Monday, 23 December 2013

A Historian Reflects upon the Christmas Stories

In the middle decades of the Twentieth Century there was a lot of time devoted to arguments between science and religion. They were still going on when I was at school. Now it seems like a lot of time wasted. For it now seems obvious, to me at any rate, that there can be no conflict between good science and good religion because they deal with entirely different aspects of the human experience. They use different methods and ask entirely different questions. Many of my religious friends are eminent scientists and find this no problem at all. The problems start when attempts are made to use the approaches of religion to tackle scientific questions, and vice versa; but there is no requirement to do this.

What is not always so well understood is that exactly the same point applies to religion and history. The job of academic historians is to find and analyse evidence in an effort (doomed never to be unchallengeably successful) to find out exactly what was going on in the past. The job of history teachers like me is to try to communicate the findings of the scholars to the general public, especially to the young.

Where some religious people come unstuck, and many critics of religion, is they try to apply the methods and standards and questions of History as a discipline to religious stories.

Very few of the stories in the Bible (a great library of stories, poems, philosophy and so on) were produced by writers who had any intention of thinking or writing like modern historians. Every one knows that one of Jesus’s main teaching methods was to tell stories, and in this he was in a long tradition. The stories of Jonah, and of Job, for example, are as much stories as the story of the Good Samaritan and (at last I come to my main point) none the worse for it. For a story can contain as many truths, and matter for life-enhancing thought, as any piece of history.

“Othello” for example says a huge amount about the impact of jealousy on love. Young people probably get more truths, and ideas to discuss, about love and marriage and about the role of women in society from “Pride and Prejudice” than from any other single book. “Richard III”, as we all know, is not good history. But it contains all sorts of thought-provoking truths about the court as jungle.

And it is stories that are one of the main types of religious writing. The very earliest religion we know about consisted of human beings making up stories to try and explain the world and to tackle the big questions that the methods of science and history could not answer.

So, this Christmas, do not worry about whether there “really” were angels, or where the Wise Men “really” came from, or whether Mary “really” was a virgin. Listen to the stories, enjoy the stories and think about the stories. They are full of food for thought, and great truths.

Here are two that strike me.

Herod may or may not have ordered the Massacre of the Innocents exactly as described. But the story contains a great truth, which is that killing innocent people for the sake of public security is something that governments do. Sometimes it seems impossible to avoid it – consider the bombing of cities during the Second World War - but it is a terrible evil. Herod is not a comic pantomime villain, nor a one-off cruel king, but a character to provoke thought in all rulers who wield authority over security forces.

Then there are those intellectuals searching for God – the “Wise Men”. And where do they find God? In a new-born baby, child of refugees, in an out-house. As Evelyn Waugh, among others, has pointed out, the Magi arrived late, misunderstood what was going on and inadvertently provoked the Massacre of the Innocents. Plenty of great truths and life-enhancing reflection for all would-be intellectuals in that story.

Saturday, 14 December 2013

"The Hammer and the Fire" - Review

“The Hammer and the Fire” by Henry Marsh 

Henry Marsh has just published his fifth major volume of poetry, “A Voyage to Babylon”. Its principal focus is on the Covenanters. His third volume, “The Guidman’s Daughter”, began with thinking about Mary Queen of Scots. I intend to review the new book – just published – in due course. But to whet your appetite I will post my reviews of Three and Four. The review of “The Guidman’s Daughter” is already on my blog. Here is my review of the fourth collection, “The Hammer and the Fire”.

John Knox is the subject of the opening section in Henry Marsh’s fourth collection of poems. The hammer and the fire of the title refer, in their first layer of meaning, to the hammers that smashed and the fires that consumed during the violent iconoclasm that accompanied Knox’s Reformation of the 1550s. (In the interest of balance it should be noted that similar “holy bonfires” also raged in Queen Elizabeth’s England, encouraged by the bishops, and that most of the image-breaking for which Oliver Cromwell has been blamed happened before he was born.) We feel the plight of the victims as
Grey friars wept in their sarks
their habits smouldering.

The adjectives of darkness applied to Knox accumulate in poem after poem: the black Knox; small, black-cloaked; with darkness wrapped about him; like a wet crow. In the very first poem in the book, “At the High Kirk, St Giles’” the contrast is made with
                        light streaming through the east windows.
                        A dawning that reminds us of the life of Christ.

Poem after poem also captures the violence of Knox’s language, sometimes direct quotation, sometimes refined by the poet’s imagination. But for Marsh we can be sure that the worst is not the abusive language but the narrow intolerance, the “scorching clarity” of a doctrine that leaves no room for mystery or ambiguity, or even for love.

But there is an honest and humane empathy with Knox as well. A different fire consumed his mentor, George Wishart, burnt for heresy; and slaving in a French galley was Not a time for subtlety. In the very short poem In Thrall a sort of kinship is admitted across the centuries:
                        This wrestling with a wraith.
                        I suspect, old fellow,
                        You’re cast in my own shadows.
And all the intense, highly pressurised contexts of Knox’s world are evoked in memorable grimness. Not really an excuse, but at least an explanation. Had things been different
                        Oh, you might have been
                        a son of the morning, were it not
                        for your justified heart. Driven
                        by the time’s plague – war of heresies.

