If you’ve seen The Matrix, you’ll remember the moment when Keanu Reeves’s Neo wakes to find himself in a ghastly metal pod, naked, covered with slime and wired up to some sort of hellish Alien-style equipment. Enslaved by intelligent machines, mankind has been turned into a giant collective battery, our minds pacified with a soothing simulation. What most of us take to be reality is a lie, a construct, the product of a diabolical conspiracy. Neo’s job is to restore the truth.
The Matrix is more than two decades old, but its underlying message is very familiar. You are asleep, but I am awake. You are blind, but I can see. You are backward, but I am progressive. You may have come to a nice country house for a cup of tea, a stroll around the gardens and a mooch in the gift shop, but I am going to wake you up. Look around you! Stop listening to the lies! Read some real history! Educate yourself!
In his new book Fake History, the anti-Brexit firebrand Otto English sets out to educate his benighted compatriots — those of you, in other words, who have been wandering in a stupor all these years. For the last thousand years, he explains, history “has been written by white males, about white males, for white males”. Like The Matrix’s machines, these sinister frauds have created a colossal deception, a “fake” past, a tissue of “false narratives”. But now English is on the case, determined to expose the “ten great lies” that have shaped our world. “Fake history runs deep,” he writes grandly. “This book’s mission is to topple it from the plinth and lift up truth in its place.”
In The Matrix, Neo is merely part of a bigger rebel group, led by Laurence Fishburne’s Morpheus. And English, too, operates as part of a bigger movement. For although his book makes no mention of it, he is not the first person to notice that our history is a tissue of lies. The BBC’s Lucy Worsley, for example, has made several series about British History’s Biggest Fibs, including revelations such as the discovery that the Prussians helped Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo, and the fact that Richard III might not actually have been a hunchbacked monster after all. And another tireless hunter for historical truth, the Horrible Histories author Terry Deary, has consistently maintained that schoolteachers and academics mislead their charges. The people who really made our world, he insists, are hidden from us. “We don’t usually know their names and there are no statues to them — not even grave markers — and they are ignored by most proper historians in proper history books.”
So have history teachers really been lying to us? Have historians been deceiving us all along? And has Otto English really found the smoking guns?
Perhaps I’m old-fashioned, but it strikes me that if you’re writing a book about “ten great lies” called Fake History, you probably ought to use your real name. In fact, Otto English is the Twitter handle of a journalist, Andrew Scott, who has attracted some 70,000 followers with his relentless attacks on Brexit. I’m not really his target audience, but I’m perfectly happy to accept that he’s a dab hand at writing 140-character takedowns of Boris Johnson. But as a historian, a seeker for truth, a fearless exposer of lies about our past, he is an utter, utter failure.
Far from being a ground-breaking exposé of dishonesty and deceit, Fake History is one of the worst books about history I’ve ever read — and I say that as somebody who made it all the way through Jacob Rees-Mogg’s The Victorians. To give a small but revealing example, one chapter debunks the supposed lie that “Genghis Khan was a pitiless barbarian”. In fact, says English, he was “a far-sighted and accommodating leader”, both “meritocratic” and “inclusive”, which makes him sound like somebody hoping to lead the Liberal Democrats. Throughout, English calls him “Khan”, clearly under the impression that this was his surname. But Khan was his imperial title, not his name. It’s as if a Mongolian Twitter personality wrote a book about German history under the misapprehension that Wilhelm II’s surname was “Kaiser”.
The structure, veering madly from subject to subject, makes no sense. There’s a chapter on Churchill, then a chapter about whether ancient people thought the earth was flat, then a chapter about Dunkirk, then a chapter about the House of Windsor, then a chapter about curry, then a chapter about the Aztecs. But even inside each chapter there’s no sense of analysis or argument, just a series of self-satisfied observations and weird generalisations. In the chapter on curry, for example, English sets out to debunk the supposed lie that “curry comes from India”, but immediately tells us that in post-war Britain “most people ate shit… Most British people stewed the living taste out of everything.”
Now, I can see why you’d say that in a stand-up routine — but in a book about nuance in history? In a book attacking myths and stereotypes? Really?
The fundamental problem, though, is that none of English’s ten great lies are actually lies. His first lie, for example is: “Winston Churchill was Britain’s Greatest Prime Minister.” But that’s not really a lie, is it? How could you possibly prove or disprove it? It’s an opinion, which is completely different. You might disagree with Churchill’s fans, but it would be deranged to call them liars. For instance, when Churchill died in 1965, his old rival Clement Attlee said he was not just “the greatest Englishman of our time” but “the greatest citizen of the world of our time”. If Attlee came back to life and repeated those words today, would English seriously call him a liar?
