I guess I shouldn’t be but I’m consistently amazed, and not a little disheartened, by the seeming total lack of historical consciousness of most British people, and that includes most of my family. What this has to do with Melvyn Bragg may or may not become clear later. It’s not only the British of course (and I do mean British and not just English). Here in France I quite often start to pontificate on something to do with French history and then slowly it becomes clear that my worthy friends haven’t got a clue what I’m talking about. But then most Americans still think that Paris is in Texas.
Now if you are a regular reader of this blog (yes there are some), then this lack of historical knowledge clearly doesn’t extend to you. So let’s just think about the ‘others’ – them.
Whether you agree with me or not, does this all really matter? Well day to day as we go about our lives I guess it doesn’t. But if we ever want to change anything for the better politically, socially, economically and ecologically, and I mean for the better of the many not the few, then I think history does matter. Yet what type of history? If history is presented in the wrong way it can just be one damn thing after another: this king followed that king, that battle was won, the next lost. Perhaps if you cast your mind back you can remember one or two things in this vein from your school days? All no doubt being heavily sprinkled with a good dose of xenophobia and nationalistic jingoism. Just the type of history the British Education Secretary Michael Gove seems to want to bring back. Now Gove does seem to me to be a funny little man who looks and sounds like a visitor from another planet, but something he recently reputedly said did make me laugh. A head teacher friend told me he had said that British school children could empathise with the victims of Nazism but didn’t know who Winston Churchill was! I have to say I burst out laughing. ‘Well,’ I said, ‘it’s hard but true.’
True it might be but doesn’t it throw up the whole question of victims and perpetrators? All history is about some individuals or groups doing things to other individuals or groups. If you think about it a minute this also applies to much of intellectual and even art history.
Let me take just one example of victims and perpetrators from ‘English’ history. There have been some television programmes recently about the Hundred Years War between, it is usually said, the English and the French. At the start of these ‘wars’ in the mid fourteenth century, the English King Edward III and his son Edward ‘The Black Prince’ won two battles against the French at Crecy and Poitiers respectively – both much against the odds. If you read about these battles or watch the excellent TV programmes, who do you side with? If you are English do you get a warm glow because not for the last time the gallant English yeoman archers under their brave leaders had trounced the French? Maybe you do; there’s not much the matter with that. But these battles, like so many others, weren’t really an English against the French thing. Who were the perpetrators and who were the victims? King Edward and his son Edward Prince of Wales were certainly the holder of the English crown and his heir apparent, who would have become Edward IV if he hadn’t died from malaria caught while rampaging in Spain, but what they really were were French-speaking Angevin armed thugs wanting to get one over on the French Valois armed thugs. It was all about land and power. This was a French thug against French thug thing, nothing really to do with the people of England and France, they were the victims.
It’s easy to see that the population of South West France were victims. In 1355 and 1356 the Black Prince systematically and deliberately cut a trail of rape, robbery, burning and death from town to town. These so-called chevauchées (notice the French word) were, it is said, provocations to try to bring the French king Jean out to fight. These atrocities were so bad that they seared themselves into the French psyche. Even in the nineteenth century French mothers would scare their children with the threat that Le Prince Noir and ‘the English’ would return. Quite a lot of the French nobilty too lost their lives under the hail of English arrows, which was quite a shock for them as the despicable code of medieval chivalry was supposed to mean that nobles could surrender when facing defeat and then be held for ransom, which after it had been paid by their long-suffering peasantry would mean they could return home. They were not meant to be killed by common, uncouth English archers! On the other hand the ordinary soldiers, French or English, could be and were slaughtered without mercy and without a second thought.
There were victims too on the English side: the ordinary English soldiers who had been forced to follow their French-speaking lords on yet another continental trip – there to die without memory. Lords who pretty much despised them and were only just learning to abide the English language, though they much preferred to talk French. And then there were the English victims at home, not just the wives and mothers who lost husbands and sons, but also the vast majority of ordinary people who were wrung dry by the taxes the kings imposed to pay for their rampages.
