FROM THE PULPIT
THIS MONTH, PICADORis re-issuing Graham Swift’s Waterlandto mark the novel’s twenty-fifth birthday. It seems reductive of this wonderful and complex book to summarise its plot, but its main storyline is that Tom Crick, fifty-three, head of history at a south-east London comprehensive, is cracking up as his unhappily childless wife’s behaviour grows ever stranger; she eventually steals a baby. In class ‘Cricky’ is supposed to be covering the French Revolution, but increasingly he is diverting his pupils into the history of the Fens and tales from his own childhood and adolescence spent there – featuring a murder, an unwanted pregnancy, and a suicide. These cranky digressions are providing the headmaster with the ammunition he needs to force early retirement upon Crick, and to slash the school’s history teaching to a bare minimum. History, the headmaster tells Crick, is ‘a rag-bag of pointless information’. Upon its publication in 1983, Waterlandwas celebrated as a brilliant evocation of place (though Swift had never lived in the Fens). But it is also a thorough, subtle reflection on the nature of history (though Swift had never been a historian). It took a non-practitioner to delineate the crises of faith that postmodernism had forced upon historians from the 1970s onwards. Threats to funding in the early 1980s and the proposed creation of a National Curriculum made such introspection even more urgent. In universities and schools throughout the country, historians had to ask themselves: what are we doing, and why are we doing it? Is history a guide to the future? Does it, in fact, have any useful application at all? Do we re-tell old stories to comfort ourselves? To understand the present? What distinguishes a fact from a myth? Can any documentary evidence ever be bias-free, objective? Cricky’s most stimulating pupil, the disruptive, restlessly curious lad Price, jeers at him that history ‘is a fairy-tale’. As the nuclear powers square up to each other over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Price tell his teacher, ‘What matters is the here and now. The only important thing about history, I think, sir, is that it’s got to the point where it’s probably going to end.’ Perhaps there was something in the air in 1983. It is the year in which Alan Bennett’s History Boys, and their teachers, are beset with similar doubts about the purpose of history and its role in public life; and 1983 was the year of the publication in English of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, like Waterlanda novel featuring long, nonfiction digressions (this time, on thirteenth- and fourteenthcentury church history) and conveying an unsettling sense of the slipperiness of documents and the question of who is in control of textual meaning. Eco’s novel gives voice to the fear of pointlessness that strikes any good historian from time to time. In the final paragraph of his huge
The Case for Cricky
chronicle, the narrator and now aged monk, Adso of Melk, writes: ‘It is cold in the scriptorium, my thumb aches. I leave this manuscript, I do not know for whom. I no longer know what it is about.’ Like Waterland, The Name of the Rose supplies, among many other wonders, a vivid way of comprehending the doubts afflicting historians. Novelists
are better able to deal with historical crisis because the novel, and its characters, are allowed plenty of scope for doubt – the novel is perhaps the greatest arena for the examination of uncertainty. Waterlandwas the chronicle of a death foretold. The Gradgrinding of education under the Thatcher government saw the marginalisation of history in schools. The National Curriculum, introduced in 1988, imposed a non-narrative, fact-based approach that developed in children an in-depth knowledge of, say, the Tudors or the Nazis, but no understanding of the bigger picture – of Britain, its place in the world and how all the disjointed little micro-histories that pupils were being crammed with, in order to pass exams, might join up into something like a coherent chronology. Four years after the National Curriculum was introduced, the four periods of history per week that had been prescribed for eleven- to fourteen-year-olds were halved as part of a bid to find more school hours for numeracy and literacy. But the real death of history took place in the Blair years. Sounding very like Tom Crick’s sceptical headmaster, Tony Blair declared in 2003, shortly before the Iraq invasion, that ‘a study of history provides so little instruction for our present day’. Blair’s citizenship lessons have also encroached on history, and today many schools dedicate just a single hour a week to history for this age group. What’s more, Britain is now one of only three European countries that allow the subject to be dropped entirely at age fourteen. It’s OK for the adults, because the boom in narrative history publishing that began in the 1990s has provided accessible, readable books so good that much literary fiction lingers in their shadow. But how do we help schoolchildren? We should re-engage with the mavericks, like Tom Crick, who can suggest the grand sweep of history or, paradoxically, the type of local studies that could perhaps be used to enthral a pupil. Encourage teachers to use the emotional pull of narrative and to weave a magical tale from local, national and global elements. Stop hoping to cover anything worthwhile in one hour a week. ‘Forget your revolutions, your turning points, your grand metamorphoses of history’, Cricky tells his pupils. ‘Consider, instead, the slow and arduous process, the interminable and ambiguous process.’
