History is bunk

“HISTORY IS BUNK”. So, said Henry Ford in 1916. Although he meant something different to what I understood by those words, I feel that they apply very well to the history lessons that I had to suffer at school until I was about 14 years old. It was not that I had no interest in history when I was a child but the way it was taught at the schools, which I attended, put me off studying the subject any longer than I needed.

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Gwyneth K

At the Hall School in Swiss Cottage, which I attended between the ages of 8 and 13, history was one of the subjects that had to be learnt in order to pass the Common Entrance examination that would admit me to a private secondary school. Each school year, we began British history with the arrival of the Romans in Britain and worked through the centuries until we reached the end of the 19th century. The emphasis was on chronology of events rather than what happened, and why it did, and, what were its consequences. We were being trained to answer idiotic examination questions such as:

“Put the following in chronological order: Archbishop Laud, the Corn Laws, Lady Jane Grey, Plassey”

To know their dates was important. To understand their roles in the history of Britain or elsewhere seemed irrelevant. You are probably beginning to get the idea of why history taught like this failed to capture my interest.

Something unpardonable about the teaching of history at the Hall was that although we had to learn the dates of important battles that the British fought overseas, we had no idea of their significance. It was like learning about a series of football or other sporting results. For example, it was long after leaving the school that I began to understand why our ‘team’ was sent abroad to fight Napoleon. It was not simply to notch up yet another British victory at, say, Waterloo, which is what I was led to believe at the Hall, but to combat a force that was invading most of Europe. The same is true of British victories in India and North America. It was vaguely satisfying to know that we had ‘scored’ well at Arcot, Plassey, and Quebec, but I was not aware that the reasons for these battles were ever explained to us.

Well, with the help of my mother, who spent many hours of my spare time cramming the historical facts into my head, I was successful at the Common Entrance examination and gained admission to Highgate School. As far as history was concerned, things did not improve at my new school. Our class was taught by the eminent historian AW Palmer, who eventually gave up teaching to devote his time to writing books on a variety of historical subjects, many of which I now find interesting. However, it was our fate to have to study the history of the USA. We had a textbook with an orange cover, whose title and author I have long forgotten. Neither this nor Mr Palmer managed to excite in me any interest in the undoubtedly exciting history of the USA. So, when we were given the choice of dropping either physics or history, I abandoned the latter. In my time at Highgate, history was alternative to physics, geography to chemistry, and Latin to woodwork. I chose chemistry and Latin in addition to physics.

When I was about 16, I used to walk from our family home to Finchley to visit my father’s colleague Kurt Klappholz and his wife Gwyneth. I was fond of them as well as their two children, one of whom was named after me. Gwyneth taught history at a local school and quickly realised that although I was not taking her subject at school, I was, in fact, quite interested in it. She recommended that I read a series of books written by the historian Alistair Horne. He wrote history in such a way that reading it was as enjoyable as reading a gripping novel. Everything he included in his narratives was reliably sourced. His books are both scholarly and engrossing. Through reading these books and discussions with Gwyneth, my interest in history grew and grew. I am eternally grateful to her for this.

If, God forbid, I should ever decide to study for another degree, I would head for a course in modern history. Far from being ‘bunk’, history is most important. As someone said to me recently:

“The future is a plant that grows in the soil of the past.”

And in the words of the philosopher George Santayana (1863-1952), who influenced Bertrand Russell among others:

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

 I hope that we can learn from the past (by studying history) and avoid repeating the mistakes, which were made then, in the future. But maybe, I am being a little bit over-optimistic.

 

 

Some men of history

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My interest in history began when I was about six years old. I could read well by that age. My parents gave me a book called “Looking at History”. It was a simply written thoroughly informative book with many line drawings illustrating everyday life in the British Isles from earliest times to the twentieth century. The book, published in 1955, was one of my treasures. I loved leafing through it. It was created by the historian RJ Unstead (1915-88). This book kindled my life-long interest in history.  One birthday, my parents gave me another book by Unstead, “People in History: Caractacus to Alexander Fleming”. Published in 1959, it contains a series of simple but informative biographies of important British historical personalities.” This was another book that I read over and over again.

