides lucid and attractively written summaries of the latest scholarship in a given area, the causes of the English Civil War, say, written by a leading scholar in the field. When it is less good, the magazine can still produce interesting jeux d'esprit or amusing squibs.
This collection of 62 essays, ranging from 10,000-word overviews to short book reviews, edited by Daniel Snowman for the magazine's 50th birthday, provides a reasonable sampling of its treasures. Snowman has identified some very fine pieces - James Joll on German history, Esmond Wright on Alexander Hamilton and Samuel Brandon on the historical Jesus. AJP Taylor's 1960 essay on the Reichstag fire in 1933 was prescient and has been confirmed by later research. The admirably lucid, judicious and balanced essay on Columbus by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto is a model of how the "hero or villain" cameo should be written. But perhaps the finest of all the articles is Henry Smith's masterly demonstration of "negative capability" in his analysis of James Clavell's historical novel Shogun. Having pointed out the inaccuracies, implausibilities and anachronisms in the novel, Smith, professor of Japanese at Columbia, is shrewd enough to see the book's great quality as historical metaphor.
Yet this anthology is very far from perfect. Snowman's selection is, frankly, idiosyncratic. Perhaps at one level all one can say is that Snowman admires writers and essays that I do not, and ignores far more impressive ones extant in History Today's files. There are several problems. On more than one occasion, the tour d'horizon presented by historian A is a blatant and unacknowledged rip-off of the work of historian B. There is also a distinct air of "phoning in one's lines", to use the Americanism (British equivalent: "Will this do?"), about some of the essays, and others again are marred by the gallery touch or striving for wild, hyperbolic effect. For example, David Starkey tells us that the Wars of the Roses were "often not much worse than a miners' picket line". The year 1471 alone saw fatalities of 28,000 in battle. I rest my case. …