I’m old-fashioned in my way…

What can you expect from a sexagenarian?

You see, I believe Australians should study British (or should that be English?) history, even if at the same time I am an ardent supporter of the (generally speaking) successful kind of multiculturalism we now have in this country. Why? Partly because I have been a teacher of English, and find a framework at least of British history is invaluable in that study. More to the point, our various institutions in Australia (even allowing for their local variations from the mother country) are intertwined with the history of Britain, indeed derive from English practice. The British connection is still more germane to the way we do things here than the later but no doubt influential American way. (God forbid that we should ever elect judges, or have a semi-monarchical President! Not saying I am against an Australian republic, but my model would be minimal indeed.)

Yes, when I received my schooling between 1949 and 1959 we had a steady diet of Magna Cartas and Reform Bills, not to mention Wilberforce and William Booth.  It was not an entirely bad thing, even if it was just a watered down version of the Whig interpretation of history. In second year History at Sydney University I studied England and Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries with two wonderful teachers – Mr Stephen and John McManners. (And sat next to a young Phil Ruddock!) In third year I did India, China and Japan. Never did Australian, not at university anyway, until Dip Ed when Dr Peter Lamb gave us a rather good short course.

The story goes that Catholic schools c.1950 offered a “perfidious Albion” view at times rather than the received Whig version.

Of course there have been fresh interpretations of British history in the past fifty years, including some excellent work by Marxist historians such as E P Thompson and Christopher Hill. There has been Norman Davies reminding us that British does not equal English, with his rather amusing habit of referring to the House of Saxe-Coburg by its German name rather than the World War I version “Windsor”.

Recently Surry Hills Library furnished a wonderful new look at English history – I say “English” advisedly: David Horspool, The English Rebel: One Thousand Years of Troublemaking from the Normans to the Nineties (Viking 2009). This is a great read, excellent on areas I already knew something about, such as the 17th to 19th centuries. For the medieval period Horspool manages to break free from both Shakespeare and Sir Walter Scott, which is not to decry either purveyor of fiction but is to acknowledge how powerful their versions of events have been. He also breaks through Marxism to arrive at a far more concrete and believable account of people and events.

Yes, I do recommend this book. You may wish to check the reviews listed below. The image that precedes them accompanies the Times review.



  1. The Times – Peter Ackroyd
  2. The Spectator
  3. The Independent
  4. The Guardian

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Richard Evans is one of my guides in historiography. His most recent book, Cosmopolitan Islanders: British Historians and the European Continent, is reviewed in New Republic.

The effects of a great financial crisis ripple in many directions and last long. After a decade of expansion, for example, austere times lie ahead for British universities, with deep cuts on the horizon. There will be consequences for British scholarship and British culture. Richard Evans’s new study of the historical profession in Britain serves as a timely reminder both of what Britain’s historians have achieved over the past half-century, and what may be lost if their legacy is squandered. In particular, Evans celebrates his colleagues’ outward-looking mindset and their love-affairs with Europe, an engagement that is striking when compared to the introversion of their peers across the Channel, and—though he does not come out and say so—with the parochialism of contemporary British political and cultural life.

The problem is an interesting one: how to explain the divergence between Britain (and the United States), where a large proportion of historians concern themselves with the history of other countries, and its EU partners, where professional scholarship is much more nationally focused? Evans offers some rough and ready statistics to support his account of this difference, but one has no reason to doubt his basic thesis. British universities may offer expertise in Baltic, Balkan, or Iberian history, and no decent department lacks a goodly array of non-British subjects; but the poor Czech, Polish, or French student who is interested in digesting something other than the glories of his national story will find a much thinner menu.

Evans offers a range of explanations, some more persuasive than others…