Or take another of English’s purported lies: “Hitler was a failed artist.” You might raise an eyebrow at that. Opening my copy of Sir Ian Kershaw’s biography, I read that Hitler had a blazing row with his father about his ambition to become an artist; that he twice applied and failed to get into Vienna’s Academy of Fine Arts; and that he tried to make money by painting scenes of Vienna. And to cap it all, on page 73 of my edition, Kershaw, one of Britain’s greatest living historians, explicitly describes Hitler as — you guessed it — a “failed artist”. So would English call Kershaw a liar, too?
The weird thing is that English knows Hitler was a failed artist. He even mentions the paintings and the unsuccessful attempts to get into the Academy. His chapter is trying to say something about Hitler’s invention of his own legend — though I’m not sure what. After some stuff about the First World War, he tells us how terrible Mein Kampf is — as if anybody needs convincing — before informing us that Hitler was a dreadful artist and a diabolical commander. Then he compares him with Enoch Powell and Donald Trump, which is clearly what he’s been itching to do all along. And that’s it. Next lie please!
I could go through English’s book page by page, but what would be the point? It’s so shoddy, so abject I feel a bit guilty even writing about it, like a grown man punching a toddler. Yet it’s important not to let it go. People don’t generally tell lies about history, and the real dishonesty lies in pretending that they do.
Of course all societies have myths, and they always have done. But a myth isn’t the same as a lie, unless you are seriously going to argue that all societies since the Egyptians and the Persians have been barefaced liars. Is it a “lie”, as English suggests, that the Little Ships were crucial at Dunkirk? Surely not. At worst, it’s an exaggeration, a patriotic myth, central to the national narrative both at the time and afterwards. And in any case, there are already hundreds, perhaps even thousands of history books putting Dunkirk into a wider context, and gently debunking the Little Ships story. Is English really so arrogant that he thinks he’s breaking new ground?
Anyway, if a schoolteacher tells the Little Ships story to her charges, so what? Is she a liar? Or is she simply a good storyteller, trying to find the right way to draw a class of ten-year-olds into the study of the past? What about professional historians? They’re not really liars, are they? Yes, they weave their facts into narratives, wear their prejudices very heavily, and sometimes make tendentious claims. But that’s what historical debate is all about. Was Edward Gibbon a liar? Were the historians who wrote in the Victorian era? Were Marxists like Eric Hobsbawm and Christopher Hill? Of course not.
Even politicians, English’s chief target, don’t really lie about history, whatever the Twitter fanatics may think. Of course politicians pick their facts and tell their stories. But that’s the essence of political communication. To win, you build a narrative. A pluralistic society depends upon competing narratives and competing myths. You can disagree with a particular interpretation of the nation’s past — Margaret Thatcher’s paean to the Victorian period, say, or Boris Johnson’s Churchill-worship — without calling it a lie. After all, who but a fraud claims to have a monopoly on the truth?
This is why books such as Fake History are so depressing. They are the historical equivalent of conspiracy theories, purporting to uncover some hidden, monolithic, indisputable truth. Puffed up with smug self-satisfaction, they reflect a culture that seems increasingly incapable of dealing with democratic disagreement, in which opponents are “gammons”, “melts”, plotters and liars. They deal in the language of certainty, fakery and propaganda, without acknowledging that historical interpretations change all the time, and that ours will seem as prejudiced and partial to our successors as Victorian history books do to us. And though they appeal for “nuance” and “complexity”, their hectoring tone and moralistic assumptions could hardly be more adolescent.
But I suppose Otto English isn’t really writing for me. He’s writing for people who think that history is a simple matter of truth and lies, and that either you’re on the side of good and honesty, or you’re on the side of deception and evil. So if you think Churchill was Britain’s greatest Prime Minister, as Roy Jenkins did; or that there’s such a thing as English food, as George Orwell did, then you must be a liar or a dupe.
For English, as for so many woke activists, it’s all very simple. You’re awake, or you’re asleep. You’re progressive, or you’re reactionary. You think Rhodes Must Fall, or you like having sex with statues. You can see, or you’re blind. You’re with Neo, or you’re with the machines.
But I’m one of the machines, so you shouldn’t trust a word I say anyway.