The new rock'n'roll

Consuming the past has become big business. But are we in danger of turning history into a heritage

I still haven't forgotten the day I read the first chapter. This book was like no other history text my schoolteacher had given me. "The facts are available to the historian . . . like fish on the fishmonger's slab. The historian collects them, takes them home, and cooks and serves them in whatever style appeals to him." E H Carr's What is History? enticed me, like thousands of other teenaged students, to make the leap of understanding that turned "history" from a litany of events handed down from the blackboard to a malleable process actually cooked up by the historians.

Carr's book was published in 1961, the result of a series of Cambridge lectures about the meaning and methods of studying history. On publication, What is History? was bombarded with critical assaults from rival heavyweight historical thinkers of the day: A J P Taylor, Isaiah Berlin and Geoffrey Elton. Many regarded Carr's views as eccentric, or even dangerous. By contrast, for aspiring pupils such as myself, its punchy prose and vivid turn of phrase, so different from the standard, dry-as-dust historical fare, have been a revelation. It went on to sell more than a quarter of a million copies. As Carr's original American publisher once said: "That's a lot of influence on a lot of historians as well as a lot of plain civilians."

The plain civilians are today consuming a lot of history. History is big business. In the world of publishing, it has been second only to computing as a growth area of non- fiction. There are rumours of advances to academic authors of sums that would have been considered unseemly in the senior common room only ten years ago. Editors who once would have considered tomes on medicine or the finer points of the Ottoman empire far too unimaginative and unliterary have hastily been setting up history lists. In television, commissioning editors cite the success of their history output as proof that dumbing down is not happening after all. As one national newspaper put it recently, "Dr Starkey beats Des Lynam". And there's more to come: the BBC is making a reality TV show based on life in the trenches.

Somewhat inevitably, last month, the first ever global congress of television history producers proclaimed that "history is the new rock'n'roll". More accurate would be the comment by Richard J Evans, professor of modern history at Cambridge and author of a new introduction to Carr's book: "History is the new gardening."

Carr would no doubt have liked all this iconoclasm and publicity. After all, he was no respecter of the ivory tower himself. He did not have a degree, let alone a doctorate, in history. When he finally took a job in academia in his mid-forties, it was in international relations, and even then he spent most of his time being assistant editor of the Times. What is History? was based on his Trevelyan lectures, for which Carr wrangled more publicity than any Trevelyan series before or since (and they were broadcast on BBC Radio).

But Carr's book is all about the essence of history. What makes a historical fact? Can historians be objective? Who or what controls events: the free will of individuals or pre-determined social forces? Age-old questions, perhaps, but ones that he managed to bring alive. Carr might have been surprised that historians, as they have glided out of the academy and into the spotlight of the public arena, have not always taken some of these thorny topics with them. There are fantastic narratives being told at the moment (and we all love a good story), but Carr liked a good argument, too.

Where is the debate? We have had the engrossing personalised histories of nations, kings and battlefields - but who is going to get the right of reply? Where is the tussle over evidence in the current crop of films and books? Where, even, is the exploration of the tools of the job with which workaday historians actually "make history"? The most startling moment in David Starkey's recent series The Six Wives of Henry VIII was not one of the much-vaunted reconstructions, but the scene where Starkey expertly guided us through a letter from Catherine of Aragon to her estranged husband-king - in good English, with elegant handwriting. Suddenly the television frontman, the Tudor impersonators and the expensive sets melted away; this determined woman, trapped far from her home country, was real.

"Argument over interpretation"? "Conflict over sources"? You can almost hear the commissioning editors reaching for the real gardening programmes. But if history is to mean more than heritage - preserving a sentiment and admiration for times past but not locking horns with them - surely we have to grapple with the nitty-gritty of how historians actually make up their minds on tricky subjects. How does an expert mould and shape what Carr called "the raw material" of history? The runaway success of, say, Time Team, the archaeological programme, has shown that the apparently unfashionable process of piecing together the past doesn't have to be a turn-off.

In fact, the most important public showcase for the meaning of the past in this country in recent years was neither a book nor a television programme. It was a trial. And the chief battleground in the case of David Irving v Deborah Lipstadt and Penguin Books was evidence. Simply reminding people of the dramatic narrative of that dark episode is apparently no longer enough - it has to be proved.

That has not stopped critics from blaming the education system's obsession with primary sources for the decline in history at school. The map of time has been lost, it is claimed. Perhaps. History is certainly only of "add-on" value for a government preoccupied with what it considers to be the economic value of the products of our education system. But the ability to decipher books, documents, pictures and newspaper reports is one of the greatest skills that history can bequeath its students. That is why it was considered the training ground for generations of civil servants. A good understanding of the dubious relationship between "how it really was" and what was actually recorded at the time - or, rather, what was not allowed to be said - would come in rather useful in our current global predicament.

Uncovering new archives, new witnesses, new evidence: this has been one of the great contributions of television history. Library-bound academics have often been intellectually opposed to looking for such people or film footage, or have simply lacked the know-how or budgets to find them. But now, with the success of presenter-led history blockbusters, it has become fashionable in some places to attack these "old-fashioned" archive and eyewitness programmes. In fact, they were at the heart of the first wave of popular history's renaissance. It was the unexpectedly large viewing figures for Laurence Rees's The Nazis: a warning from history in 1997 that ignited interest in the potentially vast audiences for history. Rees and his team confronted ordinary elderly Germans with unfortunate statements from their Nazi youth that had been dug out of the archives. It made gripping television.

Despite this, and despite the success of "history from below", many historians persist in regarding oral evidence as an unreliable, "sentimental" project. Carr himself was uninterested in the history of "the people". To this former Foreign Office mandarin, history was the history of the governors, not the governed.

The dominance of the written document has been challenged by television history in other ways, too. It has opened up the power of the image to a profession that many have usually seen as visually prejudiced. And it has used those images to create exciting new formats to communicate the past. But now it has to challenge its audience with fresh subject matter, too; otherwise, the numbers game will lead in a circle to Nazis and yet more Nazis. Entering a bookshop these days, and surveying the range of hoary old historical chestnuts, it is worth remembering that Sellar and Yeatman's 1066 and All That was actually a satire.

And then there's politics. One of the most vehement attacks on Carr's book came from Hugh Trevor-Roper, then professor of modern history at Oxford. As he repeated in a recent BBC interview, Trevor-Roper regarded Carr's reliance on the "impersonal forces" of historical change as the pseudo-Marxism of a fellow traveller. After all, Carr's real magnum opus was one of the first histories of Soviet Russia. But Trevor-Roper's attack appeared in the CIA-backed Encounter - it was one more salvo in the battle of cold war intellects. According to Carr's biographer Jonathan Haslam, in later years Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Jimmy Carter's national security adviser, called Carr one of the three most dangerous scholars in the UK.

By contrast, with a few impressive exceptions on the right, today's big-league British history is a relatively politics-free zone, and no doubt deliberately so. It seems hard to remember that so many thinkers of the New Left had day jobs as historians. History was the place where radicals "turned the world upside down" - and did it with an exciting narrative, too.

The point is that history for those writers wasn't just a kind of antiquarianism. It was another place for living arguments. Carr put it like this: "When you read a work of history, always listen out for the buzzing. If you detect none, either you are tone deaf or your historian is a dull dog." Popular history should not be a refuge from our contemporary dilemmas. It should be a challenge. We need some more buzzing.

Matthew Dodd is a producer for Radio 3's Night Waves

This article first appeared in the 10 December 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Special Report - The great Koran con trick