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  1. Politics
12 June 2000

Don’t mess with our history

Theme parks and films can't really tell us what it was like to be alive in the past

By Joan Bakewell

Broadcasters who are keen on serious programming generally deplore the ratings-chasing values that prevail today. Except, that is, when they turn in their favour. David Starkey is currently rejoicing – and quite right, too – that his four-part series about Elizabeth I for Channel 4 has beaten Ali G, Friends and Frasier in the popularity stakes. This serious-minded, seriously addressed account chalked up the numbers in favour of History with a capital H.

In another part of the forest, My Generation – the series I have made for BBC2 – is already exceeding the viewing figures expected of that particular time slot. In My Generation, I draw on the personal recollections of a remarkable group of people to highlight a particular aspect of postwar British society: the rise of the liberal left. History is quite clearly popular once again.

But then, oh dear, there is wrong history. The recently premiered American film U-571 tells how the American navy was the first to snatch an Enigma cipher machine from a German U-boat, thus critically speeding up the decoding of German plans and hastening the end of the war in the Atlantic. Except it didn’t happen like that at all. The first Enigma device was seized by a Royal Navy attack in 1941, a venture in which several sailors drowned. The episode gets no mention in the film, and Chris Smith, the Culture Secretary, is planning to complain to Hollywood.

Much good may it do! Response to the film has been divided, with critics declaring: “Forget history; this is a ripping yarn.” And historians and relatives claiming: “It may be a ripping yarn, but it was our ripping yarn. And, more importantly, our sacrifice.”

What appears to be grabbing the public is the telling of what used to be called “Our Island Story” – an account of major events and outstanding characters that have shaped our past. Over recent decades, this history has been regarded as a triumphalist expression of empire that told only the version acceptable to the prevailing political power structure. So it had to go. I was made aware of this personally when, on a visit to India, I found that what I had been taught was the Indian Mutiny was referred to in Indian schoolbooks as the First War of Independence.

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Nevertheless, the actual facts are not in dispute. There are absolutes in history – dates of battles, clauses of treaties, lines of succession. What history does is reinterpret those facts in the light of its own values. It matters that we draw the distinction.

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“Our Island Story” was replaced by another kind of history-teaching, the experiential, designed to help us understand what it was actually like to be in the Great Fire of London, in a slave ship sailing to America or in the trenches of the Somme. The appeal was to our feelings and sympathy, rather than to the exact remembering of facts and the critical analysis of how things happened. Chronology was out in favour of disparate gobbets of experience: how did a soldier wounded in the Crimean war feel?

I believe it is impossible to know what it was like to be alive in another time, to live in the consciousness of another era from our own. I have tried imagining it with the help of numerous theme parks and exhibitions. I recently spent a happy day at Suffolk’s Anglo-Saxon village: a group of thatched houses made in the authentic way, equipped with the right pots and skins, fires kindled, people dressed in the correct wool and linen using vegetable dyes, doing period needlework, weaving and making bows and arrows. It was all very plausible. This, if anything, should give me the real sense of history. But it didn’t. It didn’t tell me about the Saxon view of the departed Romans and their abandoned buildings. Nor did it help me experience the fear of marauding Danes coming towards me across the heathland.

We can’t get out of our own skins or the implicit thinking of our own age. The effort may be fun and imaginative, but it carries risk. In being urged to empathise with the past, we can become emotionally involved with it, even feel it was happening to us. And, here, the Blame Game begins to do a roaring trade. Cowed into shame and regret about the empire, in which we ourselves have played no part, we post-empire British are called upon to apologise for the slave trade, the treatment of the Abori-gines, the Amritsar massacre.

These events and many like them were certainly appalling. They deserve and get our full and total condemnation. But to inherit the blame is to misunderstand history. We do not share the consciousness of the people who perpetrated such atrocities and if, with today’s sensibilities, our generation had been there, the events would not have unfolded as they did.

Then, there’s fiction. We don’t expect films such as Cleopatra or Gone with the Wind to be accurate. An entire genre, the western, was founded on a premise about American history that we find unacceptable. But these are labelled clearly as fiction, and we know history is something else. It is when a generation of Americans are offered a tale purporting to be truthful, when it is manifestly not, that the perception of who we and they are is threatened.

The insights of history are not only full of fascinating human behaviour; they offer guidance on how to avoid making the same mistakes all over again. Churchill wrote his History of the English-Speaking Peoples with “the hope that contemplation of the trials and tribulations of our forefathers may not only fortify the English-speaking peoples of today, but also play some small part in uniting the whole world”. Now there’s a political agenda.