The Melbourne Writers' Festival this year is host to eminent historian, David Starkey, and he's also giving several talks at the university this week. I first came across his work on the late medieval royal household many years ago when I was working on Wynnere and Wastoure, and was keen to go along and hear him now that I am once more working on English court culture.
On Monday night I felt a bit like a spy.
The talk was hosted by the History Department. Starkey gave an extraordinarily fluent and practised performance, without a single piece of paper in front of him. He is a celebrity Tudor historian in Britain and in Australia; his "Elizabeth", sold, he said, 500,000 copies in the Commonwealth (not sure if this was TV series or his book). The emphatic burden of his talk was that while history was flourishing in popular and public culture, academic history was destroying itself in post-modernism and textual scepticism. He drew attention to the relative novelty of history as an academic discipline, and to the various vogues (for example, economic history) that set trends in history at different times. In apocalyptic vein, he threatened the death of academic history, amid the continued flourishing of popular history.
Hmm. As if the two aren't now completely inter-dependent.
Anyway, the historians were very polite. In addition to the general seduction of an audience by clever asides, funny stories about the Queen, there was certainly a vocal chorus of approving murmurs and laughter, and a few Dorothy Dixers in question time. But I know that many of my colleagues in my sister-department weren't in agreement with him. And I know that most of them are not afraid to speak their mind. So I thought they were extraordinarily polite. And I began to wonder about the different social cultures between English and History. My own department-that-was (before our recent re-structure) would have shown no mercy. (One example: I remember a colleague asking a British Council-funded visitor who kindly explained semiotics to us in the early 1990s how he would account for his "neo-naïve" position.)
Starkey kept saying, provocatively, that he expected to be shot down in flames; and yet the discussion was really quite docile. It's true the talk was more in the nature of a polemic than a reasoned, argued academic paper; and so perhaps the historians felt there was no point engaging. Anyway, a fascinating glimpse into the meeting of two worlds: popular and academic history.