Deliberate perversity: David Starkey and Wolf Hall

Self-publicity and celebrity almost certainly require the readiness to make a fool of oneself. Among ‘media historians’ David Starkey, more than most, has made an art form of this. Starkey’s credentials as an historian are impressive, even if his attachment to the traditional field of high politics seems increasingly narrow and dated in an historical landscape that takes a much broader view of how we might study the past. But even more impressive is his fondness for pronouncing on topics about which he knows little, but on which he will reliably offer deliberately controversial soundbites. I recall his consistent entertainment value on the Moral Maze with his abrasive rent-a-quote shock-jock style designed (one can only assume) purely to upset those liberals and lefties who failed to see how lacking in substance his contributions were.

Starkey’s infamous, embarrassingly inept and staggeringly ignorant appearance on Newsnight in the wake of the 2011 riots stands out. Given how well-liked Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech is within far-right circles, declaring that Powell was ‘absolutely right’ might not seem the wisest way for a supposedly intelligent historian to begin an interview. Not unless, that is, one’s aim is to be controversial rather than intelligent. His commitment to controversy rather than reasoned and thoughtful consideration was evident throughout the interview as he provocatively declared that ‘the whites have become black’ and made a crass argument that amounts to the claim that white culture is good and black culture is bad. Missing the point entirely, nothing he said offered any sensible insight into the riots. But he made some headlines for himself which may well have been his primary purpose. That he was prepared to risk coming across as a racist buffoon in the process suggests that all publicity may indeed be good publicity.

Deliberate perversity is a necessary trait of the good controversialist. Consider the following situation: you are asked whether you have watched a recent television programme; you reply honestly that you have not, and nor, you add for good measure, have you read the book on which the programme is based. Most people would refrain from making any comment or judgment on something about which they are ignorant; but ignorance is no bar to the controversialist. And so Starkey, after admitting that he had neither watched the television adaptation of Wolf Hall nor read the original novel by Hilary Mantel, nevertheless somewhat pompously proceeded to accuse the novel of ‘a deliberate perversion of fact’.

Quite what he means by this is unclear, since the novel is consistently faithful to the known historical facts of its subject—of course, Starkey is not likely to know this since he hasn’t read the book. The example he gives of a ‘perversion of fact’ is the ‘great deal of emoting’ by Thomas Cromwell over the death of his wife and daughters. As Starkey notes, there is no evidence to suggest that Cromwell was emotionally affected by this loss; but nor is there evidence to suggest he was emotionally unaffected. As with most of the past, the historical record is here silent. Many historians would claim that an appropriate response to this silence is one of silence themselves. It is not surprising, therefore, that some historians have little time for the historical novel in which the areas of silence become fertile ground for imagination.

But it is one thing to shun the imagination of the novel and quite another to suggest that imagination amounts to a ‘deliberate perversion of fact’. Had Starkey actually read the novel or watched the programme on which he confidently passed judgment, he might have discovered that Cromwell’s emotional response is one of great restraint by modern standards. It hardly seems to form a solid basis on which a sympathetic portrayal of Cromwell might be built. But one suspects that Starkey’s real objection is the possibility of a sympathetic portrait of this traditionally reviled figure (and, conversely, what he has heard about the apparently unsympathetic depiction of Thomas More). Again, had he read the novel (and its sequel, Bring up the Bodies) he would find that Mantel draws a nuanced, complex portrait of her central character. In so far as she makes Cromwell a sympathetic character, it follows from her overriding interest in the human story of Cromwell’s life and career. Unsurprisingly, Starkey misses this important point.

There is of course a wonderful irony here: Starkey criticizes Mantel’s interpretation of Cromwell on the grounds that it is not built on the evidence, yet his own criticism of Wolf Hall stems from a spectacular ignorance of the evidence. The contrast between Mantel’s years of diligent research before writing about Cromwell and Starkey’s inability to spend a few hours reading her novel before passing comment on it is striking.

I have argued elsewhere that Wolf Hall can be considered a legitimate and valuable contribution to our understanding of Tudor history. How we might reconstruct human stories where the historical record is lacking, in ways that have historical value, and whether such attempts should even be made, are interesting questions; in my view, Mantel’s sequence of novels about Cromwell are intelligent and thoughtful answers to those questions that deserve the attention of historians. I do not expect that argument to be shared by all historians, and I am certain that Starkey, given his forceful (albeit, in my view, wrong) distinction between ‘empirical fact’ and ‘fiction’, would not agree with me. What I’m not sure about is which of these is the more deliberately perverse: that an eminent Tudor historian chooses not to engage with a book and television programme that, whether for good or ill, will almost certainly contribute to the way the Tudor period is understood; or that the same historian is prepared to pass public and misguided comment on a book that he has not read.

