I really wish I had done history O-level.
When I reached the age at which you had to choose your subjects, it had become clear I was the arty type. Not that I was any good at what we called “art” at school. My middling academic strengths were clearly going to lie in what were then called Modern Languages; and indeed I went on to do French and German (alongside English) at A-level and subsequently at university. Already at the age of 14 it was plain that I had a fairly astringent aversion to mathematics and science; and my aim was to avoid them as far as possible for the rest of my education – and ideally the rest of my life. I couldn’t avoid doing maths O-level, because like English Language, it was compulsory. But I could avoid physics and opt for history instead. But this was an age when most of us still did pretty much what our parents thought best for us; and my Dad was concerned that I should retain a breadth in my education that he thought would serve me well in later life. So he made me do physics.
I continue to believe this was a mistake, and not just because I got an ‘H’ in the physics O-level. I seem to have spent a good part of my adult life wishing I had a better grasp of the history of my own country and planet; and doing a fair bit of later-life learning about it. But knowledge acquired in middle age doesn’t stick as well as that inculcated in childhood and adolescence. I can still manage in French and German (I’m writing this in France) and although my once decent command of both languages is now laughably hesitant, I know that the linguistic structures are deeply embedded somewhere inside my head, and would creak back into life if I found myself in a French or German speaking context for any length of time.
But with history, I have to check basic facts over and over again. While I have developed a kind of mind-map of English history, watching the current BBC Shakespeare history productions The Hollow Crown and reading Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies sends me back time after time to historical sources on the Wars of the Roses and the English Reformation. The point of this, for me, is that the events of both periods were formational in terms of where – and who – we are now. And they are of course not the only such periods - there’s the subsequent multiple tsunami of the Civil War, Commonwealth, Restoration and Glorious Revolution - 60 years that changed not just Britain, but the world. Understanding our route thus far can help with seeing current events and pre-occupations as part of a continuing journey. Patterns emerge; underlying tendencies are revealed - and modern controversies come to look like major weather events taking place inside items of domestic crockery.
It’s the corresponding lack of historical perspective that allows the Church, idiotically, to describe the prospect of gay marriage as “one of the worst threats it has faced in 500 years”. No, my dears; among the worst threats during that time have been the Commonwealth suppression (during which Anglicanism was effectively abolished); the Non-Jurors scandal (in which 7 bishops and hundreds of clergy split the Church by refusing to swear allegiance to William & Mary); oh, and just possibly (if that’s all a bit too 17th century for you) the Church’s steep loss of public support, respect and influence over the last 50 years. Of actual “threats” to the Church since the Elizabethan Settlement, gay marriage is probably about 89th out of 100 on the seriousness scale.
And you don’t even have to read history to learn about it. The likes of Schama, Starkey and McCulloch offer it digestibly and engagingly on TV. Even The Hollow Crown offers a version of the English history of the late 14th and early 15th centuries whose consequences we live with to this day.
The history of my country and my Church is one of high drama, appalling conflict and true heroism in the face of seismic shifts in human perception, loyalty and conviction. Gay marriage? Women bishops? Do me a favour.
|History on my doorstep: the Talbot Memorial in Castillon, SW France, marking the spot at which the Hundred Years War ended in 1453, and England finally lost Aquitaine to the French|