Villain of the piece

What has [truth] got to do with it? What has that got to do with anything? Let's go back to 1914 and I'll put you a different case."

It was those words, spoken by the character Irwin in Alan Bennett's play The History Boys, that made me sit up. Up until that point, I had been rather enjoying the National Theatre's production of the award-winning play, and especially Stephen Campbell Moore's portrayal of the cynical history teacher Irwin, who is hired by the northern grammar school's ambitious headmaster to coach his upper sixth Oxbridge candidates. But what Irwin went on to say about the first world war practically made me jump out of the stalls and on to the stage.

"Try this for size. Germany does not want war and if there is an arms race it is Britain who is leading it. Though there's no reason why we should want war. Nothing in it for us. Better stand back and let Germany and Russia fight it out while we take the imperial pickings." he sixth formers, who have imbibed Wilfred Owen with their poetry-loving English teacher Hector, look shocked. Relishing their scandalised expressions, Irwin goes on. "We still don't like to admit the war was even partly our fault because so many of our people died ... You can write down that the first world war was a mistake. It was not a tragedy."

Ouch. No one else in the theatre knew it, but there was no question in my mind that this was aimed at me. Alan Bennett may not have read all of my book The Pity of War, but he must have read its last lines: "The First World War ... was something worse than a tragedy, which is something we are taught by the theatre to regard as ultimately unavoidable. It was nothing less than the greatest error of modern history." The central argument of the book is that Britain should not have intervened in 1914.

My wife was scornful. What vanity, to imagine myself a worthy target of the great Bennett, Beyond the Fringe veteran, best-selling diarist and national treasure! Except that there I was, named in Bennett's introduction as one of the inspirations for the odious Irwin. I was one of the "new breed of historians" who "came to prominence under Margaret Thatcher and share some of her characteristics. Having found that taking a contrary view pays dividends, they seem to make this the tone of their customary discourse. A sneer is never far away and there's a persistently jeering note, perhaps bred by the habit of contention". Ouch again.

I needed a stiff whisky at the interval. Alan Bennett was among my boyhood heroes. Was this really how I appeared to him - as the scrawny antithesis of the noble, if somewhat plump, Hector? Irwin is a cynic who puts examination success ahead of truth. Worse, the success of his contrarian approach in the classroom leads to television stardom and politics. He's not just a media don; he's a spin doctor. Hector, by contrast, is a purist who believes in learning for learning's sake. He loves his boys.

It took me months to get over this cruel portrayal. Indeed, it wasn't until the play transferred to New York that I began to see the bright side of being satirised. It began when an American friend gave me her enthusiastic account of the Broadway production. At first, I assumed she was talking about a different play. But suddenly, with a delighted thrill, I understood. Divided as we are by a common language, US audiences reacted in a completely different way from those in the UK to The History Boys. An Atlantic crossing had turned Bennett on his head. Far from seeing Irwin as the villain, my friend saw him as the hero. Hector's classes struck her as a self-indulgent shambles. He was a flagrant paedophile and serial groper of his pupils. Irwin, on the other hand, was a true professional, who not only encouraged the boys to think for themselves, but also (crucially) succeeded in getting them into a top college.

Despite the playwright's intention, that is in fact the correct reading of the play. For there is a real choice presented to the audience in The History Boys, a choice between two quite different approaches to the study of the past. To Hector, history, like poetry, is simply worth knowing, even if you don't immediately understand it. As the boys explain to Irwin, paraphrasing his rival, "It's just the knowledge, sir." "The pursuit of it for its own sake, sir." "Breaking bread with the dead, sir."

Irwin, by contrast, believes in history as an argument - an altercation with received wisdom. The aim of a good history essay, he tells his pupils, is "settling on some hitherto unquestioned historical assumption, then proving the opposite". In Irwin's ideal exposition of a historical problem, "the wrong end of the stick is the right one." "A question has a front door and a back door," he explains. "Go in the back."

Bennett plainly finds this approach distasteful. But it's dead right - and not just because it'll help get you into Oxford.

Ever since I was one of those northern Oxbridge wannabes 25 years ago, my approach to history has indeed been Irwin's. I've made it a principle that there's no point in merely repeating what some other historian has already said before. And, if I say so myself, it's not been a bad strategy. As far as I can work out, I've taught around 2,000 students, sold around 900,000 books worldwide, published innumerable articles in at least 50 different newspapers and magazines and been watched by several million UK television viewers. My Channel 4 series Empire had a peak UK audience of 2.3 million, nearly 10 per cent of the total television audience.

Nevertheless, there's a problem. I am acutely aware that history as whole is failing to reach and engage younger readers and viewers. Precisely the age group featured in The History Boys is disappointingly under-represented in the market for history books and documentaries. Just 3 per cent of the audience for Empire was under 16, 11 per cent were aged between 16 and 34, while 60 per cent were over 54. Figures such as these are disquieting, especially when you consider that, in any given year, there are typically around 220,000 GCSE history candidates in England and Wales alone, not to mention 40,000 A-level history candidates, 20,000 history undergraduates and at least 50,000 history graduates under the age of 35.

