Friday, 25 January 2013

'Our Island Story': an inconvenient truth

I was offered a copy of a book today, Our Island Story: A History of England for Boys and Girls, from the Romans to Queen Victoria. Written by Henrietta Elizabeth Marshall and published in 1905, the work had, so the letter accompanying it proudly stated, been reprinted courtesy of CIVITAS (The Institute for the Study of Civil Society), a "classical liberal" and "non-partisan" think tank (according to their web site) together with the readers of the Telegraph Newspaper (who appear to have forked out a not inconsiderable sum) with the view of sending at least one copy to every junior school in the UK.

So far so intriguing.

A close look at the content of Our Island Story, however, shows that the 'Story' presented is curiously outdated. Now (perhaps unsurprisingly) I'm all for bringing the past to life and I’m certainly very keen to get more school-aged children thinking about, engaging with and understanding history, my own passion (obsession?) with archaeology beginning way back in primary school when we undertook a project on the Romans (involving, as I recall, large numbers of shiny metallic bottle tops and at least one wire brush - don't ask), but there is something rather worrying about this particular book.

Perhaps it was the contents page for 'Early Britain' that first alerted me, with its chapter headings:

1) The Stories of Albion and Brutus

2) The coming of the Romans

3) The Romans come again

4) How Caligula conquered Britain and how Caratacus refused to be conquered

5) The story of a warrior Queen

6) The last of the Romans

7) The story of St Alban

8) Vortigern and King Constans

9) The story of the coming of Hengist and Horsa

10) Hengist's treachery

11) The story of how the Giant's Dance was brought to Britain

12) The coming of Arthur

13) The founding of the Round Table

14) The story of Gregory and the pretty children

15) How King Alfred learned to read

What worried me here, apart from the singular lack of anything to do with 'pre-history' (there is no real consideration of the half a million years (give or take) of human activity in Britain prior to the 1st century AD - probably, I suspect, because in 1905 there was still no consensus as to the antiquity and variety of human endeavour), was the blurring of boundaries between history and legend and the singular, overriding obsession with IMM (Invasions, Monarchy and Mythology).

Now I'm all for the writings (and mythological musings) of Geoffrey of Monmouth, Bede, Gildas et al, but am concerned, for example, that the building of Stonehenge in this book appears, not in a chapter on the Neolithic or Bronze Age (not that such chapters exist in any case) but in one entitled "the story of how the Giant's Dance was brought to Britain" in which the wizard Merlin advises the semi-mythical Ambrosius on how to move a set of standing stones from Ireland to Salisbury plain. The Roman period is consigned to a few invasions (and it may just be the copy I saw, but I'm sure it was Claudius that conquered Britain, not Caligula) followed by a few brave (if misguided) British rebels, then we get the Roman retreat from Britain (together with a bit of Christian martyrdom). The 'dark ages' are here spectacularly dark and filled with savage Saxon invaders who, in the space of a few pages, learn to read, write and create a monarchy (and who in turn fight the next batch of savage invaders, the Vikings who, no doubt, are all wearing big horned helmets).

Settlements? No. Religion? Not really (well apart from Christianity). Art? Nope. Culture in any sense? No.

The book's mind-set can best be summarised in the illustrations it uses. These are, in themselves, quite exquisite works of early 20th century art, but, in the context of presenting history to a modern audience, are not all that helpful. Here, for example, are the Later Iron Age inhabitants of Kent observing the advancing fleet of Julius Caesar in 55 BC:

To the avid British reader of 1905, brought up on tales of imperial derring-do in far flung provinces of the British Empire, where valiant young officers fearlessly brought the wonders of the civilised world to unwilling natives (such as war, disease, famine, slavery, the collapse of traditional social structures, religious persecution and death on an immense scale), this would perhaps have appeared as a plausible and eminently believable scene. The savage Britons, clad in matted furs, stare in mutual incomprehension at the arrival of a Roman invasion fleet below, little realising that they were about to be dragged unceremoniously from their savage existence, kicking and screaming into the civilised world. 

Nothing before this date seems to have mattered much to the publishers of Our Island Story, because it was all undoubtedly horrible, fetid and unpleasant. The fact that many Britons resisted the arrival of civilisation showed just how unforgivably thick they really were. The wonders of Palaeolithic, Mesolithic, Neolithic, Chalcolithic, Bronze Age and Iron Age life is not considered here; "don't worry your little head dear reader".

OK, that may be a little unfair, given the time (and context within which) the book was originally written, but if you're going to reprint it AND disseminate amongst the junior schools of today, perhaps a judicious bit of rewriting (and rethinking) would be in order.

Here, for example, is Queen Boudicca (sorry 'Boadicea') in diaphanous, Arts and Crafts-y Medieval fantasy princess dress, urging a band of scrawny, mud-splattered primitives to rise up against Rome (I'm not sure that they're all that impressed):

Whilst here's a recreation of the apparently historical King Arthur (in rather worryingly tight trousers) being acknowledged by his people (a motley Hollywood-ised flouncing pseudo Medieval population together with a wonderfully druidical Merlin) as their rightful King following the successful removal of the sword from the stone:

And, just to finish off, here's King Alfred finding "much pleasure in reading" (what appears to be a collection of Sunday broadsheet newspapers): 


CIVITAS, on their website, note that the key reason for republishing the book now is that "Henrietta Marshall knew all about the importance of the institutions of a free society, and explains thoroughly why we need to make sure the state cannot imprison people without trial, or force them to worship God in a particular way, or extract taxes without allowing people a say in the running of the country. Now that the teaching of institutional and political history is so weak in many schools, Henrietta Marshall’s message is of vital importance"

OK, nice sentiment, but I'm not sure that the way to successfully do this is to continue peddling a tale of Britannia Superior written over 100 years ago, especially when the 'facts' relating to the first half a million years of human activity in the Island are either missing or hopelessly inaccurate.