History is about victims and perpetrators, and about asking who was doing what to whom? And why?
Now you may find this fourteenth century story a bit remote, obscure even, but I guarantee that wherever you look, in whatever country, at whatever time, it was pretty much the same story. I think I should make it clear that what I have told so far of these medieval battles is in no way anti-French. Nobles/thugs were and are everywhere: in Germany, in Spain, in Italy and yes, in Africa, in Japan, in India and, God forbid, in America too. History doesn’t really have much to do with nations or nationality, at least not the history that has relevance.
Back to Michael Gove. It’s a good thing that British school children can empathise with Jewish and other victims of the Holocaust, but please not in a historical vacuum. What was the long history of anti-semitism in Europe? Why did it arise? What did the Catholic Church have to do with it? And what were the reasons that the Germans turned to National Socialism? Might it have something to do with their treatment at Versailles? And what about Churchill? Of course British school children should know who he was and what he did; although there are so many television programmes about him and the Second World War I’d be surprised if they didn’t have some clue. I for one have the utmost respect for Churchill as a war leader, but what about Churchill as an aristocrat? What about his wealthy and privileged background? Where did the wealth to build Blenheim Palace come from? What had his ancestor John Churchill, The Duke of Marlborough, done to deserve it? Who were his victims?
The thing is that there is no such thing as value-free history. When we tell history we have to make choices and we have to interpret. I wrote about this in an earlier article. There are facts in history and without facts history is just a story. But while the great German historian Leopold von Ranke preached, but didn’t practice, the view that history would somehow simply emerge from original documents, in fact that is not the case, history needs choices and it needs interpretation. The only thing is that we need to be quite explicit about what choices we are making regarding how to tell our story, our history. What are our values? Who do we care about? And, yet again, why?
Now I think you might see that the type of history I would teach in schools doesn’t have a chance in hell of ever making it onto the national curriculum. Why is that? The answer should be pretty clear: If people really understood the oppression their ancestors had suffered and at whose hands, then just maybe they would see it’s all still going on today.
But what about Melvyn Bragg? Last year I was in Andalusia in southern Spain. I was staying with someone who one day was trying to persuade me of something spiritual. I think he saw himself as a bit of a guru. God knows we don’t need more of those. We were sitting face to face. I as usual was lounged in my habitual louche manner across an armchair, legs out-stretched but crossed, arms spread on each of the chair’s arms, slouched a bit, my preferred position for giving a good lecture. He however was bolt upright, straight back, looking me in the eye, all attention. And then he told me I was sitting in the chair like Melvyn Bragg. It wasn’t perhaps an insult but it certainly was a bit of a reprimand. Clearly he wasn’t a fan of Lord Bragg. But I am. Now I don’t know if Melvyn sits like me, but it was clearly an attitude that disturbed my host. A certain arrogance he told me. Now I’ve never found Lord Bragg particularly arrogant and if he is it’s a good thing. I’ve read most of Melvyn’s books, novels and non-fiction, and intelligent works they are too. Then there’s his long-running The South Bank Show, a rare in-depth Arts programme which takes the subject seriously even if it’s not always to my taste if it’s about an East End rapper or a Peruvian contemporary dancer. And then there’s the BBC radio series In Our Time, where all sorts of historical matters and events are explored and discussed by Melvyn and his guest historians. This is sublime. Usually the historians are extremely knowledgeable and erudite but Melvyn always tries to bring them back from their academic whaffle and asks questions that matter, questions about what was really going on. Sometimes he even gets a bit testy with them and proclaims, ‘Only from the mouth of an academic!’ And, let’s not forget, Melvyn came from a simple Cumbrian background and carved out his interesting career by his own work and wit, unlike our present group of Eton ministers.
I like Melvyn Bragg. I like the way he explores history and I like the way he cuts to the historical chase. So if people think I sit like Melvyn Bragg then I’ll take it as a compliment.