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A Clutch of Historians

John Miller asks historians why, and for whom, they write.

This dictum of Jacob Burckhardt's was the starting-point for the Radio 4 series of Conversations with Historians broadcast in the autumn of 1991. When producer John Knight and I were planning it we were keen to include a broad cross-section of approaches as well as periods of study. So we were delighted when everyone on our first list accepted the invitation to take part – Lord Blake, Christopher Hill, Eric Hobsbawm, Sir Michael Howard, Lady Longford and David Starkey. As Elizabeth Longford put it, on hearing who else made up the group: ‘High Tories to Marxists, with me somewhere in the middle.'

What was of greatest interest to me in preparing to quiz each of them on their life's work was what had drawn them to their chosen specialism, and why we should share their particular interest today. This entailed reading or re-reading everything they had written, and our older subjects had by now been quite prolific. I was familiar with something by each of them, but still faced a formidable pile of titles to consume, a task made more pleasurable by the precaution of choosing historians who wrote as well as they talked. Robert Blake's last word was:

I think one of the vital qualifications for a historian is to be readable, is to write history which people will read, and is not dry as dust.

In a sense our recordings were almost like a tutorial in reverse, where I interrogated them on why they had come to particular conclusions, and whether they had changed their minds at a later date. Elizabeth Longford confessed she made a fundamental error in her first book The Jameson Raid:

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