For those who love the discoveries of history as I do, you have almost certainly at some time in your life been closer to the slough of despond than an exit off the M4 between Windsor and Reading. History looking like a schoolboy Sisyphus pushing his bike up a one-in-four began for me with the Hanoverians. For this I blame Mr Henderson – a man more Zen master than history master. His idea of teaching grammar school history was to demand we copy from the board the notes he would write. Within 15 minutes he had filled two of what in those days were blackboards, before rubbing out and starting over, whether or not the class (more especially me; ‘it’s all about me’), had managed to copy down his Malplaquets and Marlboroughs. He — and we — would not cease writing until the following June’s exam, by which time we had strayed into Castlereaghs and von Bismarcks. Our time with Mr Henderson was history hell. You might say it was the Pitts.
When I was at school, history was kings and battles. Now it is modules and projects; inclusiveness and sentimentalist apologia for what long-dead people did to other long-dead people.
Neither (or each) stance misses the whole point, but how we feel about ourselves conditions how we deconstruct evidence to synthesise history. It is as true of the fraying solar topee regime under which I was caught, as the social welfarist touchy-feely anemia of today’s fairy stories.
Would Mr Henderson be proud of his pupil from class 3A? I hope so. His ‘wax on; wax off’ discipline and my self-invented shorthand later served me well, as journalist and researcher. Mr Henderson’s writing on the wall means not so many footnotes. Take it from me — I have done my homework.