I have recently read The History Men by John Kenyon. I remember reading a different book, The History Man by Malcolm Bradbury, some years ago. I did not find Bradbury’s book at all funny, which I am told it is intended to be. After a careful reading I had not the slightest inkling of what the book was supposed to be about. Indeed I thought my mind was going. There is no such problem about Kenyon’s book. It is a well-written, straightforward account of how English history has been written in England during the last three or four hundred years. John Kenyon is very competent, very fair. He does not seem to have any favourite, though he admits that Gibbon, not a writer of English history, has slipped in because he was the greatest of English historians. Quite right, I think, even though Gibbon hardly passes any of the present-day tests. He never looked at a single manuscript text. He did not know that the past is different from the present. He captures the reader with his wit rather than his scholarship, though that is pretty good as well.
Otherwise Kenyon writes only on those who wrote about English history. The result is one of the funniest books I have ever read. The individual historians whom Kenyon presents have usually been conscientious scholars devoted to the muse of history. Some of them were even accurate about their facts. But the Profession, as Kenyon calls it, is incurably comic. I can think of nothing else in the intellectual field that has provoked so much controversy and venom over the centuries. Maybe the biologists were as virulent at the height of the Darwin controversy. But their row did not last very long. The historians have been at it for centuries and are still disputing as lavishly as ever. The topics of dispute have varied; the energy flung into them has remained the same.
Though the writing of history has gone on for a long time, the profession of history is quite recent. Gibbon was not a professional historian – he was a gentleman of leisure who wrote history for fun. Macaulay, on the other hand, wrote history for money and earned sums unparalleled until the present day. The 19th century was the best time for historians. In those days an historian was a man who wrote works of history and the works were of inordinate length. No nonsense about the historian teaching young students – that was done by hacks who were not qualified to do anything else. Nowadays the historian is so busy tutoring, lecturing and sitting on committees that he has virtually no time to write books at all. Then think of the great names that adorn the 19th century: Carlyle, Freeman, Froude, Seely, Acton. They usually disliked each other. Froude was an exception in that he idolised Carlyle: but this did not prevent his writing a highly libellous biography of Carlyle after the latter’s death. Acton also was an exception in that unlike the others he did not write anything at all. I am glad to say this has now consigned him to oblivion – one of the great frauds of Christendom.
Historians nowadays have to spend much of their time in trivial tasks but I am glad to report that it is possible to write substantial works of history if you skimp your other work. I know: I have written thirty works of history over a period of just under fifty years. I am also glad to report that contemporary historians are as controversial as their 19th-century predecessors. What they dispute over are new methods of history which have nothing to do with narrative. I am at a loss over this. I think that history has no purpose unless it answers the child’s question, ‘What happened next?’ This rules me out of serious consideration. Not that I mind. I write history for fun and have done all my life.
I have just seen a great film. I saw it in unpropitious circumstances – a community centre with a sheet as screen. I thought Closely Observed Trains the best film I had ever seen when I first saw it years ago. I thought the same when I saw it a few days ago. It is incomparable in its simplicity. The original story is by a Czech writer, Bohumil Hrabal. It should certainly be translated into English. It does not diminish its grandeur that there was very little sabotage by the Czechs during the Second World War.
It is very rare for me to see a film and even rarer to see two quite close together. My excuse is that I saw the second on television and not a good print at that. The film was Sunset Boulevard, the film put on in honour of Gloria Swanson when she died. It was a very daring gesture for an aging film star to inspire a film about a decaying film star. It was an even more daring gesture to parade the melodrama of her younger years. I don’t think Gloria Swanson could have carried it alone. What nearly made Sunset Boulevard a great film was Erich von Stroheim, one of whose finest performances this was. Perhaps male actors do not age as rapidly as women or maybe they can become different but still brilliant personalities. At any rate there he was in full glory. The climax comes when von Stroheim calls ‘Action!’ to the waiting press photographers and he called it as vividly as he did sixty years before. My memories of von Stroheim go back to Blind Husbands and Foolish Wives. One of the two, I forget which, ends with von Stroheim being dropped down a manhole. I cannot remember any film by Gloria Swanson but I once met her on a television chat show and she was delightful company – sensible and unassuming. I said to her afterwards: ‘Miss Swanson, I have been waiting for fifty years to express my admiration of you.’ It was not true but it gave her pleasure and she deserved it.
I do not like Abroad. It took me a long time to realise this. Year after year I went on sightseeing trips or ‘Did’ some foreign city. In this earnest way I have ‘done’ Rome, Paris, Florence, Amsterdam and countless more. Now I have written off these pursuits of culture. I go to Budapest because my wife’s sons live there. Some time soon I shall visit Vienna to renew acquaintance with old friends and with one particular friend once dear to me. But no more tramps round cities with a Companion guide.
There is one exception to this sweeping renunciation of foreign tours. Every time I visit Venice I like it more. The absence of motor-cars transforms it into an Elysium, something quite unimaginable until you get there. It is of course also an asset that there are some things to see. I am not keen on the paintings, though everyone tells me that they are very good. I have never managed to see a Tintoretto. I have looked at Tintoretto’s famous pictures but they are all so dark that I can never see them. I give the prize to Carpaccio and he takes only a couple of hours. Otherwise I keep clear of the Accademia and still more of the famous churches. As to St Mark’s it is quite incomprehensible. There are two churches which rank among the finest in the world: S. Maria dei Miracoli and, even finer, S. Nicolo dei Mendicoli, which has recently recaptured its ancient splendour.
I have just spent a delightful week in Venice and yet I must confess it is within sight of ruin. Instead of motor-cars it is being ruined by an excess of people, particularly parties of schoolchildren. The little brutes are everywhere, screaming and shouting. They display not the slightest interest in the buildings they are supposed to be visiting: they just rush on all the more wildly. Their teacher or whoever is in charge of them makes no attempt to explain what they are looking at or to stir up their interest. It is enough that they can be kept on the noisy move. Schoolchildren should be taken to see things that interest them, such as football matches. Venice should be preserved from the under-twenties.
I suppose I ought to make some comment on Hitler’s alleged diaries. Unlike my historical colleagues, I do not hurry into print with some easy answer. It would take me months if not years of work to arrive at the truth. Maybe I never would. The question is of little importance. The diaries, even if authentic, make little modification in the historical record ... Indeed they make none at all. Who cares about Hitler nowadays? He has become a sort of prehistoric monster. I am inclined to dismiss the diaries as an ingenious forgery. Now if these were Stalin’s diaries ...
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.