Otto English is keen for us all to better understand the ebbs and flows of history - but what gets missed in the telling?

Winston Churchill,
Winston Churchill, "good at some of the big stuff". Picture: Getty Images
  • Fake History, by Otto English. Welbeck, $39.99.

In the writing of history, nobody ever has the last word. Telling stories about ourselves is an unruly, unending, unsettled argument.

History is, however, a broad church, free-for-all, take-all-comers discipline. Anyone who has conducted serious research, thought deeply about character and circumstance, imagined herself into another setting and another time, can fairly describe herself as a historian. All you need to do is earn the right to tell a story.

Otto English, who is, indeed, English and a writer, tweeter and broadcaster to boot, qualifies. English's subtitle is "ten great lies and how they shaped the world". His targets are "the great lies and lazy conceits of the past", and his motivation "a constant itch to scratch the surface of what we are told". "Lie" is a leading word, one to be distinguished sharply from error, myth, propaganda or selective editing.

English pushes his argument a bit further in claiming that, "for the past thousand years at least", the dominant historical narrative was written "by white males, about white males, for white males". Leaving aside English's odd restriction to one millennium alone, surely there is no longer any such dominant narrative in history writing. White males, as subjects and authors, now rightly have to fight for a place in the sun.

Assailing dead white males yet again understates the feuds and flows in history writing over at least the past two generations. As a benchmark, Joseph Ellis' most recent book, The Cause, includes a concise, incisive account of the malleability and mutability of historiography.

English is no Ellis. Nor does he aspire to be. English's somewhat idiosyncratic list of 10 lies which "shaped the world" omits the field of Ellis' specialisation, where the "lie" might be cast as: the American army under the astute leadership of General Washington won the American War of Independence singlehanded. Other comforting "lies" which did shape the world also readily suggest themselves. "The British Empire was essentially beneficial for its subject peoples" would be one such. Another could be: "all the Allies played a decisive role in the defeat of Hitler's Germany". A third might claim: "France recovered from its defeat in June 1940 to become a great power once again".

Instead of topics like those, English includes some peculiar picks. "The royal family was German" is followed by "curry comes from India" and "Hitler was a failed artist". English's technique throughout is to appear as a congenial, confiding narrator, one telling a few truths, sharing one or two secrets and recounting some familiar stories. In a sense, Fake History sometimes reads like history given the "MythBusters" treatment.

Take Churchill as one example, since "Winston Churchill was Britain's greatest prime minister" is the first "lie" which English tries to rectify. English advises the reader that Churchill "is a 20th century icon as big as Elvis, Dolly Parton or Marilyn Monroe". In addition to critically underestimating Churchill's standing, that judgment might seem flippant, even glib. So, too, might the conclusion that Hitler "wasn't much better at commanding armies than he was at painting".

English proceeds to track down the provenance of some notorious Churchill anecdotes. Wit, like victory, might have a thousand fathers. Banality, like defeat, might be an orphan. English concludes that Churchill was "good at self-promotion", a charge which the war-time leader might have gleefully embraced.

As for Churchill's record in office, English does concede that, during the Second World War, Churchill did prove "good at the big stuff". Abraham Lincoln receives similarly grudging treatment, in English's assessment of how the President's views on racial equality "drifted with the times and his political ends".

With Lincoln, Churchill and others among English's subjects, a reader might be tempted to recall Albert Einstein's advice: "Make everything as simple as possible, but no more simple than that". Predictably and rightly, historians might regard the issues as more complex, more ambiguous, more nuanced and more contested.

Popularising history for a wider readership is a worthy endeavour, in vogue since Herodotus. Using specific issues to tease out general lessons on matters like education and indoctrination (the Lincoln chapter) or creating your own mythology (Hitler as a failed artist) is also a commendable practice, one in vogue since Plutarch.

Nonetheless, a reader might hope that many fewer of the references, allusions and quarrels were England-centric. Fewer digressions (even Dad's Army is given a guernsey) might have produced tighter focus. Obvious, familiar points could have been abbreviated. Lots of readers would already have known that Columbus did not set foot in America.

This story On the ebbs and flows of history first appeared on The Canberra Times.