So where are the people?

13th February 2004 at 00:00
A People's History of Britain

By Rebecca Fraser

Chatto and Windus pound;25

Once upon a time, when children wore caps and blazers and ate up their greens, schoolmasters and mistresses wore gowns and mortar boards and knew how to teach. Academic standards were high and every schoolboy (for some reason it was always every schoolboy) could recite the kings of England and the fights historical, from Marathon to Waterloo, in order categorical.

If your favourite TV programme last year was Channel 4's That'll Teach 'Em, and you find yourself gazing longingly at your slipper, then this is the book for you.

Rebecca Fraser has fond memories of HE Marshall's patriotic textbook from 1905, Our Island Story, which was always something of a misnomer since Marshall's islands were in fact New Zealand. Fraser has decided that children don't know their history any more, and could do with a good dose of Marshall along with cold showers and syrup of figs.

Unfortunately, Marshall has long been out of print, so Fraser decided to write one herself. And here it is, boldly - and just as inaccurately - entitled A People's History of Britain and carrying ringing endorsements from Andrew Roberts, who claims "no family in the English-speaking world should be without this stupendous work" and Paul Johnson, who hails it for blowing "a tremendous blast of British history" which, he reckons, the young will love while "the old will have their hearts warmed". What do they put in syrup of figs these days?

This is a full account, from the ancient Britons to 2002. If you're looking for the familiar stories, such as Alfred and the cakes or Nelson dying at Trafalgar, you have come to the right place. It's written for a general readership, so there are no footnotes or references; unfortunately, there's not much recent scholarship either. Fraser sticks to the old idea that the new arrivals of the Bronze and Iron Ages came as invaders and pushed out the native inhabitants, an idea discredited long ago by archaeologists, and her Vikings have horned helmets, for heaven's sake - that myth was exploded years ago.

For the past 30 years or so, Mary Tudor has undergone a more positive re-evaluation in academic circles, which has filtered down to A-level students and can even be found at key stage 3, but Fraser does not seem to have heard of it. Her Mary is plain and dumpy and her only pleasure in life is watching heretics burn while her subjects groan under the Catholic yoke and wait for her to hurry up and die so Elizabeth (that's "the clever, slender, young" Elizabeth) can rule. Why let knowledge get in the way of a good story?

The stilted, dated prose turns the clock back in itself: towns are "put to the torch" and the Saxons are the subject of the Danes' "unwelcome attention". Wellington weeps at the "gallant self-sacrifice" of his men at the siege of Badajoz; not a word about the orgy of killing, looting and assault those same men then unleashed. Inside the colourful cover, Fraser's publishers have recreated the feel of Marshall's original, with a few black and white pictures tucked into corners or margins. Many are inaccurate Victorian engravings, presented without a word of explanation. This might not matter where it's just a case of a stylised portrait; it matters a great deal when illustrations from Foxe's Book of Martyrs are reproduced without a Protestant propaganda health warning. Either Fraser doesn't know anything about historical practice, or she does and has decided not to follow it. It's a moot point which is worse.

Given the choice between careful historical narrative and telling a patriotic tale, it's clear which Fraser prefers. There are one or two nods towards changes in attitude since Marshall's day. Fraser points out the iniquity of medieval anti-semitism, and condemns the slave trade; the remarkable ex-slave Olaudah Equiano even makes it to the dust jacket, though this must be one of the few contemporary books to cover the Crimean War without mentioning the Jamaican nurse Mary Seacole. But admitting the occasional mistake is never allowed to detract from Fraser's Whiggish thrust, that British history is a story of moral and material progress carried forward by an impressive array of hero figures, of whom the most recent are Mrs Thatcher (her "success curve continued onwards and upwards"), the "telegenic Anthony Blair", and Elizabeth II, who "lends grace, humanity and dutifulness to her position and continuity at a time of flux".

Don't be fooled by that title. It's not a people's history at all; a top people's history maybe, because, except when they're rising in revolt or starving, there's not much room for the great unwashed. It isn't British history either: it's a history of England, with the Scots, Welsh and Irish only appearing when they are upsetting the English. Malcolm Canmore, one of the most remarkable men in Scottish history, gets a brief mention for "constantly invading England", like a neighbour who keeps parking on your drive. In fact, Canmore was strongly pro-English, but perhaps he should be grateful for a mention at all: Kennedy, Reagan and, inevitably, Hitler are all in here, but there's no Kenneth MacAlpin, Macbeth or Brian Boru.

What is the point of professional historians trying to work out how to get British history into proper perspective, if amateurs rush into print with this sort of outdated jingoism?

Sean Lang is director of the Historical Association curriculum project

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today