Some praise and a rant – I’ve been reading July’s BBC History Magazine


This post starts off with some recommendations and praise for the articles in this month’s BBC History Magazine and ends in a rant – you’ve been warned.

Clash of civilisations – nice headline but is it true?

‘On balance, the history of the crusades does not suggest that Islam and the west were predestined by some elemental rancour for a ‘clash of civilisations’’ so concludes Thomas Asbridge in his article ‘Traders and Crusaders’. The piece is a fascinating description of relations between Muslims and Christians in the medieval period and well worth a read both for historical interest and given the past is often misused in discussing modern relationships between the west and the Muslim world.

The ‘World news in context’

If you do take my advice and pick up a copy of the magazine, it’s also worth turning to page 18 and the ‘World news in context’ section. This month its focus is ‘Syria’s divided society’ which gives a greater understanding to the deeper social and political currents driving events in that country. Over the last few months this section of the magazine has run pieces on various countries experiencing the ‘Arab Spring’. In addition to acquiring new historical knowledge these articles really help to place 24 hour news coverage of events into a clearer and more meaningful context.

Hail Ǽthelstan the Great, step aside Alfred

Now I’m essentially biased when it comes to Romo-British and Anglo-Saxon history, I can’t get enough of them and regularly have a moan when these periods don’t get a look in. So clearly I was going to read and enjoy the article by Sarah Foot in which she asks why Alfred the Great is still venerated while his grandson Ǽthelstan is overlooked, despite the fact that the latter’s achievements dwarfed those of the former. It’s one of the pieces that really got my attention and left me wanting to go and read more about Ǽthelstan. A note to my Welsh and Scottish nationalist friends you may want to give this piece of history a miss, to quote from the article ‘Ǽthelstan…….. was the first king to rule all of England and laid claim to an imperial overlordship over the whole of Britain.’ And ‘Ǽthelstan also accepted the submission of all the other rulers of Britain. Welsh kings attended regularly at his court, travelling round the kingdom with him’.

Back to the news in context

Personally I’d like to see the magazine extend the ‘World news in context’ section with say, for instance, having two or three sections covering events in different continents each month. Alas I suspect such a move would illicit more letters to the editor complaining that the magazine should stop pandering to those who have an interest in history across the planet and focus solely upon British History.

So what’s that all about?

Well I should know better than to read the letters page, it was always going to be a mistake. But I did and there’s this letter having a go at the magazine for allegedly ‘pandering to American readers’. It seems that the writer wants ‘British History’ but has noticed ‘…creeping in articles pertaining to the US of A’. He talks about ‘…no end of fascinating history about the Sceptred Isle’ but does conclude by saying ‘If you feel you are running short, how about Australian history or Canadian history?’.

Now everyone is entitled to their opinion but the article that had got his back up most recently was entitled ‘American Civil War – Whose side was Britain on?’. I too read the piece in question and personally found it a genuinely interesting description of attitudes in Britain about a major event in the world at the time which had major consequences. So I’m left with the impression (which of course might be wrong) that the demand here is for some sort of history without foreigners (exceptions being Australians and Canadians). Well even if you want to narrow down the remit of this excellent publication to ‘British only’ you are still going to have to understand how Britain (and its empire) interacted with the rest of the world – unless you simply want to focus on some mythical English folklore idea of history.

The real trouble with this magazine (which is actually fine so leave it alone, but I’m annoyed so I’m going to have my say) is that it tends to focus too much on the British perspective of history and that of Britain’s major rivals. For instance, there is just too much about the two World Wars and what is discussed is always from British/German perspectives. I’ve just been reading about the end of World War I and the formation of the first Austrian Republic. Looking at the world through the lens of Austrian, Hungarian, Czech, Polish, Ukraine, Italian, or Slav perspectives provides interesting slants on the causes and aftermaths of both wars. Perspectives that still impact upon attitudes and relationship in the EU today but which have very different starting points from those highlighted in British History’s.

Right, so if I was editor we’d have far more pre-Norman conquest material, a lot less British (English) navel gazing and a lot more articles that widens the English speaking world’s view of history. Additionally, I’d have a ‘news in context’ article from each continent every month (there you go that would help cover Australia and Canada on a more regular basis dear letter writer), keep the ‘Out and About’ section, as well as expand the ‘Miscellany Q&A’. To keep everyone happy and ensure BBC balance, I’d have one page called this ‘Sceptred Isle’ in which absolutely no mention of anyone but the English/British will be allowed. There that’s that sorted.

Luckily neither I nor the contributors to the letters page are the editor and we should all probably just get on with reading the bits we’re interested in.

End of rant.

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Filed under BBC History Magazine, British History, History

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