Schama leads the new rock'n'roll

Observations on history

Antony Beevor's war tomes Stalingrad and Berlin have been selling like Elastoplast at Agincourt. David Starkey earned £75,000 an episode for his last Channel 4 series, and Simon Schama topped them all this month with a multimedia deal for £3m. The super- historians have arrived.

Not that there is anything new about bestselling history. Scott Pack, product buying manager for Waterstone's, argues that although cross-media tie-ins have recently created some high-profile authors, history has been one of the shop's most popular subjects for a long time.

Pack's description of his readers' purchasing patterns is revealing. A customer will come in and buy A History of Britain because of the TV programme, and often return to buy more books on whichever period interests them, eventually buying relatively obscure authors as their interests specialise: the origins of the British navy, say, or women in Victorian England. Just like research students - except that their research costs them £30 a pop.

Yet despite its recent success, which has led to a 40 per cent increase in university applications to study history, a professional historian in the UK still faces a meagre salary, tough competition and lack of status. Starter salaries for lecturing or teaching posts are still about £16,000. The Arts and Humanities Research Board is struggling to give 20 per cent of its (mostly First-class Oxbridge) applicants awards for postgraduate research, despite a decline in applications. These conditions have led to a brain drain to America that includes not only Simon Schama, but also Richard Tuck, Anthony Pagden and Jay Winter.

Universities UK, which represents vice-chancellors around the country, recently made the case to the government that history is now financially useful to the state: the British Tourist Authority said that last year, despite the foot-and-mouth outbreak, earnings from visits to historical sites rose 4 per cent, hitting a record £280m. The group hopes this will result in the elevation of the Arts and Humanities Research Board to a research council, with the power to command a more realistic budget than its current £70m.

How these funds will be channelled poses another problem. Since A J P Taylor's time, the same big topics (the Holocaust, the world wars, colourful British monarchs) have been attracting more students, have been the subject of more published works - and get more research grants. The government's fund allocation policy has reinforced this tendency. The policy means that more money goes to those departments which have published the most within a set time period. As a result, rather than co-operating, departments are competing for funds. But an academic culture lacking in diversity will fail to produce a new generation of Schamas and Beevors.

Schama makes a passionate case for the handing over of knowledge dissemination from the fusty academics in their cloisters to TV presenters, as an act of democracy. Put history back where it belongs, he cries - with the people. Schama himself is big enough to publish what he likes, as the addendum to his HarperCollins deal shows. In addition to the two TV tie-in books so far, he is to publish a philosophical work on the idea of Utopia. At the moment, history is controlling the market. Unless knowledge is valued as more than a commodity, the market will end up controlling history.