Schama Leads the New Rock'n'roll. (History)

Article excerpt

Antony Beevor's war tomes Stalingrad and Berlin have been selling like Elastoplast at Agincourt. David Starkey earned [pounds sterling]75,000 an episode for his last Channel 4 series, and Simon Schama topped them all this month with a multimedia deal for [pounds sterling]3m. The super-historians have arrived.

Not that there is anything new about best-selling history. Scott Pack, product buying manager for Waterstone's, argues that although cross-media tie-ins have recently created some high-profile authors, history has been one of the shop's most popular subjects for a long time.

Pack's description of his readers' purchasing patterns is revealing. A customer will come in and buy A History of Britain because of the TV programme, and often return to buy more books on whichever period interests them, eventually buying relatively obscure authors as their interests specialise: the origins of the British navy, say, or women in Victorian England. Just like research students -- except that their research costs them [pounds sterling]30 a pop.

Yet despite its recent success, which has led to a 40 per cent increase in university applications to study history, a professional historian in the UK still faces a meagre salary, tough competition and lack of status. Starter salaries for lecturing or teaching posts are still about [pounds sterling]16,000. The Arts and Humanities Research Board is struggling to give 20 per cent of its (mostly First-class Oxbridge) applicants awards for postgraduate research, despite a decline in applications. These conditions have led to a brain drain to America that includes not only Simon Schama, but also Richard Tuck, Anthony Pagden and Jay Winter.

Universities UK, which represents vice-chancellors around the country, recently made the case to the government that history is now financially useful to the state: the British Tourist Authority said that last year, despite the foot-and-mouth outbreak, earnings from visits to historical sites rose 4 per cent, hitting a record [pounds sterling]280m. …