Vickery: Lighting Up the Past

Lighting Up the Past

 Reform of the national curriculum in history is inevitable.  A wearisome yoke for school teachers and schoolchildren alike, it delivers first year undergraduates who are keen on the dictators, and ‘Aspects of the Tudors’, with little knowledge in between.  The ‘Hitlerisation of History’ and the disjointed study of short periods without a sense of long term change dismays university historians.  Chronology is the backbone of history; lose it and you abandon any meaningful measure of continuity and change.

There is an appetite for reform, but the debate on new content is still simmering. Only last month, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, the government’s education watchdog called predictably for a more inclusive multi-ethnic national history. Yet for some conservatives, the answer lies in a return to a proudly old-fashioned narrative history that will teach authentic British values, and find the roots of British Identity in Anglo-Saxon institutions, Magna Carta, the routing of the Armada, the thwarting of Guy Fawkes, and the battle of Trafalgar.  In this spirit, the think-tank Civitas republished the Edwardian nursery classic Our Island Story, by H.E. Marshall, a cheerfully one dimensional history of Britain from the Roman invasion to the death of Victoria, first published in 1905. The education editor of the Daily Telegraph has championed Our Island Story as an antidote to the ‘fractured, incoherent history most primary children are taught today’. Civitas hopes to get a copy into every primary school in the country.

What Henrietta Marshall would make of this evangelical campaign is another matter.  ‘This is not a history lesson, but a story book’ she declared in the preface. Frank about her debt to legend, she cautioned that her tale did not belong with the school books and encyclopaedias, but ‘quite at the other end of the shelf, beside Robinson Crusoe and A Noah’s Ark Geography.’

The saga opens in the mists of time with Albion, fourth son of the giant Neptune, choosing a glittering little island as his own (the descriptions of bluest seas, sunshine and golden sands make the UK sound like the Bahamas).  And from thence, watched over by God and Neptune the legend of British greatness unfolds.  Or to be more exact English greatness; Scotland, Wales and Ireland only getting a look in ‘after [each] has been joined to England’.

Our Island Story presents history as an enthralling fable, a rousing narrative of invasion, resistance, imperial conquest, rebellion, war and daring do. The considerable charm of the book lies in the pantheon of characters who colour the drama: brave hearts and cowards, good Kings and bad Kings, beautiful, tragic queens and a couple of clever ones.

Any episode you can vaguely remember from your Ladybird books will be in here, from Alfred’s burnt cakes to Charles the II hiding from the new model army in an Oak tree.  Marshall delivers plenty of thrills.  The final stand of Caractacus against the Romans stirs the blood.  ‘Show yourselves to be men’, he said, ‘Today is either the beginning of liberty or eternal bondage.’  While Princess Elizabeth’s entry by boat through the traitor’s gate of the Tower of London is positively filmic: ‘Lady will you land?’ said one of the Lords.  ‘No’, answered Elizabeth, ‘I am no traitor’.

A sense of manifest destiny drives the chronicle on.  ‘The story tells how [the British] grew to be a great people, till the little green island set in the lonely sea was no longer large enough to contain them.’  A love of liberty is presented as innately British, and the development of constitutional liberties an utterly inevitable triumph.

Protestantism was a brave and bold thing that was just waiting to happen.   So Bloody Mary’s Protestant martyrs get a drum roll.  ‘Be of good comfort, master Ridley, and play the man’, said Latimer, as they were being led to be burned together.  ‘We shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out’.  There is little doubt that the God that presided over the top nation was a member of the Church of England.

Our island Story was written at the high tide of Rule Britannia and Edwardian bombast holds it aloft.  No quality is more highly lauded than courage.  (In fact, foreigners saw absurd bravery as a peculiarity of the British. ) The stern voice of the Edwardian schoolmarm can also be heard.  Rudeness always gets a ticking off, even in the midst of carnage.  And while Charles II was ‘lazy, selfish and deceitful, a bad man and a bad king’, many loved him because as well as being clever and good tempered he ‘had very pleasant manners’.  So there’s a lesson for cads everywhere.

A.S. Forrest’s illustrations are also gloriously of their moment.  The russet haired warrior queen Boadicea flames off the page.  She will go on to poison herself and her small daughters, rather than fall into the hands of the Romans.  In the illustration, the younger girl looks pretty worried already, as if she has begun to suspect that her mother’s politics are on the extreme side.   ‘If only she sat on committees like the other mothers’, she seems to say to us. I don’t think the illustrator shared the author’s mild feminism.

It is no bad thing to have Boadicea, the Black Prince, Wat Tyler, Lady Jane Grey, Mary Queen of Scots, Oliver Cromwell, the Butcher of Culloden, Bonnie Prince Charlie, General Wolfe and Florence Nightingale, all strung together in a sequential narrative.  It certainly makes a change from what has been described by Labour MP Gordon Marsden as the ‘Yo Sushi’ approach to history in the classroom.

