Wallowing in history

By now, the astute reader may well have ascertained that I am very interested in history. I have grown to learn that many people are not, something I find it hard to fathom – surely we are all defined by history and where we have come from, who our ancestors were and how they lived? When I discovered the paltry smidgeon of dry history that Swiss children generally encounter in the course of their very practice-orientated schooling, I at least began to grasp something of an inkling of the reason. If it is anything like that anywhere else, well then, that explains it. History is boring, just a load of dates.

My own introduction to history began early. For most English children, history begins as entertaining stories about the kings and queens of ye olde England, whose behaviours often resulted in some great tales – Henry VIII and his Six Wives (“divorced, beheaded, died; divorced, beheaded, survived”…!), or King Alfred and the Cakes; Henry II wailing “who will rid me of this turbulent priest?!” as his loyal servants raced to murder Thomas Γ  Becket in Canterbury Cathedral and the Virgin Queen, Elizabeth I with her cold white and gold portraits, Sir Francis Drake draping his cloak across a puddle so her feet wouldn’t get wet… My mother and grandmother told me tales like this from a very young age and soon kindled my interest in these colourful characters.


Who remembers Ladybird early reader books? I have two about the Kings and Queens of England (volumes I and II) as well as the 15th century Kingmaker, the Earl of Warwick (we lived near enough to Warwick to consider him a local hero/scoundrel, depending on your point of view!), all given to me by my mother around my 5th and 6th birthdays, according to the dedications written inside. Today I’m quite surprised at the language used and wonder if my young child self actually understood much of what was written, but anyway, I loved these books and spent hours reading them over and over again, picking up an understanding of chronology and the changes in fashion as I went along – I especially examined all the illustrations closely! – slotting all the fascinating figures into a thousand years of English history with very little idea whatsoever of the context.

The reason I am telling you this is because today I suddenly laughed aloud when I realised that all my current “reading material” is history! Although I have continued to enjoy a lot of history in my adult life, it isn’t all I read, as longtime readers will know. However, this time, I bring you three elements of reading that I hope might inspire you. So get your books out and turn to page 1…

1. Do you still have your old school books?!

As a teenager, I attended an international school. The History Department staff were required to work out a history syllabus to teach students from 85 different countries. The majority of the staff were more or less British and the school situated in central Europe, so they settled for an emphasis on the intricacies of classic European history, with a little American history thrown in when we hit the 18th century (and practically no Swiss history :o). The style was chronological, beginning in the first year of the secondary school, aged 11, with Greeks and Romans and ending at university entrance level with Second World War tactics. Seven years for 3000 years of history…
Unsurprisingly, I struggled and did not especially enjoy school history, nor did I do very well in it despite continuing to maintain that it was one of my main interests and insisting on choosing it as one of my A-levels, culminating in a most shameful final exam grade of U. Friends, I failed. This, funnily enough, surprises many who know me and my penchant for boring their socks off with bits of history trivia produced at not always appropriate moments, as well as knowing that I am extremely interested in social and cultural history. This latter, in my view more interesting part, is something which tended to be neglected in school history, which focussed on the politics of how history moved the world along, something I simply did not grasp at the time as being fundamental. Not an excuse but quite possibly the reason I wasn’t doing too well in history academically!

I found that I still have some of my history schoolwork from the “next” phase (1982) to use as a background lol!

How many of you have your school books skulking somewhere in the far reaches of the bookcase or put away in a dark and dusty part of the house?! You may not even have kept them, and for the most part, I have long since given back or given away any of the books I carried around with me for years between home and school. However, I came across one on my shelves recently that is labelled with my name and 1979/1980 and which covers the period between the 1848 European revolutions and World War I (“Compare and Contrast the Causes of the First World War” would be a typical essay title, wouldn’t it?!). I hadn’t really registered that it was still there and certainly don’t remember using it at the time, though it must have been in Mr. Knight’s class…! Of course, I pulled it down, stopped what I was doing and sat down to start reading it…
After a couple of chapters I got really annoyed with myself for not having read it properly when I was 15 and using the information to improve my exam results – but then I realised that I was no doubt completely overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information and lack of understanding of the background at that age. Only now, with a lot more comprehension of historical and political connections and other general history accumulated over the years can I pick up a book like this and find it utterly fascinating, concise and useful. 35 years too late! But very entertaining and I urge you to see if your old schoolbooks aren’t a lot more interesting when you go back to them now than you found them back in the day. You might be surprised!

2. Is there no time in your life for sitting reading books?

We all live busy lives and leisure time is precious. However, it seems a shame to give up books just because you feel guilty for sitting twiddling your thumbs over a book when there are a thousand and one other things that need doing. I solve this little dilemma by resorting to audiobooks for some of my reading. Originally a service for the blind, “talking books” found their way into my life over 25 years ago when I discovered through a friend that they were an ideal backdrop for knitting! These days they are easily available to download as well as on CDs (just about still to be had!) and there are even libraries where you can “borrow” them. I still like listening to them while I knit but they are also brilliant for long car journeys, as long as the story is an interesting one (or they could lull you to sleep, which wouldn’t be good!) or even just while doing the ironing or housework. Some people listen before bed or first thing in the morning or in their lunch break or while they run or walk outdoors (or indoors) and I’m sure we can all find a good slot where it would be pleasant to have someone read us a book…

