Q. Who painted the Sistine Chapel? A. Leonardo di Caprio.
Q. Name a Roman play by William Shakespeare in which the main character is murdered by those around him. A. Gladiator.
Q. It is 1854. Name a battle beginning with ‘B’ and involving the British Army. A. Bengal.
These answers come in an age of mass education, to say nothing of the supplement found in TV programmes, magazines and the like.
What we have witnessed in the last 50 years is the systematic destruction of a cogent, linear understanding of history. The other day I was in Tesco and the bill came to 10.66. The lady on the till was of a certain age. We looked at each other and said, “Battle of Hastings”. I bet her that if I had said ,”1066” to any of the high school kids buzzing round us, we would have met with a blank stare.
And this is an enormously dangerous thing for democracy. One of George Orwell’s dicta was, “He who controls the past controls the future”. In the time since his death in 1950, we have seen numberless newly independent countries where the first thing the ruling party reaches for is the history book. Do you remember the scene in Doctor Zhivago where Lara is teaching primary class in the newly-established Communist school? A child paints a picture of the Czar and is immediately told he was “a bad man”.
The pessimist might think that one might as well go to 1066 And All That for historical guidance, with its immortal opinion of Bonnie Prince Charlie – “Wrong but Wromantic”.
Indeed, I made my own attempt at this style: 1789 And A’ That: The French Revelation was the work of the French King’s mistress, Jeanne Trousseau, otherwise known as the Tarte au Citroen after she told the common folk to eat cake rather than the bread of the peasants (pains aux culottes), which led her to write The Social Con Trick, an account of the King’s seduction of her.
One recent letter to The Scotsman mentioned “years of demonising the Empire”. I can see where the reader is coming from. Of course one can point to massive failures in Ireland and the slaughter of the Maoris and Tibetans. But I caught the last whiff of Empire in the Singapore of the early 1980s and I saw schools, roads, hospitals, religious pluralism. Not a bad legacy.
Is it all doom and gloom? Well not when there are historians like Niall Ferguson around. I have a copy of this illustrious Scot’s Empire where he tries judiciously to separate the wheat from the chaff, to establish the objective truth. And it is here that the ascent out of the Bunyanesque Slough of Despond might begin. Go back to Orwell, this tall transmitter of a man broadcasting through Homage to Catalonia to prove fact over fairy tale and the main message of 1984 – there is such a thing as objective truth.
Do not despair, even if your grandchild cannot place in a straight line Charles Stewart, Charles Darwin and Charlie Nicholas. And thinks Churchill is a puppet dog who sells insurance.
Denis Frize teaches English and divides his time between Dunblane in Stirlingshire and Spain.