Wednesday, 24 August 2011
WHEN DID THE BUG BITE YOU? by Nicola Morgan
I hated history lessons at school. There were two very good reasons. Let's call them Mr A and Miss B. Mr A terrorised me from the age of six to ten. I was going to say he taught me but I prefer to say he tried (failed) to sear the facts into me using fear and unconcealed contempt. Did he seem to hate me because my father was the headmaster, or because I was the only girl in the school apart from my younger sister and he was a misogynist, or just because he could? Later, there came Miss B. Did she seem to hate me because I so often forgot things, or because I more than occasionally answered back, or because I rather enjoyed being sent out of her lessons, which fluctuated between interminably tedious and terrifying, or because she was riddled with pain from what was clearly a hip replacement in waiting?
I never knew what history was for. Actually, I didn't know it was for anything. I thought it was just knowledge and knowledge was a Good Thing because it just was. Oh, and knowledge was facts, I was led to believe, nothing more complex than that. Knowing that two plus two makes four was exactly the same sort of thing as knowing the cause of the First World War. (Which, of course, was that guy getting shot. Because that's what Miss A's book said.) Knowledge came from books, and nothing else. Never did we touch an object or smell the ghosts in the stones; never were we allowed to feel the emotions of our forefathers. Much less our foremothers. Facts, not feelings.
And then, years later, I found myself unexpectedly writing Fleshmarket, after hearing the story of a woman having a mastectomy without anaesthetic in front of an audience of men. One important thing about this story was that I heard it while touching the table on which her operation happened. That stain - was it hers? That deep scratch - was it when the knife slipped from her body?
But more was to come before I properly understood, an hour which wiped clean away the failure of those history teachers and dropped me deep into the emotions of the real people who lived before us. That hour was the one I spent in one of the hidden reading rooms of the National Library of Scotland, where I'd gone to read the newspapers from the trial of William Burke. I will not forget it, sitting down, after washing my hands and discarding all writing implements except a soft pencil, and the librarian bringing me the huge folders, laying them down softly on unbleached pillows and handing me the ruler with which I could turn the pages.
And there I read and touched - importantly, I think you have to touch - the pages, the actual pages that the people who lived at the time had touched. Not history books, not internet sites, not secondary sources, not interpretations filtered by hindsight, but the things they made and touched that day. There's a kind of spirit left behind in objects and you have to be allowed to know it. Otherwise you won't understand, I think.
I know we can't let every historical object be touched by everyone, without control and guidance and without protecting the objects, but everyone should have the experience of touching things from the past and being allowed to feel what they mean. But maybe I shouldn't blame those horrible teachers, or even the system I was taught under. I wonder: is it possible that children find it harder to make that connection to the past. Did I have to be an adult before it could happen?
Was it me, my teachers or my age? Or none of the above?
I'd love to know: when did it happen for you, this being bitten by history?
This is my last post for the wonderful History Girls, as I've had to step aside because of pressure of "stuff". Long live the History Girls, bringing the past to life!