Wednesday 24 August 2011


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!


catdownunder said...

I think I was lucky in one respect - my paternal grandfather gave me a history lesson and a love of history. It was a birthday present for me and for my brother. He took us on to one of the big vessels docked in Port Adelaide and the captain showed us from the bottom (the engine room) to the bridge.
Afterwards the Captain took us into his private sitting room and showed us the maps he had borrowed just for the evening from the Harbourmaster. They were the actual maps of the river made by my great-grandfather, "Grandpa's Dad" as we knew of him. He had long since died but the maps made him seem real and alive and history seem real and alive with it. My brother and I used to refer to the occasion as "the best birthday ever" - and we have very little history compared with the UK!

Joanna said...

It took me a long time to get over the 'knowledge is facts' mentality that dominated my history lessons too. And because I found it really difficult to remember the facts (and, in particular, link them to the required date), I got to thinking that history wasn't really something that was available to me. Thank goodness for my children's teachers who presented the subject in such a different and imaginative way and helped me to see it differently. I also had a bit of an epiphany at the Imperial War Museum of the North, which is so stuffed full of stories, objects, photographs, etc, etc that speak of ordinary people in extraordinary times that I would defy anyone to escape being bitten there.

Will Coe said...

Do you have to touch history to feel it? I hope not. An old object is a nice way to trip the imagination but there are many others. Does a spirit have to have a physical home? I don't know, that's too metaphysical for me. I thought I felt the spirit of Greece and the Albigensians when I read Mary Renault and Zoe Oldebourg in my preteens. Perhaps I was too young to understand it was only a secondary spirit.
I think I should stand up a bit for the internet too. It may not give me the full flavour of the National Library of Scotland but there's a knickerblocker glory in it somewhere. And it's a primary as well as a secondary source. Isn't your blog (and the millions of today's tweets) a primary source about you? Have I felt your spirit through my keyboard?
Best of luck with your 'stuff ' and thanks for being one of the girls.

Katherine Langrish said...

That's a lovely story, Cat - what a thrill it must have been to see your great-grandfather's very maps!

I was lucky enough to live most of my childhood in 'old' houses - ranging from Victorian to 17th century - and you can't escape a sense of the past there, wondering who else lived there before you, who slept in your bedroom, who climbed the stairs. Who - perhaps? - died there?

History in school was a real mixture. Up to about 14, we were asked to do a lot of imaginative reconstruction, which of course I loved - 'Write an account of your day as a child working in a coal mine' etc - but later it became a diagrammatic business of learning the battle plans of Waterloo, Trafalgar, and dates, and such, which slipped from the memory almost as soon as learned.

M Louise Kelly said...

I was lucky enough to see you and Celia Rees talk about your historical writing the other day ('twas great) and it was only then that I realised that here i am writing a historical teen novel and I failed my history 'O' level. I was generally a swot at school and it's the only exam i've EVER failed!!!! What's that all about?

I think even then I realised that the exam was irrelevant as i'd been bitten much earlier and my interest in the subject wasn't connected in the slightest to the way it was taught or examined.

My primary school was tiny - only 5 kids in my year - and it was in the mining village that my dad and grandad had grown up in. There was a real awareness of continuity from the past to present. Overwhelming for people who were 1st generation 'in comers' i suppose, but it really instilled a sense that the past can teach us and affects what we do now and who we are. Projects on mining disasters were time-fillers, trips to Beeching-slashed railway stations to draw wild flowers were sunny-day treats. (jumpers for goal-posts....okay, i'm sure there were rubbish bits too!). It was social history that made sense to me at that age. And things that used more than one sense (touching it, walking on it, getting wet visiting it!) We can learn tons from wars and kings etc. but for a child (or is it more girls???) social, family history is very immediate.

Nicola Morgan said...

Will - you are right, of course. (Though it is a bit aback-taking to think of my blog being a primary source about me or you feeling my spirit through your keyboard!) I know you're right though. And hearing stories, if they're told well, and in the right atmosphere and at the right time, can certainly move us to feel history (and imaginary stories). I suppose I can only speak for myself when i say that I needed to touch something and I do think there's something extra that we (or maybe not all of us) get when we touch and something that has a story attached. After all, if I'd touched those newspapers without knowing the stories behind them, they'd just have been papers.

cat - that does sound like a lovely birthday!

