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An Interview with Bamber Gascoigne


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#1 John Simkin

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Posted 31 May 2006 - 12:03 PM

Bamber Gascoigne is the author Twentieth Century Drama (1967), World Theatre (1968), The Great Moghuls (1971), Murgatreud's Empire (1972), The Treasures and Dynasties of China (1973), The Christians (1977), Images of Twickenham (1981), How to Identify Prints: A Complete Guide to Manual and Mechanical Processes from Woodcut to Ink Jet (1987), Encyclopedia of Britain (1993), Milestones in Colour Printing 1450-1850 (1997), A Brief History of the Great Moghuls (2002), A Brief History of the Dynasties of China (2003) and A Brief History of Christianity (2003).

(1) You originally started as a writer on the theatre. Why did you decide to concentrate on writing history books?

(2) How do you decide about what to write about?

(3) In another interview, David Kaiser, the author of Politics and War: European Conflict from Philip II to Hitler (1990) and American Tragedy: Kennedy, Johnson, and the Origins of the Vietnam War (2000) said "The basic rule is that before-the-fact documents are more important than after-the-fact ones. There's a hierarchy of evidence." Do you agree?

(4) What in your opinion is the role of a historian? Is a historian more important, for example, than someone who writes books about the theatre?

(5) In recent years there has been a decline in the reading of academic history books. Do you believe historians should discover new ways of communicating with the younger generation?

(6) Have you any views on the way that history is taught in schools?

#2 Bamber Gascoigne

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Posted 20 June 2006 - 05:57 PM

[quote name='John Simkin' post='64062' date='May 31 2006, 12:03 PM'](1) You originally started as a writer on the theatre. Why did you decide to concentrate on writing history books?[/quote]

While writing a book of criticism about 20th-century drama, I found myself getting very interested in illustrations of what had happened in the theatres of the time, both on the stage and in the audience. This led to the idea of doing a history of theatrical illustrations from Greek times to the present. I managed to get it commissioned and spent a wonderful three years travelling round theatre museums in Europe and America. By the end I was completely hooked on on the historian's hunt for material as opposed to the critic's browsing among completed works of art.

[quote name='John Simkin' post='64062' date='May 31 2006, 12:03 PM'](2) How do you decide about what to write about?[/quote]

Always largely by accident. My wife became a photographer and we wanted to do a book together. Searching for a subject to tempt a publisher, with the potential for beautiful images and a dramatic story, I was amazed and delighted to discover that no one had done a single-volume account of the amazing Mughal dynasty in India - let alone one illustrated with their extraordinary creations, from an imperial studio producing unparalleled miniatures to the Taj Mahal itself. The result was a glorious nine months driving out to India and back (no country being out of bounds in those days) in a quest for information and images.

[quote name='John Simkin' post='64062' date='May 31 2006, 12:03 PM'](3) In another interview, David Kaiser, the author of Politics and War: European Conflict from Philip II to Hitler (1990) and American Tragedy: Kennedy, Johnson, and the Origins of the Vietnam War (2000) said "The basic rule is that before-the-fact documents are more important than after-the-fact ones. There's a hierarchy of evidence." Do you agree?[/quote]

I don't understand this point, perhaps merely because I have misunderstood the sentence (assuming 'fact' to approximate to 'event'). I would have thought that before-the-fact documents are evidence of only two possible things: the musings of soothsayers; or plans which may or may not have been carried out as intended. As an after-the-fact document an entry in a German diary, dated 10 November 1938 and saying 'hooligangs smashed the windows of our shop last night', would seem to carry considerable weight as evidence.

There is, of course, a hierarchy of evidence. But the long established distinctions of primary, secondary, hearsay etc seem to describe it adequately.

[quote name='John Simkin' post='64062' date='May 31 2006, 12:03 PM'](4) What in your opinion is the role of a historian? Is a historian more important, for example, than someone who writes books about the theatre?[/quote]

There are many roles for both a historian and a critic. I believe the most important authors, in each field, are those who - either by the discovery of new evidence, or by a new interpretation of existing evidence - make our perception of the past more accurate.

These are of course a minority, and mostly working in an academic context. For the rest of us I believe the central role is to make the past (which includes its literature) more vividly alive and more coherent for the general reader. We need to understand the past to appreciate the present, and helping people to do so is a worthy cause - as well as being an enjoyable one.

Both kinds of historian need to deal carefully with uncertainty (which, when passionately opposed views are held, becomes controversy). But the skills required for this are an essential part of the everyday job - an ability to judge and clearly indicate the weight that can be given to the evidence, and a similar assessment, and where appropriate acknowledgement, of the validity of an opposing view.

[quote name='John Simkin' post='64062' date='May 31 2006, 12:03 PM'](5) In recent years there has been a decline in the reading of academic history books. Do you believe historians should discover new ways of communicating with the younger generation?[/quote]

My impression from bookshops is that general history is being read by the public as never before, though I don't know if this has gone hand in hand with a decline in the reading of academic history (and anyway, the distinction is often not clear). As to the young, have they ever read much history? It is a taste that seems to come with middle age, as is a growing interest in the past once we have experienced more of it ourselves. That said, the arrival of the internet (in my view the biggest gear change in human communication since the development of writing, and certain to be larger in its effect on society than printing) does provide us with exciting new ways of making history more interesting to the young.

[quote name='John Simkin' post='64062' date='May 31 2006, 12:03 PM'](6) Have you any views on the way that history is taught in schools?[/quote]

No, in that we don't have children or grandchildren and so I know nothing about what goes on in the classroom. I am certain that it must be better taught now than it was in my school. I gave the subject up with a sigh of relief at fifteen, and didn't discover till ten years later that it was my main interest. The reason was our text book (I seem to remember only one). It was such a dense Christmas pudding of names and dates that even the teacher recognized that we couldn't possibly be expected to read more than three pages for homework.



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