“So, how are you getting on with ‘Wolf Hall’?” I asked someone who’d just come back from a fortnight in Mauritius. She twisted her mouth.
“It’s quite hard, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” I said. “It takes a while to suss out that when she says ‘he’, usually it means ‘Thomas Cromwell’, whom she’s cast as a first person narrator speaking in the third person, and doing so in the historic present tense … But once you get past that – ”
“Oh no, that wasn’t a problem. That’s not what I meant,” she said. “It’s just that I don’t know anything about ancient history.”
“But, you do know about Henry the Eighth, and his wives and the Pope and stuff.”
“Not really,” she replied. “I kind of ducked all that.”
You probably think I’m conversing with a teenager. Not at all: this is a highly intelligent, educated and mostly well-informed person eight years younger than me. I was intrigued by this gap, and would have pursued it further, but dinner was on the table and I had to gulp down the rest of my gin. We never got back to the subject.
But when I got home I started to think about it. My first thought was “does it matter?”, and my immediate answer was “yes!” Unless you have at least some understanding of what was going on in and after the Reformation, you won’t understand a lot of what’s going on today. Because today’s norms are born of yesterday’s controversies, and to hold a view about, for example, whether it matters who is our next-but-one monarch (if that bothers you) or whether prisoners should be allowed to vote, you need to know how we got to where we are.
On the other hand, I then reflected, I got through more than half my life without any iota of such understanding. Although I scraped a History O level, that was really no more than a demonstration of my powers of memory. Thus although I knew (roughly) the names of Henry VIII’s wives, in order, I had no idea why he had to have six, and certainly not how this eventually led to the Civil War, or for that matter the First World War. History, when I was taught it in the fifties, was almost entirely about the ‘who’, ‘what’ and ‘when’ of the past; hardly if at all about the ‘why’ and ‘how’.
As it happens, the path of my life meandered to a point, maybe twenty years ago, where I was suddenly prompted to take an interest. Needing something to read (in the loo, since you ask), I came across a series of Pelican histories of England, and grabbed one at random. I remember very clearly the key thought: “Ah, so that’s why William the Conqueror needed to invade us!” I’ve never looked back. (Don’t set me any exam papers though.)
So I don’t in any way blame my friend for not knowing what Henry VIII was about. She received the same rubbish education I did, but never got steered into that particular later-life diversion. I think (although I don’t know for sure) that today’s teaching of History might be a little bit more educative (in the sense of thought-provoking); but ask me again in five years’ time, when it’s been dragged back to the fifties.