History isn't history

I HAVE this book of cartoons, 160 of them, published about 1906 after appearing in The Morning Leader: Humors Of History by A. Moreland. They are broad, schoolboy-jokey renderings of well-known events, with no thoughts of political correctness. Boadicea

I HAVE this book of cartoons, 160 of them, published about 1906 after appearing in The Morning Leader: Humors Of History by A. Moreland.

They are broad, schoolboy-jokey renderings of well-known events, with no thoughts of political correctness. Boadicea charging into battle flourishing a rolled umbrella; fellows scratching themselves against lamp-posts (Woollen Clothing Introduced, AD 1110); Great Fire of London, firemen in brass helmets aiming hosepipes at one another.

Move forward to a funny book of the 1930s, 1066 And All That. It was immensely popular, put on the stage as well. The theme, of course, was drollery with British history. Thus, the Romans built Roman roads and had Roman baths: "this was called the Roman Occupation, and gave rise to the memorable Roman Law, 'He Who Baths First Baths Fast', which was a Good Thing and still is."

If you didn't read books or go to the theatre in the '30s, there were Stanley Holloway's comic monologues on the radio: Sam and his musket (period of Battle of Waterloo); With Her Head Tucked Underneath Her Arm (Anne Boleyn); the Battle of Hastings ("on 'is 'orse with 'is 'awk in 'is 'and").


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I've recalled these on account of why we and previous generations enjoyed them. The events and personalities were well-known indeed to us - what we all had to learn at school, observed in various ways in our national life. Otherwise, the skits and gags would have been a mystery; where was the joke?

In present-day everyday speech, "history" often means a past which can be discarded. As an education subject, its content has changed considerably but I have the impression that fewer and fewer people know what happened and what else was going on at the time.

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So is history worth knowing? A number of eminent persons have said it isn't. There is Henry Ford's famous pronouncement "History is more or less bunk", and Bernard Shaw (in a historical play, mind you): "History, sir, will tell lies as usual." Another said that what we learn from history is men learn nothing from history; and "history repeats itself" was first noted nearly three hundred years ago.

In fact we cannot do without history. For individuals the need is to belong to something and somewhere, not to feel isolated - the reason for the surge of family history in the last thirty-odd years, the age when communities and the family have broken up.

Collectively, in society as a whole, history is the data on which all our present judgements are based. We grumble and may object to some measure imposed by the nanny state: because we know what went on before, perhaps for centuries.

In the current depression we are told that reckless and greedy bankers were the cause. Maybe it's so. But the dire depressions between the wars were put down to certain "hard-faced men", then to Ramsay MacDonald's failings; and others. Presenting a scapegoat is a much-used historical disguise for what might really have taken place.

Of course there is bad history, plenty of it: including television soundbite versions as well as some of what we learned at school. We need all that too. If you ask what use any history is, try to imagine a man without a memory and how he could neither interpret nor function in the world.

Sure, men with long memories can be unreliable: self-centred, prone to inflate some things and conveniently forget others. History is like that. Recognizing our dependence on it, we hope to do better.

And if we became familiar with it again, should we get jolly jokes and verses? Somehow I doubt it.

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