M Louise Kelly said...

Acually, should have also mentioned that being born in Wallsend - the end of the Hadrian's Wall - meant i didn't stand a chance of escaping history!

Nicola Morgan said...

Louise - it's the social history that does it for me, too. And I guess that's what my history lessons failed to show me, or to allow me to see. I'd learnt that history was only about the movers and shakers, kings and queens and generals and the occasional heroine. But none of that makes any sense at all without knowing what life was like for people at the time. What it felt like.

Marie-Louise said...

History was as big a turn-off as maths until a young nun brought it all alive for us for three years, then disappeared in the cloud of mystery that surrounds a 'lost' vocation. She was the best teacher we ever had - she told history like a fantastic story, used visual props she had obviously spent hours making. We all did really well in our exams-despite being considered the D class-but I don't think she ever knew.

K.M.Grant said...

I was lucky enough to feel I was history, in that my recusant Catholic family, labelled by Lord Burleigh, Lord High Treasurer to Queen Elizabeth 1st, as a family of 'more than usual perversity', made little distinction between the living and the dead, or between 'now' and 'then'. It was an unusual upbringing, particularly as my mother extended the historical approach to the contents of the fridge.

adele said...

Goodbye, Nicola and thanks for lovely post! May good fortune attend your every move! And come and visit History Girls...your comments are always welcome.

Susan Price said...

I can't remember not loving history, but then, at primary school, it was taught by a headmaster who loved it, and told us about Alfred burning the cakes, and Spartan boys hiding foxes. Even so, I think I was alone in the class in loving his lessons.
But at home I had my parents, who told us stories of their childhoods, and of my grandparents' and even great and great-great grandparents - so I was always aware that real people had done things differently in the past.
And then, at A-level, we studied the reform of working conditions in the 19th Century - and my Great Grandfather, on his deathbed, had the scars left by pulling a coal-tub underground! So I was lucky that I always able to connect!

none said...

At first at secondary school, we didn't study History--we had Environmental Studies, a sort of mash-up of History and Geography. It was great. I loved it more than any other lesson except English.

Then when we started our O level years and I elected History, we did the French revolution. And I'm sorry, but the teacher was rubbish. We had two textbooks, and every lesson we sat and copied out from the textbooks into our exercise books. The 'teacher' never taught us at all. I think I was lucky to get a C--in what had been a favourite subject.

Also, Olympe de Bouges wasn't mentioned in either textbook. Ahem.

Then when I went to sixth form college, I chose History again for A level. I have to admit I was a bit daunted by my O level experience, and considered switching to German. What a mistake that would have been! My A Level teacher, Mr Greenleaf, was a wonderful teacher. He reignited my love of the subject and taught me skills I still use today. We did 1066 to Magna Carta. It was some of the best teaching I've ever had.

Sometimes I think I should've done History or Archaeology at university. But you can't bring back your own past.

Incidentally, the Roman museum in Canterbury has a section dedicated to giving visitors hands-on experience of items from the past. It's aimed at kids really but anyone can play!

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Cat I loved your story. There were so many layers there and I think when children connect to their own personal past, they see the world quite differently.
Nicola have fun with your 'stuff' and hope you'll come back now and again as a guest blogger.

Angelica R. Jackson said...

I think I also learned a love of history (and all learning really) in spite of my teachers. The classes and tests were so date and fact-oriented, but I wanted to know what those times were LIKE.

So I'd run across some mention of a fascinating event or person, and run to the encyclopedia and NF section to check it out.

Then I'd get marks on my paper like "Well written, but the assignment was to list the events and dates of WWI, not to discuss the poppies in Flanders Field and how poems are inspired."

Brussel Sprout said...

I think it dates back to the first holiday I really remember (now 42 years ago) when I was 5. My grandmother was investigating her family tree, and this took my mother and me to north Wales with my grandparents. Our first stop was Conway, and while my grandparents were looking up parish registers, my mother gave me one of my best days ever: we went round Conway castle, on a boat trip to Puffin Island and then to see Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. I've loved castles ever since, and still weave stories about the people living in them as I explore them. Fortunately, Belgium is full of great castles, ruined, restored and rebuilt.