Thursday, 10 November 2011

An historical challenge to be relished.

 During the 1960s there started a wave of publishing series of magazines in weekly instalments devoted to one specialised subject. One of the very first was 'The History of the English Speaking Peoples', taking as its template and title the 112 chapters of the multi-volume work by Winston Churchill. (Incidentally, many people are not aware that Churchill was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, though rather in recognition of his previous writings rather than for this breath-takingly ambitious and admirable work.)
    I had collected all 112 editions which cover the immense span of history between Julius Caesar's Roman invasions of these islands (in 55 B.C.E. and the following year) right up to the death of Queen Victoria in 1901.
 Just a few days ago these magazines of mine saw the light of day again for the first time since I parcelled them up in Oxford prior to my emigrating to Germany in 1988. My eyes moistened when seeing them once more. There has been so much water under the bridge for me in the intervening years - status and financial comfort and security lost, but most poignantly, the loss of very nearly every one of the few friends I had, both in England and other parts of Europe..
    I tried to keep up with reading the magazines as they were first published one by one, but eventually fell behind. Then in the late 70s I gave it another go, this time getting up to the 17th century and the English Civil Wars, but then had to put the project aside.
   Now, inspired by the re-broadcast on one of the BBC's digital radio channels, entitled 'This Scepter'd Isle' in bite-sized 15 mins instalments, again based on the same chapters by Winston Churchill, with readings not only from his work but also from other historical sources relating to the period, I'm giving the challenge another shot - which could well be my final chance.

The magazines also fill in those areas where Churchill is inadequate, weak or he just ignores, with articles by other historians. For example here on the left is the start of an article on Britain's pre-Roman inhabitants, showing a giant figure chalked into an English hillside, which is still renowned as a favourite tourist site, though I can't think why, of an early warrior brandishing his big stick. (If you're not familiar with this, the 'Cerne Abbis Giant', look closely!.
                 Each magazine is a veritable treasure-trove of information and reading them sits well with my lifelong unquenchable thirst for knowledge. I plan to read one mag (with all its articles) per week  Really looking forward to this!

Just as a post-script, at secondary school the history we were taught covered the period from the ascent of the Tudor Dynasty (from Henry VII in 1485) up to the Unification of Germany in 1870. Though we learned a lot about the French Revolution and the Napoleonic era, there was precious little said about the American War of Independence, which seems rather curious now. Also, given the range of dates, there was, of course, no coverage of either of the two world wars. (I believe that for some time now all children are taught at least something about World War 2). When I was at school, the 1939-45 conflict was still raw in the minds of many families and all of my teachers would have lived through it. Perhaps the dust hadn't quite settled enough.


  1. Hello Ray:
    Gosh, what a task you have set yourself, but what a fascinating romp through history your reading is set to be. It is perhaps a good time to start upon your quest with the long evenings and wintry weather more conducive to hibernating indoors with a good read.

    It is so true that the history taught in schools is a variable feast. In recent years, specialisation has meant that many young people have no idea of the breadth of English history and this does seem to be an important omission in the development of an educated society. There are s many important lessons to be gleaned from history, but are they ever really learned?

  2. This is fascinating and very exciting that you're taking on this project. I look forward to learning from you.

    Of course, the American Revolution was a major subject in the USA throughout my school years. It is interesting to see now the parts of history that were glossed over, rewritten, or completely ignored when I was growing up. I wonder what they teach on those subjects now.

  3. Thanks for that, J & L. I'm afraid that with all the reading I want to do there just aren't enough hours in the day - and so it has been as long as I can remember.
    The truth is that it's not just young people in the U.K. who have abysmal knowledge of history; many, even most, adults don't have a clue either. In a radio quiz a few years ago people were asked to phone in with the answer to the question "Who was the first British Prime Minister?" Caller after caller rang in giving the answer "Margaret Thatcher!". A few were a bit more imaginative but not much better - Harold Wilson & Harold Macmillan. Just one managed to leave the 20th century with 'Disraeli'. But I was one of the few left screaming 'Robert Walpole'!(18th cent).
    Just what do they teach in schools?

  4. Grateful for your comment too, Mitch.
    One history mag per week for 2+ years. I think I can manage that.
    Yes, the history syllabus changes from generation to generation depending on the perspective of the society prevailing at any given time. It must have been when I was well past school age when I first heard the sentence "History is written by the victors." It made a deep impression on me then, and it is always a cautionary comment to bear in mind when dealing with the subject.
    Our almost total ignorance of American history seems incredible now but I think way back in the 50s and 60s America was just taken for granted and therefore 'needed' no explanation. I do hope (but I don't know) that that sorry attitude has now been consigned to, erm, history.

  5. Gosh, what a lot of work, masses of reading and knowledge to plough up. Bravo.

    History is something that is all around us, every day, some places more than others, yet most of the time, we close our eyes to it.

  6. It's a lot, Jase, but it's FUN (at least to me) - otherwise I wouldn't be interested enough to do it.
    Yes, history is being made all the time, of course, but rather than seeing it close up like NOW, it needs the perspective of time to evaluate it, though those perspectives themselves keep shifting as they also become history. It's a never-ending process.

  7. I love English History!
    I am positively wasted here, living in the States.

  8. There just aren't enough of us history-lovers around, Dr Spo - but I'm not surprised to read that it's one of YOUR passions too. We don't hear enough about American history here - not just the Revolution, and the Civil War but about pre-colonisation history too. (I wonder if in American schools there is much talk about the latter?)
    As for your being WASTED over there, I simply don't believe it! (and I'm sure there are very many Americans who would testify against that statement) - though I am aware of the direction you're coming from.

  9. I recommend "The Teaching Company" or sometimes it is called "Great Courses" - my source of history courses. So much and so good !

  10. Thanks for that, Dr Spo. I'll follow it up.

  11. There was a time in my life, pre-college, when I absolutely abhorred history. Even one minute of it in school would drive me batty. Then in college I took a history course taught by the best professor I ever had. She was a miracle worker because she taught me to love history.

    I envy you for the wonderful journey you've embarked upon. Perhaps someday I'll learn to love reading so that I may join you.

  12. I can well understand that, Cubby. I had a similar experience with Eng. Lit. I used to think that Shakespeare was as dry as dust (we were then doing 'Julius Caesar'). Then, for my very final year at school, we got as our English master a young priest who just exuded enthusiasm for the subject. (We did 'Macbeth' with him). He opened my eyes not just to the Bard, but to ALL reading. In fact I owe him the greatest debt of anyone I've ever met in inculcating in me a love of the arts.

    Btw How is your reading of the Stieg Larsson trilogy progressing? Or was it just the films you were watching?

  13. We watched the films, subtitled in English, and loved them. I have not read the novels and likely will not. I'd love to listen to them if they've been made into audiobooks.

  14. Never mind, Cubby. Each to his own. I'll be watching out with interest for the American re-makes. Maybe they've already been released in the States. We've still got to wait, but there are whispers here that unlike some (most?) re-makes, these are not at all bad.