The Right to Remain Silent? More Quiet in the Classroom

One of my earlier posts, ‘Quiet in the Classroom’, has prompted an interesting discussion on Facebook. The original article concerned my experience of university seminar teaching, specifically in relation to two contrasting seminar groups of history undergraduates: one, a highly vocal group who interacted with one another extremely well; the other, a group in which, no matter what I tried, profound silence was the unshifting, default position. What particularly interested me was that it was the latter group who performed at by far the highest level when it came to formal written assessment. I concluded that this was not necessarily surprising: history is a discipline requiring extensive and solitary reading, reflection and writing, and so those personality types (the introverts) who are most at home when quietly reflecting, and least comfortable when expected to interact publicly within a group, may be especially well-suited to the subject. Yet quiet students are increasingly seen within academia as ‘problem’ students, since they are not meeting academic expectations of contributing regularly to classroom discussions and engaging and interacting vocally with their peers. This seems to be a reflection of the more general tendency to see extroversion as an ideal and introversion as a problem. (In the article I refer to Susan Cain’s fine exploration of this issue in her book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.)

It is clear from some of the comments I have received that a number of students share my feelings about the growing expectation that learning has to be a socially interactive process. As an undergraduate student once myself, I can recall how daunting the seminar was: for me as a shy, introverted type, the prospect of having to speak in front of a group of people (including, of course, someone with vastly more knowledge about the topic of discussion than I had) induced anxious and uncomfortable feelings. The risk of making a fool of myself in front of my peers was forever at the forefront of my mind. I am sure this is a common experience, particularly among students, many of whom are young, lacking in confidence, and anxious about social relationships and how they come across to others. Rather than make them feel that their reticence is a problem, we should instead reassure them that it is perfectly normal.

Of course, part of the point of education is to push and challenge students—to support them in gaining more confidence in areas they may find difficult and uncomfortable, and to prepare them for a future in which they may well at some point have to contribute to meetings or deliver a report. But to approach this task bullishly by demanding that students interact (as some teachers do) is insensitive and narrow-minded. It fails to appreciate that personalities vary, and, worse, it can generate unnecessary anxiety among students to the extent that, counterproductively, studying becomes for them a miserable experience.

A better approach would be to create the right conditions that enable students to contribute if they wish, while respecting the right to remain silent—we should not demand that anyone has to speak if (for whatever reason) they don’t want to, nor should we make a student feel embarrassed, ashamed or a ‘problem’ if they are quiet. Fundamental to the classroom environment is an atmosphere of respect and tolerance—which means that everyone (students and teachers) respect and tolerate the various personalities and views within the group. Rather than become frustrated that some students seem to say too little while others say too much, one might reflect on how the seminar is valuable training for how we can interact constructively with a wide range of people and personalities. For some that means learning to contribute more; for others it means learning to contribute less; for all it means respecting the contributions of others, however sparing or effusive they may be.

Does it really matter anyway if a student says little in class but is otherwise performing at a good academic level and seems generally happy? I would say not, and hence that there is no justification in worrying about it. Instead we might focus on that student’s evident strengths in other areas of the learning process; we might acknowledge that for some people it takes years to develop the confidence to speak regularly in social groups (something I know from personal experience); and we might realize that there are many paths through life for which confident social interaction is not an essential skill but the ability to reflect and think is. Listening and thinking are at least as important as talking and acting.

The Case of the Vanishing Text Messages

It would be a shame if messages like this were lost…

A couple of days ago every text message on my phone vanished. This happened overnight: I slept secure in the knowledge that my 2,000 messages were safely stored; the next morning, on checking my phone after hearing a new text alert, I found only the single, solitary, new message I had just received. Where had they all gone? Quite possibly they exist somewhere, although that somewhere is probably buried deep within the US National Security Agency or Britain’s GCHQ. Thanks to Edward Snowden we know that an NSA program dubbed Dishfire was indiscriminately collecting nearly 200 million text messages every day in 2011. However, contacting the NSA and GCHQ on the off chance they possess an archive of my messages strikes me as foolish. So to all intents and purposes my messaging history over the past couple of years has disappeared for good.

An event such as this ought to hit me hard. I am the sort of person who saves every piece of communication from friends and colleagues that comes my way. I preserve every letter and card I am sent; I save and archive all emails I exchange (on one of my email accounts there is a folder containing all 5,000 or so emails between myself and an unhinged woman in New York, a ‘romantic’ story I am unfolding elsewhere); you can be sure if you contact me the communication will be archived, even if it is only a pithy email expressing the fervent wish that I ‘rot in hell’ (not, some may be surprised to know, a frequent wish, but it has happened). I archive primarily for archiving’s sake. I have no doubt that of all the many thousands and thousands of emails I preserve I will not look at more than a handful again in my remaining years. But in some way they all constitute a record of my past, and as an historian I instinctively like to preserve such records. And as evidence of my brilliant and witty contribution to the art of texting (if not sexting), the disappearance of my messages now means that people will simply have to take my word for it…

... or this
… or this

However the sudden evaporation of my messaging history has happened before with my phone (see here and here for evidence that this issue is not unique to me). And when I upgraded my phone a few years ago, there was no way of retrieving the message archive on my previous phone. So I have long been sceptical of the archiving stability of text messages. Doubtless there are ways to archive were I to devote enough of my precious time to investigating the matter; and I’m told that messages on the iPhone are stored in the Cloud (but since I try to avoid Apple as best I can, this is of no help to me). But in place of doing anything practical about my problem I’ve decided to think about it instead. Two issues seem interesting to me, both in relation to issues raised by digital communication: whether and what we should archive; and the accessibility and security of archives.

