Nigel Jones

History must at least be readable if we’re to learn anything from it

Richard Cohen has little time for those academic historians who continue to write arid books seemingly only for each other

History must at least be readable if we’re to learn anything from it
The historian A.J.P. Taylor in 1971. [Getty Images]
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Making History: The Storytellers Who Shaped the Past

Richard Cohen

Weidenfeld & Nicolson, pp. 753, £25

Richard Cohen was once one of our foremost book editors as well as being an Olympic sabre champion. Since moving to New York 20 years ago he has turned author himself, writing books on Tolstoy, the sun and his own sport of swordsmanship. Now he focuses his attention on historians.

His aim, he tells us at the outset of this superb survey from Herodotus to Mary Beard, is to discover the opinions, biases and open prejudices of those who chronicled the past and thus shaped the way we view it. Making History is very much a compendium of his own tastes and enthusiasms, and cheerfully omits such masters as Clarendon and Carlyle, whose histories of the English Civil War and the French Revolution laid the foundations of all subsequent historiography of those events. But Cohen’s prejudices make for a highly entertaining read: his fencer’s eye skewers the quirky and bizarre, and he peppers his informative essays and potted biographies with anecdotes that reveal his chosen historians in all their gamey glory.

We hear, for example, the (possibly apocryphal) story of how those great rivals A.J.P. Taylor and Hugh Trevor Roper were mischievously commissioned to write each other’s obituaries, and then, by accident or design, sent each other’s work for revision in the wrong envelopes. Cohen probes the weak points in their armour: how both men were seduced from writing the big books expected of them by the new genre of TV history – something which Taylor practically invented – or the rewards of tabloid journalism.

He also catches the sadness in their lives – the doubts and disappointments that the donnish point-scoring and vicious reviews could not conceal: how Taylor was bled dry by his wife’s ruinous passion for Dylan Thomas, and how Lord Dacre (as Trevor Roper became) went to his grave with the mocking laughter of long-scorned colleagues ringing in his ears for his over-hasty authentication of the forged Hitler diaries. (‘Fuck Dacre: Publish!’ was Rupert Murdoch’s famous response when told that the historian was having second thoughts.)

Readers will have their own quibbles with Cohen’s choice of subjects to highlight. For me, he is too reverent of the school of Marxists that dominated British history in the mid 20th century – Christopher Hill, E.H. Carr, E.P. Thompson et al – and also far too easy on Eric Hobsbawm, who infamously argued that the millions of deaths caused by Stalin would have been worthwhile if they had produced ‘radiant tomorrows’ for humanity in general. At least Hill had the decency to leave the Communist party after the repression of Hungary’s revolution in 1956, whereas Hobsbawm remained a member until its dissolution.

Cohen lays a few swishes of his bastinado on the many academics today who continue to write arid books, seemingly for each other. If we are to learn from history, he argues, it should at least be readable – and great historians such as Gibbon, Macaulay and Trevelyan wrote like angels.

Undeniably most of what has passed for history until recently has been produced by white males about the deeds of other white males. Much has changed, and credit belongs partly to Barbara Tuchman, C.V. Wedgwood and Cecil Woodham-Smith – a trio of white women scholars who first broke out of the box to write pioneering works, chiefly of military history – though, as Cohen points out, two of them disguised their gender to do so.

Some of the historians whose stories Cohen recounts – Caesar, Churchill and Stalin for example – were themselves the makers of the history they wrote about, and blew their own trumpets. As Churchill said: ‘It will be found much better by all parties to leave the past to history, especially as I propose to write that history myself.’ Sprinkling his stardust over the research of a team of young historians, he did just that.

Witty, wise and elegant, this tremendous book deserves to become a classic of history itself.