Contemplating this summer’s great explosion of interest in the Battle of Britain, I was reminded of an ancient exam script that came to light when I was reorganising some of my old files (or as my wife would have it, sorting through my piles of rubbish) a few weeks ago. If I remember rightly, my old history teacher, the great Roy Allen, dug it out of his archives when I left school and presented it to me with some witty remark about how little my style had changed over the years.
One thing that has certainly changed, however, is the kinds of questions history teachers set in exams. The task, originally set in 1988, was very simple: candidates merely had to list the 26 events in British history that would be “most important for a foreign boy to know” if he was to get a good sense of life in the United Kingdom. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the Battle of Britain was among my choices. My 13-year-old self even got the date right (well, the year, anyway), although my explanation that “the RAF’s victory saved us from German rule” might not pass muster with revisionist historians.
Glancing through the rest of the paper, however, I cannot help noticing that underdog victories against foreign despots played a suspiciously large role in my boyish imagination. In the Sandbrook universe, Britain was always teetering on the brink of subjugation, only to be saved, time and again, by feats of arms. So, for instance, the battle of Waterloo “saved us from the French and brought us great power”, the First World War “saved us and Europe from German domination”, the unmasking of the Gunpowder Plot “saved us from being ruled by Catholics” and even the Glorious Revolution “saved us from the Catholic tyranny of James II”.
By contrast, social and cultural developments were apparently irrelevant, although I did make room for the Reform Bill of 1832, “which improved our government”. And at least one of my choices seems very dubious. Few readers, I suspect, would agree with my belief that the Vietnam War “taught [the Americans] that they did not rule the world and could not push other countries, such as Britain, around”.
At some basic level, the current fascination with the heroes of 1940 is not so different from the patriotic but ultimately simplistic enthusiasm with which my younger self approached that exam paper. For all the efforts of academic historians, popular history is still dominated by vivid characters and bloody battles, often shot through with a deep sense of national pride. Exam boards now demand an intricate knowledge of Nazism and Stalinism; schoolteachers lecture their charges about the evils of slavery and the delights of the agricultural revolution. Yet a glance at the shelves in any bookshop leaves no doubt about the conservatism of popular taste. The Battle of Britain, D-Day, even the Gunpowder Plot and the Glorious Revolution: this may be the stuff of the teenage imagination, but it is also what most people clearly want.
I wonder how many schoolchildren today would produce similar answers. Of course not all children, thank goodness, are nerds like me. Yet even at the time I was sitting that paper, the history curriculum was moving away from kings, dates and battles towards a much more modular system, often based on themes rather than events. Traditional chronology has now largely disappeared; students arrive at university, as I discovered when I taught history, with often only a vague sense of what happened when. Any sense that history was the story of British triumphs has long since disappeared.
That the pendulum has swung much too far, however, is surely beyond dispute. The heroic myths that once made up our patriotic narrative, after all, are precisely what get children interested in history in the first place: any self-respecting ten-year-old is bound to be much more excited by the story of Wolfe at Quebec than by the tale of some downtrodden washerwoman in Victorian Staffordshire.
Alfred and the cakes, Drake and the Armada, Gordon at Khartoum and yes, the Few, the Finest Hour and all that – these are the stories that make up a nation’s collective memory, that fire the imagination, that bind the generations. Critics may well deride it as Ladybird history. But given the current levels of ignorance and the decline of history as a school subject, it is high time we had more of it.