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Another thing you need to remember about history

Be suspicious of history books where economies rise and armies clash but men never do

The next thing that happened is that my reading got good enough for me start reading proper children’s books. How that happened is very simple: I hoovered up a lot of books by people like Enid Blyton, Eleanor M Brent Dyer, Captain W E Johns. They weren’t respectable but my parents were wise enough to keep buying them for me. Then they took me to the library to slake my thirst less expensively.

Now make no mistake, most of these writers wouldn’t get into print nowadays. For a start many of them were racist, sexist, anti-semitic… I soon spotted that the villain in the Enid Blyton adventure stories was generally a swarthy gypsy or, even worse, someone swarthy with a hooked nose who was a Jew. This annoyed me because it made it too easy to work out the plot so I stopped reading them.

The sexism of the Chalet School books by Elinor M Brent-Dyer wasn’t quite as bad as some of the other girls’ school stories and there were occasions when girls (or should I say “gels”?) would sometimes intend to follow a profession. However after adventures at school with princesses and spies and so on, most of them got married and had big families and were very happy. Sex however was never mentioned, nobody had breasts or periods and certainly nobody ever kissed a boy or even a girl.

I loved the Biggles books, particularly the first two which took you into the exciting world of First World War aviation. I still get excited when I see a picture of an early fighter plane called the Sopwith Camel which was what the hero, Biggles, flew. These books give you a tremendous picture of what it was like since Captain W.E. Johns had flown (and crashed planes) in that war, though not Sopwith Camels, admittedly.

To start with the stories were just normal adventures and fighting and killing Germans who said “Ach!” and “Jawohl!”. Things deteriorated later in the series with Biggles, Algy and Ginger getting into trouble in Africa where hordes of natives would regularly attack them or the South Sea where hordes of cannibals would regularly attack them or South America where hordes of natives would regularly… It got a bit boring frankly. Some of the later books set in the Second World War with an older Biggles were better.

And then… then I found Rosemary Sutcliffe and “The Eagle of the Ninth.”

It was much bigger and more important than falling in love. It was as if I had been wandering around a little shoebox of a flat and opened a door that looked like any other door and… walked into a whole new world.

A good historical novel can act as the next best thing to a time machine. It can take you absolutely into the past – even if it is the past as filtered through the eyes of historians and the writer.

It’s fiction sure, but there is something magical about it. You feel that you’re there and you begin to empathise with people in the past. You feel that you’re there and you find things were in some ways very different – but in certain things, they weren’t.

You realise that people’s mental furniture – the things they knew as fact – could be and were totally different. But that the shapes of the rooms, the emotions and needs of the people were exactly the same as yours.

Rosemary Sutcliffe was brilliant at this: you could feel the pride of a young Roman soldier; the crushed pride and misery of a slave; the growing pride and fear of a retired gladiator north of the wall in the lands of the Picts. You could see the purple heather and the hills heavy with trees; you could see the weapons, hear the tramp of the legions.

I wrote poem about that when I was about 10 or 11. It was called Boudicca: I remember a little of it. “The tramp of the legions, the fear of my heart,/ the sound of their feet as they come./ The tramp of their feet as the legions march,/ the glint of their swords in the sun./”

Could I have written that without Rosemary Sutcliffe? Of course not.

She made history thrilling and marvellous.

And the stories were just better quality. They had real believable characters who did things they believed were right, even if they weren’t. There was a remarkable dearth of swarthy hook-nosed Jews who were evil. Sure there were hook-nosed merchants – who might be allies or enemies or even heroes. Sure there was plenty of sexism – but people in the past were sexist and all the women had their own lives, constricted though they may have been. As I steadily hoovered my way through all Rosemary Sutcliffe’s books, I found areas of history I had never thought of, opening up to me.

There were other writers: Mary Renault was another one that transfixed me. I loved her novels of Theseus “The King Must Die” and “The Bull from the Sea.” Her novel “The Persian Boy” which told the story of Alexander the Great’s (actual) lover, Bagoas, was the first time I realised that there were men who had sex with other men. And despite the homophobia of my parents, that this was perfectly natural and all right.

Stephanie Plowman, Cecilia Holland, Henry Treece. There were so many of them, all people who found historical periods, mined them for facts and then built wonderful stories with the results.

What has this got to do with real history?

Well for a start, there is nothing like a well-researched historical novel for taking you into a period and making it gel. It can be hard to get the sights and sounds and smells from proper historians who get very excited about economics and battles but aren’t very interested in making you feel how scared you might be before a battle despite your suit of mail which smells of steel and grease. If you read generally about a period, then go to historical novels and biographies, and then go back to the historians and the history books, it’ll make much better sense to you.

More importantly, historical novels force you to see the people in history as like you. History is fundamentally made out of people: being born, growing up, struggling, fighting, dying. It isn’t made out of historical currents, nor yet Great Men, but just people. Mostly ordinary, occasionally extraordinary.

And those people weren’t all stupid or primitive or indeed ignorant. Some of them were, some of them weren’t. A peasant may not have known much about the world twenty miles from his village – although he often had travelled when young, as a journeyman or to find work or in an army. He may not have known or cared that the world was round and he certainly didn’t know how to read. But he had an immense number of physical skills which we no longer need. He knew how to start a fire with flint and steel, how to build a house for himself with wattle and daub. He knew how to plow and sow and reap and gather, he knew how to look after animals, he knew something about herbs, he knew how to gather the right kind of firewood for the fire he wanted. He knew how to pass all these skills on to somebody else. For all his poverty and his hard life, he was the bedrock of his society, anchoring it in a way it isn’t anchored today.

Why didn’t the terrible pandemic of the Black Death which killed at least a third and possibly a half of the population of Europe, cause Christendom to collapse? Because the skills of firemaking, growing food, building houses were widely distributed and didn’t rely on technology because they were comparatively simple.

Never look down on the people in the past, the way the Victorians did. Read Mark Twain’s “A Connecticut Yankee At King Arthur’s Court” for fun but don’t read it as any kind of history because Mark Twain couldn’t be bothered to do any research (which he admits.) They were no more foolish than we are, for all our vaunted knowledge of germs and quantum physics.

People are what history is made of. That’s another thing you need to know about it. Never trust a history book that doesn’t have people in it.

1 Comment

  1. Henriette Smit-Arriens says:

    This post resonates in me, louder than the church bells ringing outside! After changing back to a Dutch primary school I kept abreast with English reading. Horsey books proved better than Enid Blyton (hated George to be bested again and again and again by non-curly girls). History (80 years war!) and mythology would be Dutch, but I discovered Rosemary Sutcliff thanks to “Mark of the Horse Lord” and later, when on a spree in London, systematically combing through the book shops, your newly published first book. “A Shadow of Gulls” is still a favourite. Started “A Famine of Horses” just before a trip to Scotland (we were caught in a terrific storm, high up in a tower looking over Border country. No reivers in sight though…). When may we expect your next book?

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