Magazine article History Today

The Pleasures and Pains of Contemporary History

Magazine article History Today

The Pleasures and Pains of Contemporary History

Article excerpt

* Historians are not supposed to have heroes. To do so is often detected as evidence that detatchment and cool reason have fled. But two men who matter to me have delivered verdicts on my adopted craft that genuinely give me pause.

The first is the finest constitutional analyst my old profession - journalism - has ever produced, Walter Bagehot. In his 1856 essay on Gibbon, Bagehot declared that history:

may generally be defined as a view of one age taken by another;

a picture of a series of men and women painted by one of

another series. Of course, this description seems to exclude

contemporary history; but if we look into the matter carefully,

is there such a thing? What are all the best and most noted

works that claim the title - memoirs, scraps, materials - composed by men of like passions with the people they speak

of, involved it may be in the same events describing them with

the partiality and narrowness of eager actors; or even worse, by

men far apart in a monkish solitude, familiar with the lettuces

of the convent-garden, but hearing only faint dim rumours of

the great transactions which they slowly jot down in the barren

chronicle. These are not to be named in the same short breath,

or included in the same narrow word, with the equable, poised

philosophic narrative of the retrospective historian.

The second put-down to my branch of the historical profession is even more painful to recall as it was delivered to me in person within a few weeks of my being appointed Professor of Contemporary History at Queen Mary and Westfield College, University of London. In my 'Establishment'-watching way, I was about to lunch with Sir Douglas Hague at the Athenaeum, when, in the bar, Eric Hobsbawm crossed the room to tell me how pleased he was to hear I was joining academic life. Professor Hobsbawm paused to tell his guest, Sir Isaiah Berlin, of the news of my appointment. 'Good, good', said Sir Isaiah, 'contemporary history is the most interesting thing. In my time it used to be called journalism, journalism'.

To be raised up only to be cast down in the space of a couple of sentences from one such as he was an experience as anguish-laden as it was unforgettable. And if a journalist like Bagehot took much the same line, who am I to cavil? But cavil I do, for several reasons.

First, top flight journalism - 'the deeper end of the current affairs market', as the television producer, author and former MP, Phillip Whitehead, once put it - should not be that different in rigour and approach from the historians' craft. It is the use of evidence and the application of analysis that are the keys to both. And was not Philip Graham right to describe high quality journalism as the 'first rough draft of history?'

Secondly, is Bagehot right about either the meagreness of 'materials' or the similarity of 'passions' between the writers and the written about? Let us consider the 'materials' point first.

If you sat, as I have sat, last week and today in the Public Record Office at Kew sifting the newly released files for 1963, 'shortage' is not the word you would apply to the archive. It is not just that the volume of record-keeping grew with the growth of the twentieth-century British state: the amount is even greater this year thanks to the Major Administration's open government policy, especially its archives dimension known as the 'Waldegrave Initiative', after the minister responsible for openness.

For example, but for the recent changes on intelligence-related material, I am sure we would not have available at Kew today a file on the Profumo Affair from the No 10 archive which contains a scatter of MI5 matter. Similarly, but for the public avowal of the 'Central Intelligence Machinery' last summer, I do not believe the Cabinet Committee Book for 1963 (the first of its kind to be released in full) would be accessible in the PRO from this morning, complete with its references to the membership and remits of the Joint Intelligence Committee and its offshoots: or that strange hybrid committee of Whitehall figures and broadcasters, which would have, in effect, taken over the British media during the transition to World War III and what remained of it after Broadcasting House and Television Centre lay in irradiated ruins. …

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