The history of History – Part 1 – The Past

When Lifeslittleironies was about 4 years old and frequently bored, one would alight on a Victorian glass-fronted oak bookcase. Within those rows of fake Morocco leather straight-grain green tomes would be titles of a historical outlook. “Middle School History” was one I remember but other titles hinted at daring deeds in the British Empire or darker deeds of Tudor Kings. I saw chapter headings such as “Magna Carter”, “Oliver Cromwell” and “David Livingstone”. The close type printed words beneath these titles meant little to me but every 40 pages or so there would be a pen and ink drawing depicting perhaps a fur-coated bearded man burning cakes, or another gentleman playing bowls with ship sails in the distance or another fellow sheltering from the icy blasts of snow writing in a diary. What these meant I did know, but I knew there were great stories therein and I could not wait for my first day of school to decode their meanings.

Summer ebbed away and I set foot one early autumn morning to my own “city of dreaming spires”. “Here we go!” I thought as I waited for my first history book to be handed to me. But no. I was presented with a book with large type with the words “The Apple is Green. The Banana is Yellow and the Cat is Black and White” written in 14pt Century Schoolbook font. Quickly dispensing with this footling prose, I was entreated to write “The happy boy plays with the spotted dog” and “The little girl skips down the lane”. Despite my frustration with this diatribe, lessons did not improve. I was counselled that if the pony-tailed girl had two red balloons for her birthday and acquired another red balloon, she would cheerfully have three. Moreover, if the naughty boy took a pin and burst two of them she would be thoroughly bereft and in possession of but a single red balloon. I understood this to be some form elementary mathematical computation.

“Ok”, I reasoned, collectively my classmates and I needed to get on the same page before we poured over the origins of the “Wars of the Roses”. But alas no. Instead I was being asked to paint said boy, girl, balloon and dog but only ever succeeded in producing curious purplely-brown smudges, which struggle as teachers might, barely evinced a happy smiley face from the preceptor.

Summer gave way to winter then spring and one school year gave way to another and despite this ironic passing of time no historical instruction was forthcoming

I gave up Elementary school as a lost cause but believed that we would double-down, history-wise at Secondary school. Now dressed in my dark blue blazer, striped tie and long trousers I believed we were about to get serious. The previous six years were just a preparation for the historical examination that was about to begin.

Frantically, I scanned my timetable for History or some modern pseudonym of said subject. The nearest topic I espied was Social Studies. Was this the proxy I was looking for? The lessons seemed to be split in to two; alternating between social skills and those with somewhat cursory historical pretense. The Stone Age and Dinosaurs were two examples. More anthropological than historical but better than nothing. More promising were lessons on the Egyptian Pharaohs, Greek Gods and Roman aqua-ducts. Interesting in their own-right no doubt but this was not the “meat and two veg” that I was hoping to satiate myself with. And no sooner were these subjects introduced they were swiftly consigned to the back of the classroom credenza.
At some point I might have asked where the great historical stories for which I craved elicitation, were on the syllabus. Would we be introduced to the story of the Battle of Trafalgar? “Nooooo” came the answer. What about Waterloo? “No way!”, they responded. The defeat of the Armada? “Huh!? They snorted” What about the Battle of Hastings? “Okay”. I listened intently. From the fragmentary information I received, some team called Anglo-Saxons United defeated the Viking Invaders at Stamford Bridge but then lost the away fixture in the European Cup Final against the Normandy Conquerors in extra-time. During the match the Saxon captain picked up a nasty injury, which ruled him out for the rest of the season. Or something like that.

Now a teenager, I had figured out our educators’ reluctance to teach us about our past. I was being taught by the post-war generation. Their parents had lived through and survived the World Wars and wanted for the most part to forget about them. Their children gladly acquiesced in this conspiracy. These post-war babies aspired to be the generation of the future, replete with sci-fiction movies, moon-shots and a dodgey dress code. They were more interested in free health, free milk, free love and free festivals! “The past is history; Man!” They chorused.
But there was still hope. At fourteen, I could choose my own subjects to study and the first tick I made in the selection boxes was for History. But the post-war generation had one more trick up their sleeve. They would make the teaching of history so mundane, so boring, so mind-numbingly matter of fact that no one would ever wish to open a history book again during the course of one’s natural life.

Nonetheless, history was history and I could soak up the historical timelines regardless of the manner in which they were taught. The opening subject on the first page looked promising. The Industrial Revolution. Yet they made sure that the interesting bits were kept well out of sight. No inspirational tales of the inventions or ingenuity of Watt, Stevenson or Brunel. Instead, the historians-in-name before us taught the assembled pupils that really there was no Industrial Revolution. And if there was, it found its origins in the Low Countries or Germany. And if Britain seemed to contribute to these technical improvements and gained some affluence then it was only because it had the right kind of coal inches beneath its rain-sodden moors.

If we were not put off already they were ready to bore us to the core. How about three terms of the Poor Law, Workhouses, Lord Shaftesbury and Joseph Rowntree? OK! Next, let’s learn about poor sanitation, Trades Unions, Tolpuddle Martyrs and William Cobbett? Ready to stick a fork in your flesh and burning hot needles in your eyes to overcome the monotony? In which case, welcome to the Chartists, Fred Engels topped off with a bit of Marxian dialectics.
Fast forward and four years of study culminated in the final examination questions. The eight questions on the paper always could always be summarized in one of one of two categories, thus:

Question 1. Give five reasons why the Gradgrindian Victorian industrial middle classes were utter, utter bastards to the deserving, yet poor and exploited working classes?

Question 2. Imagine you are a widowed penniless woman thrown on to the streets by an unscrupulous landlord with two sickly babies. You are begging quietly for a crust of stale bread, when some plummy-accented tosspot with britches pulled over his extensive pot-belly kicks you in the face, spits on your babes-in-arms and pinches the thruppenny-bit lying pitifully in your tin cup. Explain how you are feeling towards your antagonist, how you came to this spiteful predicament and what progressive social reformers will strive for over the next fifty years to remedy this injustice?? Aarrrgh!!

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