A discursive look at Napoleonic & ECW wargaming, plus a load of old Hooptedoodle on this & that

Saturday, 8 October 2011

History as Entertainment - Mixed Messages?

If you do not get to see British TV then the first section of this may be rather meaningless, but the ideas are probably more significant than the actual instances of shows. I must also point out that to some extent I am in the same situation, since I watch very little broadcast TV. I like to watch live football (that's soccer, if there is any ambiguity) but, since I refuse on principle to pay money to that nice Mr Murdoch's empire, and since his cable channel seems to own all live football now, I don't get to see much of that either. I do enjoy films and other DVD items, however.

My son (who is 9) and I have recently been working our way through the box set of DVDs of Simon Schama's History of Britain, produced by the mighty BBC, and I think it is very good. The BBC mostly do these things well, as long as the director doesn't get distracted, and as long as the budget holds up. Schama's series was broadcast around 2000-02, and - though I was aware of it - I saw none of it at the time. Anyway, it is vigorous, loud, and entertainingly in-your-face. Original music is by John Harle, which can't be bad, and the photography is what you would expect. And then there is Schama.

Schama is that hottest of BBC properties, a scholar with charisma. His academic credentials are inescapable, he has a very strong presence, to be sure, maybe even spiced with a dignified touch of Essex laddishness, and he presents his story and his viewpoint firmly - with due emphasis on the blood and guts. I find it a little hard to warm to him - a fact which will not disturb Dr Schama at all, I realise - and I wondered why I had some reservations about him. He comes across as rather deadpan - it may be his script, but he is reading it to camera, and it is not at all conversational. This is a man who is used to delivering his stuff in lecture halls, and that may be an environment in which he is more natural. Later, of course, I realised that he has the appalling handicap of reminding me strongly - in voice and appearance - of a headmaster I had, who was a brilliant man encumbered with the most irritating personality. Yes - I know this is a digression - I am handling it....

Anyway - the point of all this is that the whole idea is that Dr Schama is telling us a story - he is setting out for us, entertainingly, what he thinks happened. They did this, on this date, for these reasons, and this is what happened as a result, and this is what I think about it, and this is the consequence today. The classic format for recounting history - by the fireside, in the pub, in the camp. I know about this subject, it's a good story, and I will tell it to you. This is also why Schama has been accused of dumbing down the shows, which says more about his accusers than anything else. Popular history on TV (and elsewhere) is intended as entertainment (duh?), otherwise no-one would watch it. All those poor wannabe intellectuals who did one term of European history as part of their aborted Open University course should calm down a bit, and watch an expert, humbly, and learn something. If it is the wrong show for them, don't watch it. Hey! - simple.

And this got me right back into thinking about previous discussions on this blog and elsewhere about styles and fashions in written history. I am a big fan of Sir Charles Oman's A History of the Peninsular War, which was written a long time ago, to be sure, and which comes in for a lot of criticism now because it is a product of its day, and does not conform to contemporary standards of how history should be written. At the moment, because I am trying to pin down some details of the activities of that most wispy, shape-changing thing, the Spanish Army, I have been referring to a number of books simultaneously - including Vol.6 of Oman and a couple of Charles Esdaile's excellent, more recent, books. The contrast in style is very obvious, and I cannot really find fault with any of them. Oman (who I imagine had a fine, resonant voice, for some reason) will tell you something to the effect that Napier thinks that ABC happened, but he is completely wrong, misled by his political views, and it is obvious from exchanges between Wellington and Giron at this time that DEF, therefore I am pretty certain that GHI is the truth of the matter. So there you have it - let's move on. Esdaile will have numbered references for everything, cross-referenced to his bibliography. This is how it is done now. By the 15th, force JKL was in position at MNO[31]. If you flip to the references section, you will find that [31] says ibid. If you follow the trails back you will find that Prof Esdaile is making a point, but it is not just his opinion, it is taken directly from a paper by a Colonel Gomez written in 1863. Now there's unshakeable evidence. Just the facts, ma'am - just the facts.

Just a doggone minute. Where did Gomez get his version from? Is it cross-referenced? Does all this go back to some tablet of stone? In fact, isn't it possible that Oman also read Gomez' paper, but didn't mention the fact? The current style of not-dumbed-down popular history is in some ways reflective of the whole politically-correct, don't-blame-me culture in which we live. I shall express an opinion, but I shall claim it is impartial because it is not my opinion, I got it from that person over there (on page 231, to be exact). Fair enough, but there are double standards at work here as well. Random example - a quote from Esdaile's splendid Fighting Napoleon - Guerrillas, Bandits & Adventurers in Spain 1808-14:

"In Spain. as we have seen, the Patriot authorities made great efforts to swing the populace behind the struggle against Napoleon. But, as Linda Colley has shown in her seminal work Britons, modern nationalism depends on the completion of a series of social processes, including historical acculturalisation, urbanisation, the collapse of rural insularity and the spread of popular literacy.[85]" - and [85], as you would expect, points faithfully to a reference in Ms Colley's book.

Erm - OK. No real problem with that. The identification of Colley's work as seminal sounds dangerously close to a personal opinion. The whole reference may even be of debatable relevance, though you can bet your boots it will be accurately recorded in the bibliog. But - you know what, Prof Esdaile? - if you believe something to be the case, just say so. I'm not really interested in most of the references - apart from anything else, they may add only an illusory layer of accuracy, and I am certainly not going to reassemble all your sources to reconstruct my own version of events. Give us a break, just tell us the story. If there is a doubt, we may get hold of someone else's version, to see what they think. Just go for it.

With every possible respect to the modern writers, I find old Sir Charles Oman, in his waistcoat and his study, a more engaging prospect.


  1. There are always alternative views to everything but as you said they must do what they do pretty much the way they do, or they would not have the job.

    Relatively few of us read the older stuff, about any increasingly smaller niche topics.

    Your son has the benefit of your correctives to the way it is now being presented, and that is far more than the average bear will get.

    I think I will read some Napier anyway pretty soon, whatever the others say about it.

    Last night I was talking to a couple regular guys about Hannibal, the elephants, the fleets, the Phoenicians and Cannae, and the salt ploughed into the earth, all to explain the scene in True Romance where Christopher Walken murders Dennis Hopper.

    Without that popular movie scene they had no other reference to the story, but that created interest.

  2. Sounds like Professor Esdaile's work might just contain a bit of (and suffer from) 'dissertationese'. . . That strange affliction, no doubt a holdover from his graduate school thesis days. A very interesting post nevertheless.

    Best Regards,


  3. Oman gets a great deal of stick for his assessment of Maida, but it seems such a small thing compared to the amount of things he did right.

    His assessments in some way are rather more to be than many modern commentators because he is closer in time and mind to the men he's writing about.

  4. Amen.

    oh and an aside, re Napier, at least, as some have said (no references, sorry) at least he was there (and colourful!)