If you want to engage kids today in history, I don't think you can do much better than Terry Deary and Martin Brown's Horrible Histories, a funny, intriguing, well written and, importantly, factual account of 'the past' which first appeared in a variety of books in the early 1990s, winning many awards in the process, which continues to this day.

The books have now spawned a successful (and very funny) children's TV series which is endlessly (and quite rightly) repeated. Importantly, Horrible Histories covers all time periods, all cultures and all classes of people (not just the rich, militaristic monarchs).

Sorry CIVITAS, but these are the books that should be distributed to Schools if you really want to open young minds whilst simultaneously informing, entertaining and educating. Meanwhile let's keep Our Island History, a work that was undoubtedly extremely important 100 years ago, stashed away in the archives....


  1. Slightly more promising than Gove's idea to send a bible to every school, though only just. How nice it would be to sponsor school libraries instead, or indeed as you suggested, send something age-appropriate, hilarious and actually factual as the Horrible Histories books (though I have noticed the odd slip-up, they're generally fairly spot on. Plus, getting a class of 6 year olds to play Roman and Celt wife swap after watching the particular episode wwas the best fun we'd had in ages!)

    Sadly, the curriculum is so generic, so narrowly focused, that this kind of imperialistic throwback is deemed acceptable; all you really study in any detail is usually Tudors, maybe a bit on Romans if you're lucky, a bit about the Second World War, and then a jolly lot more about the Second World War if you take GCSE or A Level.

    I almost wept with joy when a very tiny 5 year old in one of my classes informed me solemnly informed that Vikings didn't wear horned helmets and that the idea made him cross. Bless. He'll be one of us one day I'll bet...

    1. Yes, the Horrible Histories books do contain the odd slip up, but these all seem quite minor (at least the few that I’ve seen).

      I like the solemn 'no horns for Viking helmets' tale. Last time I was in a School for their Roman day, all the kids were very keen to tell me about how the Romans wiped themselves after visiting the loo, about their bathing habits and how they ate dormice. Excellent. Thank you Terry Deary - toilets, bodily functions and gross out food are all most definitely the way forward in educating and entertaining young minds - shame there's none of this in Our Island Story which is remarkably po-faced about the past (but then it was 1905 - a year that many politicians (on both sides of the great divide) appear to think we’re currently living in).

      Personally, I found History as a subject incredibly exciting until I took it at O and A level when, despite the best efforts of my teachers, I found myself drowning in the ever worthy themes of Welfare Reform, the Poor Law, Agricultural Improvement, the Rise of Trade Unions etc, all of which I think would have been better placed in a course dealing with Politics. Sadly the 'interesting stuff' of the Ancient and Medieval worlds (i.e. History) did not appear in the history curriculum. It seems, from what you say, that it still doesn't...

      Keep up the good work – I look forward to teaching your proto-viking expert in 13 years time!

  2. I think OUR ISLAND STORY ought to be taught in schools but only to show how the British used to think when they ruled a third of the world. Its prose is dripping with nationalistic ferver and really wholly inappropriate at primary school level. DG

    1. Yes, I agree that it does come very much from the perspective that Britannia not only ‘Rules the Waves’ but has a far superior brand of civilisation (which should be exported elsewhere around the world). Of course this particular book came out only 9 years before the mechanised hatred of the First War, where the dreams of imperialism and superior culture (on all sides) were ploughed into the mud of the Somme together with so many lives.

  3. I read your review with intetest until you recommended horrible histories as an alternative at which point I began to laugh hysterically. You are worried about early history being skipped over? I am worried about horrible histories treating children like idiots, thinking they can only appreciate history if it is made gross and vamped up! I don't see HH giving children a life long love of archeology such as you treasure!

  4. Well, you say that, but my love of archaeology came from world of toilets and toilet behaviour (see my earlier posting Studying the Passed’). I guess that could just be me (!) but I think, as a child, it was the realisation that people in history were ‘just like us’ and had the same concerns, obsessions and routine – that made them seem more human and less ‘holy’ and somehow untouchable (and unknowable).

    Trouble with Our Island Story’ (and I freely admit that HH is not perfect) is that it is a very white, very upper class and overtly ‘Medieval’ take on the British past and, as an archaeologist, I find its coverage of the 500,000 years of British prehistory, let alone anything up to 1066, frankly laughable (if not depressingly ‘conservative’). Each to their own I guess, but I can only really speak from my own observations, and when I visit primary schools I find that all they want to discuss (and all they really enthuse about) is Horrible Histories. The books and TV programmes have sparked their interest and it is a point at which discussions can begin. I don't really see HH as treating kids as idiots, more as equals (unlike Our Island History which is more than a tad patronising in places).

    Perhaps ‘Our Island Story’ (and books like it) should only come in to the educational system at A level age, by which time the students, as teenagers, have (hopefully) developed better critical facilities and can objectively assess the relevance (or otherwise) of books written over a century ago. In the meantime I’m more than happy for HH to inspire through the gross and lurid. In my experience, that’s what History is all about.

  5. As a history teacher I love Horrible Hostories the TV show for all the reasons you cite, however I'm less happy with the books, not because they're inaccurate, they're not, but because Terry Deary has such a pathological hatred of history teachers. Perhaps he was scared by one when he was a baby? Shame. This hatred spoils the impact of the books. We're all on the same side you know!