Past Perfect

By Furtado, Peter | History Today, April 2001 | Go to article overview

Past Perfect


Furtado, Peter, History Today


`HISTORY IS GOOD FOR YOU' was the theme of our fiftieth anniversary party and annual awards ceremony in central London on January 4th. Surrounded by people who have been reading the magazine regularly since the very First issue, as well as some of the best of this year's crop of history students, and addressed by Lord (Asa) Briggs, one of our original academic advisors, we celebrated the past and future of History Today, and of history itself in Britain.

Asa Briggs spoke movingly of his memories of the early days of History Today, when he worked with first joint editor Alan Hodge and proprietor Brendan Bracken to enlist some of the leading names in the historical world of the time to support the new magazine. G.M. Trevelyan -- by the late 1940s the grand old man of British history, whose backing was seen as key to its success -- was one person Briggs worked with on the plans for the new magazine. Another was A.L. Rowse, who was already at All Souls, and who particularly appreciated the then-radical notion of an illustrated magazine on history. The two of them approached the Historical Association, whose support was felt to be essential for such a venture.

The origins of the magazine's name was also revealed. Ever since Bracken first conceived his magazine in 1945, he had called it History Illustrated but, Briggs told us, `one night in the late 1940s during the endless debates on nationalisation -- the Tories were filibustering which is something Bracken enjoyed and did so well -- Bracken turned to Churchill in the tea-room and said, "you realise we are making history, today."' Churchill pointed out this was the ideal title for his intended magazine, and the name stuck.

Bracken was of course a close associate of Churchill through the war years and after, and Churchill remained at the heart of the network that made History Today possible; both Hodge and Briggs himself helped the former prime minister in the early mid-1950s on the final drafts of the History of the English-Speaking Peoples. Briggs himself recalled daring to criticise the great man's account of the eighteenth-century volume as too Marxist, and rated the medieval volume as the best.

Briggs also pointed out that his own approach to history had been shaped at an early age by the famous book A History of Everyday Things in England, written by Marjorie and C.H.B. Quennell, the parents of Peter Quennell who, with Hodge, was the first joint-editor of the magazine. Despite this, he admits having been closer to Hodge, who had been Bracken's private secretary and worked with him on the Financial Times. Briggs particularly praised the book that Hodge wrote with Robert Graves, The Long Weekend: A Social History of Great Britain, 1918-1939 (1940).

Briggs talked not just of the mercurial Bracken (`no-one quite believed anything that Brendan Bracken said'), but also of another businessman with an exceptional interest in history, finance and war, Garrett Moore, Earl of Drogheda, who was managing director of the Financial Times in 1945-70 and chairman 1971-75 and who remained a good friend to the magazine through the early period even after Bracken himself had retired from active involvement.

Briggs himself wrote on Sir Robert Peel just a few months after the launch of the new magazine, and was delighted that several of the illustrations chosen for that article were previously unknown to him. Curiously, the succeeding article in the same issue was on Lewes, now Lord Briggs's home town, and it includes a photograph of the very house in which he now lives. History Today has always aimed to produce unusual and relevant images: but perhaps we have not often succeeded in achieving anything quite so fortuitously appropriate!

Book of the Year

The 1,000 [pounds sterling] Longman-History Today Book of the Year Award, given for a historian's first or second book, went to David Armitage for The Ideological Origins of the British Empire, published by Cambridge UP. …

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