LITERARY REVIEW March 2008 CONTENTS
THIS MONTH’S PULPITis written by Sarah Wise. She is the author of The Italian Boy: Murder and Grave Robbery in 1830s London (Pimlico). Her investigation of late nineteenthcentury East London poverty, The Blackest Streets, will be published in June by The Bodley Head.
DIANAATHILL is the author of Stet and Yesterday Morning: A Very English Childhoodand, most recently, Somewhere Towards the End, all published by Granta Books.
RALEIGHTREVELYANis the author of Rome ’44: The Battle for the Eternal City and The Companion Guide to Sicily.
ALLISTERHEATHis Editor of City AM.
RICHARDBARBERis working on a study of Edward III and the Knights of the Garter as a military and social group, to be published by Penguin in 2009.
JOHNDESTJORREis the author of The Good Ship Venus: The Erotic Voyage of the Olympia Press. During his research, he solved a forty-year-old literary mystery by uncovering the true identity of the author of Story of O.
ADAMLEBOR’s ‘Complicity with Evil’: The United Nations in the Age of Modern Genocide is published this month in paperback by Yale University Press.
DONALDRAYFIELDis Emeritus Professor of Russian and Georgian at Queen Mary University of London, and author of Stalin and his Hangmen(Penguin, 2005).
PETERJONES is the founder of Friends of Classics.
JASONGOODWIN’s most recent book, The Snake Stone, a thriller set in Ottoman Istanbul,is published by Faber.
LESLIEMITCHELL The Duel: Castlereagh, Canning and Deadly Cabinet Rivalry Giles Hunt JOHNGRAY Worlds at War: The 2,500-Year Struggle between East & West Anthony Pagden PAULJOHNSON The Roads to Modernity: The British, French and American Enlightenments Gertrude Himmelfarb RALEIGHTREVELYAN Italy’s Sorrow: A Year of War, 1944–45 James Holland M RDFOOT The Greatest Day in History: How the War Really Ended Nicholas Best PETERMARSHALL The Last Office: 1539 and the Dissolution of a Monastery Geoffrey Moorhouse PAULADDISON From Anger to Apathy: The British Experience Since 1975 Mark Garnett
RICHARDBARBER A Great and Terrible King: Edward I and the Forging of Britain Marc Morris DIANAATHILL The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth Frances Wilson PETERJONES Alexander the Great: A Life in Legend Richard Stoneman ANTHONYSATTIN The Bloody White Baron James Palmer MARYKENNY Watching the Door: Cheating Death in 1970s Belfast Kevin Myers CRESSIDACONNOLLY Nothing to be Frightened of Julian Barnes JEREMYLEWIS Shoot the Widow: Adventures of a Biographer in Search of her Subject Meryle Secrest
ADAMLEBOR Like Eating a Stone: Surviving the Past in Bosnia Wojciech Tochman JASONGOODWIN The Bridge: A Journey Between Orient and Occident Geert Mak AIDANHARTLEY The Wizard of the Nile: The Hunt for Africa’s Most Wanted Matthew Green MICHAELJACOBS Imagining Spain: Historical Myth and National Identity Henry Kamen JOHNKEAY Return to Dragon Mountain Jonathan Spence DONALDRAYFIELD Children’s World: Growing up in Russia, 1890–1991 Catriona Kelly FERGUS FLEMING Encyclopedia of Exploration 1850 to 1940: The Oceans, Islands and Polar Regions Raymond Howgego
Editor: NANCYSLADEK Deputy Editor: TOMFLEMING Editor-at-Large: JEREMYLEWIS Editorial Assistant: JONATHANBECKMAN General Assistant: DANIELIGRA
Contributing Editors: SEBASTIANSHAKESPEARE, PHILIPWOMACK Advertising Manager: TERRYFINNEGAN Classified Advertising: DAVIDSTURGE Founding Editor: DRANNESMITH Founding Father: AUBERONWAUGH Cover illustration by Chris Riddell Issue no. 352
LITERARY REVIEW March 2008