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In 1960, I entered The Hall School, a prestigious educational establishment in London’s Swiss Cottage area. This school’s main aim was to educate boys sufficiently well so that they could enter the best private secondary schools. To enter these schools, an examination called ‘Common Entrance’ had to be passed with high marks. One of the papers in this test was history. At The Hall, history was taught with only one goal: passing the Common Entrance. Year after year, our history teachers guided us from Julius Caesar’s arrival in Kent to the end of Queen Victoria’s reign. What seemed to be important was knowing the dates of events rather than the significance of these happenings. History was reduced to monotonous chronology.

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Things did not improve when I entered my secondary school Highgate (founded 1565). History was compulsory in the first year. It was taught by a well-known historian AW Palmer, who has published many books. For some unaccountable reason we had to study the history of the USA. Palmer managed to make it both incomprehensible and uninteresting. This was one of the many reasons that I gave up history in favour of the school’s alternative to it: physics. In fairness to Palmer, his “A Dictionary of Modern History, 1789-1945” (published in 1964) fascinated me. It covered a period of history that was poorly covered at The Hall and had fascinated me from an early age. I believe that my interest in what Palmer termed as “Modern History” began when I was about twelve. It was then I began looking at the adults’ section of Golders Green’s public library and discovered books about Nazi Germany and the Holocaust.

HIST 2

Gwyneth Klappholtz, who was married to Kurt – one of my father’s colleagues at the London School of Economics, taught history at a state school. I used to visit the Klappholtz home regularly in my teens. Gwyneth picked up on my interest in history and recommended me an author whom I feel can write history superbly. The historian Alistair Horne (1925-2017) has written over twenty-six books. I have read several of those. My favourite is “The Fall of Paris: The Siege and the Commune 1870-71” (published 1967, during the time when I used to visit the Klappholz family regularly). Horne writes history as if he were a really good novelist, yet everything he wrote was based on solid, reliable historical research. His books are a joy to read. This is something that the other writers of history, whom I am about to mention, share: an ability to present, often complicated historical situations, in a clear, easily readable form.

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At about the time I discovered Horne, I found an exciting book amongst my father’s library of mostly erudite books on economics. It was called “The Golden Trade of the Moors”. Written by Edward William Bovill (1892-1966), it describes how the Moors crossed the Sahara with salt to exchange for gold in sub-Saharan Africa, where salt was scarce, and worth its weight in gold. Although I enjoyed this book, I have not read anything else by this author.

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My PhD supervisor, a medical doctor and physiologist, introduced me to another very readable historian, the American William Hickling Prescott (1796-1859). This remarkable historian had very poor eyesight. Often, whist he was doing historical research an assistant was required to read documents and other literature to him. He had a phenomenally good memory, which must have been a great help if he had to perform most of his research through the eyes of another. He wrote mainly about aspects of Spanish and Spanish-American history.

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Christopher Hibbert (1924-2008) is another very readable historian. He has written over fifty books, many of which are historical biographies. I have particularly enjoyed his accounts of the lives of King George III and his son King George IV.  Like the other historians I have been describing he combines erudition with literary skill. In 1983, he edited the magisterial, splendid “The London Encylopaedia” with Ben Weinreb.

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About four years ago just before my first trip to Sicily, I read “The Sicilian Vespers.” This deals with a complex series of events leading up to a revolt of the Sicilians against their French occupiers in 1282. Although the author Steven Runciman (1903-2000) does not make the story appear simple, he skilfully navigates the reader through the complicated intertwining strands of history leading up to the event. Some decades before visiting city, I read Runciman’s “The Fall of Constantinople 1453”, another captivating but historically accurate account of an important turning point in the history of Europe.

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In October 2018, I made another visit to Sicily, mainly Palermo. That city and nearby Cefalu contain buildings erected while the Normans occupied Sicily. They took over the island several years before invading Britain. The Normans in Sicily built fine churches and palaces. Often these buildings contain elements of Arabic architecture. I was intrigued and wanted to know more. The leading account of the Normans in Sicily (and southern Italy) was written by the prolific John Julius Norwich (1929-2018). Although he claimed to be no expert on the subject, his two-volume history of the Normans in Sicily is both scholarly and very readable. As with the works of the other authors mentioned, reading this history is both informative and pleasurable. In addition, Norwich injects humour at appropriate places. I am looking forward to reading other books by him including his highly-rated history of Venice.