The real challenge, in other words, is how to sell history to real boys (not to mention real girls). If Alan Bennett thinks that Hector's touchy-feely approach is the answer, he's living in, well, the past.

There are four Irwinian means whereby historians can hope to rejuvenate their ageing subject. The first is simply to be contentious. One of the reasons Empire was so successful as both a book and a television series was that it advanced the politically incorrect argument that the British Empire wasn't all bad. This incensed the likes of Cambridge's Priyamvada Gopal, who denounced "the story peddled by imperial apologists" as "a poisonous fairytale ... [bringing] the racism institutionalised by empire ... back into fashion".

My book is nothing of the kind, as another Guardian contributor later admitted. With admirable candour, Jonathan Jones confessed that he had "damned Empire [in a lecture] without having read it". When he did get around to leafing through its pages, he was "gripped by a highly intelligent analysis": "Where was the nostalgia? Where was the racism? It is not there ... In rescuing part of modern history from propaganda Ferguson has written a great book that will survive as a classic." A successful work of history begins by challenging a reader but ends by persuading him.

The second thing we can do to bring the boys back to history is to explain the contemporary. I remember the frisson I felt in October 2004, about six months after the publication of Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire, when I read the following quotation, attributed to a senior adviser to President Bush. "We're an empire now," he told the journalist Ron Suskind, "and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality - judiciously, as you will - we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors ... and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."

The last six years of American foreign policy make a lot more sense when you see the US as an empire in all but name.

There is, of course, the danger of succumbing to what Herbert Butterfield condemned as "present-mindedness". Washington DC plainly isn't identical to Athens BC. But I believe we can illuminate our own time better precisely by recapturing the very different character of past epochs. Historians must constantly keep in mind that the past is not just another country but another planet, inhabited by the dead. And the dead still outnumber the living, despite the modern population explosion. It has been estimated that since 50,000BC, when homo sapiens first appeared, roughly 100 billion human beings have been born. The current world population therefore makes up something like 6 per cent of all human beings who have ever been alive. We, the few living, need to respect the different ways in which they, the many dead, thought and acted.

There's a third element to the new history: considering the counterfactual. This is important for two reasons. First, what didn't happen is often as interesting to students as what did happen. Few teenagers can resist "what if?" questions about their own past ("What if we'd scored in extra time?"). Second, they're right to pose them. For what didn't happen, but might have, was once as real to contemporaries as what actually did take place. Philip Roth makes the crucial point in his novel The Plot Against America, which imagines a parallel universe in which a fascist becomes president of the US in 1940:

"The unfolding of the unforeseen was everything. Turned wrong way round, the relentless unforeseen was what we schoolchildren studied as 'History', harmless history, where everything unexpected in its own time is chronicled on the page as inevitable. The terror of the unforeseen is what the science of history hides ... "

The new history deliberately lays bare the unforeseen, seeking to recapture past uncertainty by spelling out all the plausible futures that contemporaries contemplated. These "counterfactuals" have been central to my work since the publication of Virtual History in 1997.

Finally, and perhaps most objectionably to Alan Bennett's generation, we need to computerise the past. History these days is literally a great game. Annual sales of war games - the majority of which are second world war-based - are worth up to $940m, 13 per cent of annual US video game sales. Most of these, admittedly, are rather crass "first-person shooter" games, but there are also serious strategy games such as Hearts of Iron and, most recently, Muzzy Lane's Making History. These games offer invaluable insights as well as entertainment, not least because they remind players that the unfolding of historic events really is more like a game than the linear and predictable narratives offered by traditional historians.

To the readers of most history books, there's never a shadow of doubt about how the second world war will end. But that's not how it felt to contemporaries. To be sure, even the smartest game can offer you no more than a simplification of the possible futures the world faced in 1941. Yet, like the models used by economists, serious war games are a wonderful aid to thought about complex causal systems.

After I became an adviser to Muzzy Lane, I was able to put some of my own second world war counterfactuals to the test, exploring ways in which (for example) a different Axis strategy in 1941-42 might conceivably have won the war. What if Hitler had attacked the USSR before the west? What if the Japanese had attacked the Soviet Union rather than the US? These are the kinds of question that a serious game such as Making History - which is based on meticulously accurate historical data and a superb artificial intelligence system - really can illuminate.

History, in short, will not be saved by the Hectors of this world. His last words to his former charges are "Pass it on," implying that history, like literature, is a precious heirloom to be handed down reverently from generation to generation. Unfortunately, most young people today are more likely to "Pass on it." To bring the boys back to history, historians must do much more. They need to be contentious, contemporary, counterfactual and computerised.

And I feel sure that Irwin, if he were reading this, would agree - as vehemently as I disagreed with his creator's play.

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