Yet I doubt that the deficiencies of the national curriculum will be seriously addressed by a book that gives more weight to Merlin and Arthur Pendragon than to Richard II.  The Economist archly praised Our Island Story for its post-modern disregard of the boundary between history and fiction, but it is maddening always to be wondering whether you are reading the very stuff of history or wild embroidery upon it.  To recommend Our Island Story as an educational textbook for 9 to 12 year olds is like relying on Mel Gibson for the History of Scotland.  ‘Remember,’ wrote Marshall, ‘that I was not trying to teach you, but only to tell a story.’  Just as well for the Maoris who are written off as a race of savage cannibals.

Where Our Island Story is a proudly insular beast, an expansive sympathy illuminates E.H. Gombrich’s rediscovered A Little History of the World.   With a  doctorate in art history, and time on his hands, the Viennese 26 year old knocked off this tour de force in 6 weeks in the summer 1935.  He dashed off a chapter a day. In the mornings he swotted from the family encyclopaedia, in the afternoons he scoured primary texts in the library, and in the evenings he synthesized his topic in lucid, dancing prose.  On Sundays, he read the manuscript aloud in the park to his future wife.  The result was a masterpiece of effortless précis, energetic confidence and joyous fluency. Eine Kurze Weltgeschichte fur junge leser appeared in 1936, and was translated into five other languages before it was banned by the Nazi’s for its pacifism, by which time the Gombrichs had fled to England.  After the war, A little History was reclaimed by another generation of Germans, and a series of new translations followed, but Gombrich resisted an English version believing the  British far too inward-looking to be interested in the Visigoths and the Lombards.  Only the events of the 1990s and growing European integration persuaded him otherwise. Gombrich died in 2001, aged 92, still working on an updated edition.

Gombrich opens with the most magical definition of history I have ever read. The past is a bottomless well.  Throw a burning scrap of paper down that well ‘and as it burns it will light up the sides of the well.  Can you see it? It’s going down down.  Now it’s like a tiny star in the dark depths.  It’s getting smaller and smaller… and now it’s gone.’  History is the burning scrap of paper we use to illuminate the past, deploying our own memories, then the memories of old people, then the letters of people already dead.  ‘And in this way we light our way back’.

In forty concise chapters, Gombrich recounts the epic of Western civilisation, with some detours to China, India and South America.  From the earliest invention of speech, painting, writing and numbers, the creation, transmission and preservation of knowledge forms the arc of his chronicle.   Gombrich admired the brilliant simplicity of Confucius’ teaching around 500 BC. Greek culture was the greatest intellectual force there has ever been.  Arab scholarship synthesized the learning of the Greeks, the Persians, the Indians and the Chinese. The dark ages were in fact a starry night of Christian study and faith.  Hence the library is one of civilisation’s supreme achievements, a fortress of precious knowledge, from which scrolls and later books went out to conquer the world.  So the obliteration of the magnificent Greek library at Alexandria was particularly disgraceful, as was the burning of all history books by Shi Huang-ti, the first emperor of all China in 213 BC.   Yet such vandalism was in vain, for the Arabs kept Greek learning alive, and under the Han, mandarin erudition prevailed.  ‘It’s a bad idea to prevent people from knowing their own history.  If you want to do anything new you must make sure you know what people have tried before.’

Tolerance, reason and humanity were ‘the three fundamental principles of the Enlightenment’ which Gombrich lived by and they suffuse every page of the Little History.  However sometimes he was forced to turn away in perplexed horror.  The Spanish extermination of the ‘ancient, cultivated Indian peoples’ of South America in the 16th century was ‘so appalling and so shameful to us Europeans that I would rather not say anything more about it.’  Yet when he wrote in 1935, he imagined Enlightenment values to be self-evident, and had no inkling of the looming catastrophe for his own ancient people.  In his epilogue, written in his 90s, he recoils from details of the Holocaust, but hopes that children ‘will learn from history how easy it is for human beings to be transformed into inhuman beings through incitement and intolerance.’

The lessons of history, the nobility of learning, and the fully-fleshed humanity of the long dead shine forth from the book.  Past and present are utterly entwined.   And life, like history, should be a noble project.  Gombrich ends by comparing time to a river.  We are all carried along by its force, each one of us a tiny evanescent bubble of foam, lifted momentarily on the crest of a wave, only to vanish forever. ‘But we must make use of that moment.  It is worth the effort.’

Where Our island Story preaches a myopic love of country, the Little History promotes respect for learning everywhere.  My own sympathies lie more with the view from the central European coffee shop than from the quarterdeck of Nelson’s flagship. However the popularity of both books testifies to a renewed enthusiasm for the long view of historical change.  British children need both an extended history of the British Isles in all its diversity and a long history of the wider world.  Let’s hope that a reformed national curriculum will convey not only the range and sweep of history, but something of its magic as well.  As Gombrich promises: ‘Not just a story, but Our story, the story that we call the history of the world.  Shall we begin?’

Amanda Vickery

A shorter version of this essay appeared as ‘A light in time’s bottomless well’, in the Guardian, March 11 2006. The Guardian

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