Stephen Fry: Electrifies crowd with speech about history

Historians in the News

[Take part - It's your heritage

History Matters - pass it on is a campaign to raise public awareness of the huge contribution that history, heritage and the built environment make to our quality of life. It unites the whole heritage sector, led by the National Trust, English Heritage, the Historic Houses Association and the Heritage Lottery Fund, and events will be held over the next six months at hundreds of historic locations across England and Wales. Supporters include David Starkey, Tristram Hunt, Simon Thurley, Stephen Fry, Bill Bryson, Shami Chakrabarti, Tony Benn and Boris Johnson.]

At the launch of a new campaign last week to promote the study of history, Stephen Fry made a passionate appeal that we use the gripping narratives of the past to make sense of the world today. Here we publish the remarkable speech that dazzled an audience of writers and historians

Sunday July 9, 2006
The Observer

Why does history matter? A better man might be able to answer with far more questions than answers. Whenever the importance of history is discussed, epigrams and homilies come tripping easily off our tongues: How can we understand our present or glimpse our future if we cannot understand our past? How can we know who we are if we don't know who we were? While history may be condemned to repeat itself, historians are condemned to repeat themselves. History is bunk or possibly bunkum. History is a comedy to those who think and a tragedy to those who feel. History is written by the victor. Historians are prophets looking backwards. Or we could paraphrase EM Forster on the novel. 'Does history tell a story? Oh, dear me yes, history tells a story.'
Historians, more than any other class, spend a great deal of time justifying their trade, defining it and aphorising it, seeming to lavish more attention on historiography than history. After all, is there such a thing as history or are there only histories? For all the oddities of some arcane scientific research, we all know that science eventually leads to making light bulbs work, car engines run and failed hearts pump again. Can we test the value of history in the same way? Can we prove that a politician, a financier or a spot-welder is better, happier or more fulfilled for possessing a feel for history?

But ... isn't history now just point of view, tribal assertion, cultural propaganda? After all, the days of Burke, Macaulay, Gibbon, Trevelyan and Froude are over. Historians are no longer grandees at the centre of a fixed civilisation; they are simply journalists writing about celebrities who haven't got the grace to be alive any more. Certainly, some people sense in our world, even if they can't prove it, a new and bewildering contempt for the past. In the high street of life, as it were, no one seems to look above the shop-line. Today's plastic signage at street level is the focus; yesterday's pilasters, corbels and pediments above are neither noticed nor considered, save by what some would call cranks and conservationists.

There are those who wonder if the whole of history is now valuable only as a politically correct lesson in the stupidity and cruelty of monarchs, aristocrats, industrialists and generals. Stern, loveless voices tell us that history as we know it is an irrelevance, with its obsession with dead white men, or with Judaeo-Christianity, or classical antiquity, or the West, or enlightenment, or wars, dynasties and treaties. Marxists, Althusserians, formalists, revisionists, historians of Empire or against Empire - forget them all. You don't even have to dignify it with ideological abstractions any more; history is really the story of a series of subjugations, oppressions, exploitations and abuses.

Or history is heritage studies: cotton mills, marshalling yards and collieries smartened up as 'resources' for school trips; take the kids into the kitchens and servants' quarters of the stately home and ignore the saloons and great rooms above stairs for fear of giving offence. British culture, besieged on all sides by guilt: guilt at empire, guilt at English domination of the United Kingdom, guilt at slavery, at industrial wage-slavery, at Boer Wars, Afghan Wars, mutinies, massacres and maladministrations.

History, then, as one long, grovelling apology or act of self-abasement and self-laceration. A history in which historians have to stand on one side of an argument or another, for, in between, they are nothing but dry-as-dust statisticians. Or we see historians as creepy hindsight critics who can, in the safety of their studies, point out to Alexander the Great and Napoleon where they went wrong and how they would have done it better.

And yet, against this, we measure the exponential growth in the public appetite for history. Has it ever been a better time to be a historian? In publishing and in broadcasting, history is a phenomenon that continues to exceed expectations. Enthusiasts bounding about from battlefield to palace and castle and back again, filling more air time then ever before. From Melvyn Bragg's matchless colloquies on Radio 4 to documentary series bearing the proud epithets 'landmark', 'flagship', 'prestige' 'must-see', 'event TV' and 'water-cooler moments'. Just recently, we've had themed evenings on BBC 4 on the 18th century as well as documentaries and big news items on the Somme. Certainly, history is popular in grand traditional forms, but new subgenres of history have, for the last 20 years, exploded in popularity, too. The history of science, philosophy and thought: sidelights are more popular than floodlights - small histories of the cod, tulips, salt, sugar or the pepper gardens of India, little books with names like 'Darwin's Walking Stick', Newton's Trousers' or 'Brahi's Nose'; whole genres on voyages of discovery, at least 10 books on Joseph Banks of the Endeavour and Captain Fitzroy of the Beagle, books on the transit of Venus and longitude and Sumerian counting systems all seem to be flying off the shelves....

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