Tuesday, 15 August 2017

History's Hot 100

I don't think anyone took much notice of my Facebook group post urging Sassoon enthusiasts to vote for him in this recent poll carried out on-line by the BBC. This year seemed the best opportunity we were ever going to have to get him into the top 100 "most interesting" historical figures of the moment. The results, published in BBC History magazine, don't include voting statistics, so maybe the number of people interested in the war poets is just paltry by comparison with the number who are interested in Richard III, who came top of the poll for the third year in a row.
Although the usual suspects continue high on the list - Anne Boleyn, Winston Churchill, Shakespeare and Henry VIII - there are a few unexpected new entries and risers, such as Aethelflaed of Mercia (for which I think, sadly, we have the recent adaptation of Bernard Cornwell's novels as The Last Kingdom to thank, rather than Michael Wood's masterly documentaries on Alfred the Great and his successors). Historian Peter Frankopan calls the list "predictable, insular and narrow", while Joanne Paul points to dramatisations of popular novels such as Wolf Hall and The White Queen as responsible for lifting people like Cecily Neville, Margaret Beaufort, Thomas Cromwell and Louis XIV (you know, that bloke with the long hair in Versailles) up the poll.
Victimised mathematician Alan Turing enters the poll at number 63, courtesy of The Imitation Game. Other entries are more difficult to explain. Francisco Franco? Bess of Hardwick? Isabella of Castile? Vlad the Impaler? William Marshal is at number 14, one place above Jesus Christ, but one behind Benito Mussolini. I don't know how Eleanor of Aquitaine made it to number two though; David Olusoga points out that the proportion of women in the list has risen, which to me seems a good thing - but they are almost all women who wielded positions of earthly power.
Olusoga is a historian who has shot up in my opinion since I heard him participating in the debates on the history of TV, presented in rather a lacklustre way by Melvyn Bragg earlier this year (one reviewer called it "a rational if indigestible celebration"). It is fortunate that we have people like him who are able to take a broader view of history and recognise that it is not all about kings and queens. Sometimes it is about individuals like Siegfried Sassoon (yes, and Wilfred Owen), whose influence in their own lifetimes may be small but grows exponentially in the decades that follow their deaths.
It is not surprising that the poll is so Euro-centric. Even after Michael Wood's hard work, most people in the UK would be hard pressed to name a Chinese or Indian figure of historic importance, or even an Australian for that matter. Unless Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man is televised, we can expect Sassoon to remain obscure as far as the general public is concerned. I am, however, surprised at the omission of Wilfred Owen, who has fans worldwide; I'm also certain many Welsh readers will have voted for Hedd Wyn. Perhaps the war poet vote was split between several of our heroes, but it seems strange that no one connected with the First World War appears at all, unless you count Churchill. Maybe people are already suffering from centenary fatigue syndrome.
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