Friday, 25 November 2011


An American professor was recently reported as lambasting the way history is taught in Britain. One's first reaction was, "What's it got to do with him anyway?" but he is a professor of English history so maybe he does just about have an interest. He also has a point. I studied history through the O level GCE exam at 15 and on to the A level at 18 (in which I scraped a pass). But nowadays pretty much all I can remember is short list of dates - or partial dates as in many cases I can remember only the year in which the event occurred.
  • 1066 - Battle of Hastings, a date most English people can remember as this was the last time anybody successfully invaded England.
  • 1215 - Magna Carta. It's only in the last 12 months or so that this year has become embedded in my memory.
  • 1605 or thereabouts - Gunpowder Plot. I can't remember the actual year but I know this was in the first 10 years of the 17th century.
  • 1805 - Battle of Trafalgar. To my shame, I remember only that the battle was in October of that year.
  • 1815 - Battle of Waterloo. June?
  • 1837 - accession of Queen Victoria.
  • 1914-18 - First World War.
  • 1939-45 - Second World War.
  • 1941 - Pearl Harbor attacked. November?
  • 1952 - Queen Elizabeth II succeeded King George VI in February.
So much for the history of my country - and the world! I do remember having it drummed into us that the study of history - or, more specifically, the causes behind major historical events - could enable us to avoid similar tragedies. But I have no recollection of what lay behind the Peasant Revolt (I can't even remember when it was but Watt Tyler was one of the leaders) although I do have vague understandings of the causes of the Napoleonic wars and both world wars. I even know what caused the American War of Independence. At least, I think I do. Mind you, the chances of me ever being in a position to see the causes of World War I being repeated and also being in a position where I could say, "Whoa! We're heading straight for World War III: let's just take a minute to rethink" are about as good as my chances of winning £10 million on the Eurolottery. And that's nil as I have never bought a ticket and never will.

I suppose when we think of history we automatically think of those big events - Agincourt, the Civil War (English or American), the Battle of the Somme and the like. One of the most interesting history lessons I can remember - indeed, the only one I can remember - was about Nelson's tactics in the battle of Trafalgar. It was the minutiae, the nitty-gritty, rather than the great sweep of world affairs - and it was this that was, to me, so interesting.

This fact - that the small, everyday matters are more interesting than the so-called important happenings - was brought home to me one year during a holiday on the island of Jersey. The Old Bat and I had visited a place called Hamptonne Farm. Hamptonne Farm was a country life museum (it still is) brought to life with characters from the island's past. A bit like a small Old Sturbridge or Strawberry Hill. When we visited there was a wonderful woman in the kitchen who claimed to be the housekeeper/cook. She really played her part extremely well and had the children in the audienc rapt. The adults were pretty interested as well.

And that really illustrates what I am trying to say. History is not just the story of world leaders; it is also the day-to-day story of you and I. The trouble is that so much of that fascinating story is lost to us. Or if not lost completely, it is devilish hard to find. We pour, entranced, over a ledger detailing household expenditure in the 18th century, but what are the chances of anybody keeping such detailed records now? What games children played, how food was prepared, how a heavy sleeper was woken before alarm clocks were available to farm labourers: all this is what people want to know even if they don't know that they want to know it. That is why it is so important that we attempt to record at least some of our daily lives for our children's children to read. Skip's post earlier this week does the job superbly.


The Broad said...

Totally agree about the importance of historical details. And I also thoroughly enjoyed Skips post, too -- it was not only informative, it was also very moving.
Ah, yes, Pearl Harbor was December 7, 1941! :-)We did not have many dates to remember but three were The Battle of Hastings, The Magna Carta, and The Spanish Armada! Loved all history though and still do!

stephen Hayes said...

I'm also a lover of history, and I'm fascinated by how often history changes and is rewritten. New discoveries are turning up all the time, like that hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold recently found in a British field that is increasing our knowledge of what these people were capable of at that time. Our understanding of the past needs to remain flexible. It isn't just the winners that are writing history today, and I think this is a good thing.

(not necessarily your) Uncle Skip, said...

Thank you for the link, Brian. I wonder if everyone enjoyed reading the post as much as I enjoyed the memories?
It's funny. I never much enjoyed history until I could study it by choice.

Buck said...

One's first reaction was, "What's it got to do with him anyway?" but he is a professor of English history...

I'll also offer up that most Americans (the literate ones, anyway) consider your history to be our history, as well. That applies specifically to events prior to July 4, 1776 but also encompasses significant things after that date, as well. "Two peoples separated by a common language" and all that.