Preserving a record of the past is important; even a society which consciously constructs a false version of the past needs its records (a point brought out in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four—Winston Smith’s job is to falsify records). Most societies have evolved careful rules and procedures about preserving official documents, court records, important correspondence, minutes, reports, and so on; similarly, companies and businesses are expected to retain records, and most wish to keep an archive. There are good reasons for doing this: the phone-tapping scandal revealed how important from a legal and transparency perspective it was that News International retained its email correspondence (and, fortunately, David Cameron’s struggle to understand what ‘LOL’ means in his text messages to Rebekah Brooks); whereas the failure of the Russian World Cup bid to preserve its emails has hampered the investigation into allegations of FIFA corruption.

But, as any archivist would confirm, it becomes impractical to archive all information—there is simply too much of it. The National Archives at Kew store approximately 11 million documents on 100 miles of shelving, adding at least a mile of shelving each year; to save space at Kew, deep salt mines in Cheshire are now used to hold some records. Even then, records need to be destroyed: the National Archives has drawn up a policy of which records can be discarded—those that are ‘deemed to have no long-term value’. Deciding where to draw the line between those records worthy of long-term preservation and those that can be disposed of as valueless ephemera is, however, fraught with difficulties (not least over who has the power to make these decisions). As many historians know, it is frequently those records which held little value in their contemporary society which go on to become valuable historical documents. A good example of this comes from one of my own areas of research interest: the visual print culture of early modern England. There is a good survival rate of those printed images from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries at the higher end of the market, since these were the ones valued by collectors. But the survival of cheap prints is much patchier, even though they were almost certainly produced in far greater quantities than the ‘quality’ prints—ignored by connoisseurs and collectors, and regarded as disposable ephemera, many have been lost to us for good. Yet several centuries on, as historians increasingly focus on the everyday life of society and people in the past, it is precisely this low-end material that becomes most valuable as evidence.

A kitten
A kitten

Consider this in relation to digital communications. On Twitter it is estimated that 500 million tweets are sent each day, which works out at over 180 billion tweets per year; on Facebook, 12 billion messages are sent per day, and every minute 50,000 links are shared and 243,000 photos uploaded. A fair proportion of all this stuff is the stirring information that someone has decided to have a boiled egg for breakfast, or the inspirational pictures of kittens doing amusing and ‘cute’ things—all of which, one might suppose, epitomizes the very notion of ‘disposable rubbish’. But does it really lack value? Setting aside my regret that I decided to write articles rather than post endless pictures of kittens and cats (the latter being a more certain means of gaining an audience), I find the limitless ephemera flying around the internet to be fascinating, and I’m sure future historians will do too—as an insight into the culture and mentality of the world we live in, as evidence of our concerns, our ways of interacting, our means of dealing with the world and all its pressures, all of this is valuable material. While I fear for the sanity of the future PhD student who decides that ‘The Cultural Meaning of the Early 21st-Century Obsession with Kittens’ makes for a viable research topic (I start losing my mind at the sight of two or three kitten pictures, so I shudder at the idea of trawling daily through thousands of the damn things), there is a potentially interesting subject in this, and it is important that we preserve the archives to enable it to be pursued one day.

But will the archives exist for the future historian? My failure to preserve any of the text messages I have sent or received over the past ten years or so suggests that the information we exchange digitally is far from secure or stable. In relation to information management and archiving, this seems to me to be one of the pressing issues of our age: how do we manage and preserve the unimaginably vast amount of information we produce so that future generations, should they wish, can study it in order to understand our present and their past? Rapidly evolving and changing file types, media formats and means of storage do not inspire great confidence that our information will be accessible to future generations. If I put all my documents on a USB stick or CD, what are the chances that in, say, a century’s time there will be the easy means of retrieving these documents—let alone whether Word documents from the early twenty-first century will be compatible with whatever file types are standard in the twenty-second century? In my lifetime music has gone from being stored on vinyl and cassette, to CDs and to MP3s; VHS cassettes are now obsolete; and I haven’t seen a floppy disk drive in nearly twenty years.

I don’t know the solutions to these problems—but I do know that the questions are important. And they are important not simply because of the need to think of ourselves in relation to future generations; they are also important because the control of information is a vital issue of our time. Archivists, librarians, cataloguers—these are the gatekeepers to information. How information is stored, what information is to be preserved and what discarded, how information is organized, who has access to information—these are the concerns of the archivist, the librarian and the cataloguer. Whenever a society decides who the gatekeepers to information should be, it is making a decision about who has power. Clearly I have little power over my text messages as a body of information; a ‘decision’ was made about them by my phone (and possibly other decisions have been made by the NSA and GCHQ too). And that bothers me a lot more than my recent loss of occasional drunken declarations of desire, autocorrect mishaps and insightful comments about the boiled egg I am eating for breakfast.