My current audiobook picks up on a theme that I have followed up before – the Vikings. Probably all part of my very real interest in the North! The very excellent “A Brief History of the Vikings” by Jonathan Clements (anything but brief!) has passed through my ears many times, it’s so good and there’s so much information in it, it’s even worth having the physical book for the maps (I got round this by getting the book for my daughter, who also really enjoyed it!). So when I saw the new “Viking Britain” by Thomas Williams, I went for it – it turns out there was a big Viking exhibition in London a couple of years ago that I would love to have seen, but since I didn’t, this book offers an excellent new overview of the Vikings in Britain, just as the title says! Of course, some of the basic information is the same, but if you like reading around a subject and absorbing different ideas and theories that can alter as time goes on, these are two excellent volumes that should hold your interest. Easily as good as any thriller in my book! And all that quoting of old Norse and Anglo-Saxon makes me wish I could learn those languages, too…!

3. And the story continues…

I have mentioned Ella Maillart repeatedly on this blog. A traveller, journalist, Olympian and sportswoman from Geneva who enjoyed adventuring in the most difficult terrain. I have talked about “The Cruel Way” (a car journey to Afghanistan with Annemarie Schwarzenbach – who also wrote about the journey – in 1938) and went on to read about Ella’s trip from Moscow to the Caucasus in 1931. Next was a hard adventure travelling through Turkestan solo, but now on my reading list is “Forbidden Journey, from Peking to Cashmir”. As I was about to embark on this volume, I discovered that she had undertaken the journey with Peter Fleming, who wrote about the journey from his point of view in “News from Tartary”, which I got hold of secondhand online in a 1940s edition. Peter was the older brother of Ian Fleming (of James Bond fame), a travel journalist and adventurer in his own right, a correspondent for the The Times at the time – 1935. These two very independent-minded young people (in their late 20s/early 30s) had both been travelling in China and Japan – separately – and were embarking on the trip home to Europe, deciding that it might be “fun” (?!) to take an ancient caravan route over two mountain ranges and a couple of deserts to India…and rather reluctantly agreed to try to get through together (there was no romance going on – Peter was due to marry on his return to Britain!). There had been no news from the remote and barren area north of Tibet for two years since major clashes in 1933 and a tussle between various Chinese and Russian parties when all foreigners had been sent away – or murdered.
Ella and Peter, perhaps rashly, but certainly with a good deal of courage, set off with papers that would only take them as far as the first border into Sinkiang – if they were lucky… The whole journey took them 7 months and for 6 of those they didn’t see a European face or a motorised vehicle. They travelled by horse, pony, donkey, camel or on foot when the animals were too weak to carry them and survival was something of a miracle when there were long stretches without water and very little in the way of food. Guides varied dramatically and language was often a problem if neither pidkin Chinese nor a smattering of Russin were understood. The contrast between the jolly Englishman’s report and the thoughtful journal by the practical Swiss woman is remarkable and the books both make for fascinating reading about a time and a place of which we basically know nothing. I attempted to track their journey via maps online and found that today, their route is a Chinese highway, China National Highway G315 – though I have little idea of its condition, presumably not comparable to a European highway! 3063 miles. Spellings have altered but are traceable and the luxury we have today of plentiful photographs probably still can’t quite capture the feelings the travellers had or what they experienced on this difficult crossing through an area far more isolated in those days than today, and it’s still incredibly remote.
At this point, my husband noticed that there is a newish documentary out about Ella Maillart (“Les Voyages Extraordinaire d’Ella Maillart”, 2016), which we were able to see at an independent cinema locally. I hope it will become available online eventually, as it’s amazing to see interviews with Ella from the late 1970s and early 1980s, to hear her reminiscing and to see how a small group of intrepid adventurers follow in her footsteps on camera.
Then I came across another book, published in 1987. An American, Stuart Stevens, made the same journey over 50 years after Ella and Peter and wrote about his experiences in “Night Train to Turkestan”. I found this book secondhand online, too, and very much look forward to reading it when I have finished the others! I do know that Stevens consulted an elderly Ella in Geneva before he left and reported back to her on his return, which is a very touching detail, I find. Full circle.
So I have plenty of reading to do following a long travel book trail…

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4 thoughts on “Wallowing in history

  1. Love this! A personal history of your history story πŸ˜‚
    I always regret that I didn’t have a more positive introduction to History as a child … my earliest memory of being truly engaged with History at school was an all-too-brief look at The Suffragettes for O level 😳 I definitely prefer the social and cultural aspects, but as you rightly say, school seemed to focus on the politics and dates, which I didn’t really grasp πŸ˜” I’m so glad that school didn’t knock your enjoyment of the subject!
    I’m off to download the Viking Britain audiobook now! 😍

    • Have you seen any of the films about suffragettes out recently for the centennial of women getting the vote in 1918? “Suffragette” actually came out in 2015, with Carey Mulligan, I believe.
      Enjoy the audiobook – wonder if it will get you wanting to learn Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse as it does me lol!!

  2. I read Ella Maillart’s book about her car trip after you mentioned it previously, and very much enjoyed it before passing it on to a friend who had just returned from Pakistan. I will search out the new ones you have mentioned – thank you!

    • Oh great! Iβ€˜m finding that one thing keeps leading to another and coming full circle, quite fascinating – if you watch documentaries about the Silk Road, many of the themes come up again. The people, too, to some extent – travelers of the 30s!

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