Saturday, July 03, 2010

History can be sexy and the historian rockstar (July 4, 2010)

By Swapan Dasgupta

Novelists and poets have traditionally provided much-needed fodder to gossip columnists. Their little quirks, eccentricities and bohemianism have added spice to the more predictable tidbits concerning politicians, film stars and the category that has come to be known as “footballers’ wives”. As an enthusiastic consumer of tittle-tattle, it is interesting that there is a new category of people who have made it to the celebrity lists: historians.

The idea of a dreary professor who spends his days burrowing through the archives or slyly ogling the skimpily-clad undergraduate, making it to the gossip columns is, of course, absurd. Oxbridge life, as Rab Butler, a successful Conservative politician who went on to become Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, put it, was too mired in “endless Port and dignity” to warrant popular attention.

Fortunately, the better class of historian tends to be more exciting than the average, better-paid economist. AJP Taylor, the history don at Magdalen, Oxford, was unquestionably one of the most stimulating chroniclers of the past. Yet, he was passed over for the prized post of Regius Professor at the ancient university because he dabbled too much in the popular media including, horror of horrors, television. Had Taylor been alive today, he would have been a permanent fixture of London high society — by which I don’t mean Russian tycoons or cricket impresarios who drive around Buckingham Gate in Ferraris.

Fortunately, Taylor’s inheritance hasn’t been squandered. In the last few years, historians who invariably have the ‘right-wing’ prefix attached to them have become regulars on the society pages. There is Andrew Roberts, whose masterly studies of Lord Salisbury and Lord Halifax (Indians knew him as Lord Irwin, the Viceroy who invited the ‘half-naked fakir’ to the palace on Raisina Hill) are well worth perusing. His History of the English-speaking Peoples since 1900, an account of the Anglo sphere that includes a generous assessment of Lt Gen Dyer of Jallianwala Bagh, is worth recommending.

Leading the pack is, of course, Niall Ferguson, now professor at Harvard but more famous for his book and TV series, Empire. Ferguson makes his fellow historians (particularly the ones he left behind in Oxford) green with envy because he has proved that good history also commands a handsome market price. Now romantically linked to the Somali-born Ayaan Hirsi Ali, whose critique of Islam has made her a target of hate, Ferguson has deftly demonstrated that history is not a dead subject but has contemporary resonance.

Linking the present to the past has been the constant endeavour of the historian since Edward Gibbon published his classic The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire between 1776 and 1788. Gibbon did not directly allude to the present: the intelligent historian doesn’t have to. But anyone in the West reliving the steady erosion of Roman authority after Augustus and Tiberius, cannot but be struck by a sense of déjà vu.

Augustus, wrote Gibbon of another time, “bequeathed as a valuable legacy to his successors, the advice of confining the empire within those limits which nature seemed to have placed as its permanent bulwarks and boundaries.” Emperors who violated this unwritten axiom left Rome vulnerable to predatory ‘barbarians’.

Has the West over-reached itself in assuming the role of global cop in Afghanistan? More than 2,000 years after Augustus, the issue of the natural borders of a civilization has become the focus of a West that no longer has the resources and political will to sustain a war against today’s ‘barbarians’. The debate is no longer one of winning the ‘war on terror’ — the theme that resonated in 2001 — but the ‘timetable’ of withdrawal. Once there was a price on the head of Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar. Today, earnest politicians talk of “including the excluded”.

Is Afghanistan symptomatic of a larger decline or is it an expedient step towards course-correction? Western politicians are naturally inclined to suggest the latter. Afghanistan, it is now being suggested, has always been the graveyard of empires. And there are always the celebrity historians to prove the point.

Delhi’s very own White Mogul and toast of the literati, William Dalrymple is now researching the First Anglo-Afghan War of 1838-42. The war, which bears uncanny resemblance to events of another century, was marked by the massacre of 16,000 Britons and Indians and the legend of Dr William Brydon, the only ‘white man’ to reach Jalalabad alive.

The legend inspired the Victorians to persist with Afghanistan. In the reign of this Queen, it has become the flashback for quiet retreat, masquerading as prudence. Maybe we should await an offering from Roberts on Lord Kitchener’s war against the Mahadi in Sudan to demonstrate that all history doesn’t point in one direction.

Sunday Times of India, July 4, 2010

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