There is a burning fire on the cover of the book – a photo of the Rosette Nebula. And this leads us on to a second theme of the book, the wonder of scientific discovery. In one of Knox’s debates with Queen Mary (and you may remember that Marsh’s previous volume, The Guidman’s Daughter focussed on her) we hear Renaissance curiosity dismissed:
                        Nicholas Copernicus, my erse.
But this collection goes on to celebrate the imaginative genius of Johannes Kepler. His mother was threatened with the agony of burning - rehearsal for Hell by a narrow-minded dogma that Knox would have enjoyed (albeit in a Catholic country). But Kepler had the openness of vision that moved mankind’s understanding of the universe forward.
                        Like magnetism, he thought,
                        the influence of sun and planet.
The contrast between the life-affirming, questing imagination of the scientist and the cold, restricted narrowness of the preacher is all too apparent.

Admirers of Marsh’s work have always loved his capacity to evoke in very few words the joy and wonder of the natural world. They will not be disappointed here. The poems on Kepler include reactions to the weird landforms of Iceland, where
                        Like infernal porridge pots, fumaroles
                        Slurp and burp.
Even greater pleasures are to be found once the focus moves to Darwin – another of Marsh’s heroes – for this in not the Darwin of voyages to the exotic Galapagos but the Darwin who both observed and loved the superficially “ordinary” life that teemed in his garden of Down House where there was
                        ivy stalking through stems of seeding
                        blue-bells, gathering for a leap
                        into a likely tree.
There follow a series of beautiful, heart warming poems to lift the spirit, as we see anew, through the precision of the poet’s vision and language, sundew, kestrels, spiders, daddy long-legs and many other creatures and plants.

Perhaps it arises from the influence of the harsh era of Knox, but I sense that the ruthlessness of nature is more readily apparent than in previous volumes, as foxes gnaw carrion, moles have poisonous bites and
                                                A heron shakes
                        its head in a bright rain
                              swallows. You watch
                        the slow
                        the endless

This last quotation also illustrates the occasional pleasure Marsh gives us by playing with the visual shape of the lines; never as a mere indulgence but to match his subject: the swirl of whirligig beetles, the flicker of reflections or the hammer-blows of Knox’s logic.

All through this collection we can hear the song of birds. There’s a sudden scraitch of gulls in Wishart’s ears as he is led to execution at St Andrews. Swifts scream when made homeless by the destruction of the abbeys. When Kepler’s mother outfaces her interrogators and emerges into the sun she hears sparrows are chirping. In Darwin’s garden fledgling Magpies squeal like damaged rabbits. In his Marsh’s own garden April shimmies through pollen and song.

In the final section of the book the poems become personal reflections, on private family moments but all with a universal application. Here is
                        The girl that I married now a woman
                        in a crowd.

This takes place at an Eco Demo, when Marsh, in a direct link to his objections to Knox, confesses that
                        Slogans make me bristle.

We also meet the man in the next bed in hospital
                        Worked thirty years as a miner,
                        smoked like a chimney. His lungs seemed
                        almost solid, his coughs heaving
in their Iron Maiden. I lay wincing,
dragged out of shallow dozes.

There are affectionate memories of loved ones now passed away –and again we hear the song of birds: the twitting flight of greenfinches or pewits tumbling in a wind. The birth of his youngest grandchild was also marked by a gust of jackdaws.

There are ninety-three poems in this collection, and the editor would not print my review if I referred to them all. If you have enjoyed Henry Marsh’s previous collection you will enjoy this one, and find greater depths as he tackles tougher themes and as the body of his work is enlarged. For those who come new to his writing, prepare to be transported by short, beautiful and neatly precise words to South Uist, to the lanes around Loanhead, to the life of verges and hedgerows, and to the harsh world of the old patriarch.

Many themes and images recur across the book, and more will be found as you track back and forth. For all the blinkered intolerance of Knox’s preaching, nevertheless he helped make Scotland what it has been
                        And Reid, Davy Hume –
                        the voyagers – set sail
from your Promised Land?
For all that, however, our eye is caught by the judgement of Bunty Wallace wi clorty wains:
                        Priest or meenister – wha
                        Gies a tinker’s curse?

If you know anyone who loves wild nature, or cares about Scotland’s complexities, or who wants to read some of the best of Scottish new writing, what better gift could there be?

Saturday, 30 November 2013

Two stories for St Andrew’s Day

And they came to the teacher and said: “Master, why is the Patron Saint of Scotland Saint Andrew?” And he replied: “Listen carefully and you will learn.”

The First Story

Once upon a time there was a man called Regulus. He lived in the very centre of the civilised world, at a place called Patras in Greece. Patras was one of the busiest places in the Roman Empire, on the Gulf of Corinth. In 2006 Patras was European Capital of Culture.

Regulus one night had a dream. He dreamed that he was to dig up the bones of Saint Andrew, Jesus’ friend and companion, who had been buried in Patras, and take the bones to the end of the world.

Stealing some of the bones was the easy part. He got three fingers, an arm bone, one kneecap and one tooth. But where was the end of the world? He set off west through the Mediterranean. Then he left his ship and set off north across the Alps. But the world did not end. He was still in the Roman Empire. So he took another ship and let the wind blow him north and west some more. One night a great storm arose and dashed the ship against a hostile coast. Regulus staggered ashore, all wet, with his precious box of bones under his arm. He looked around him at the rocks and the sand and the grey mist. He saw strange folk with blue tattoos coming to greet him. They were friendly enough, and their king, Angus, let him have a cave to live in.

“Well”, he thought, “if this is not the end of the world it is close to it.” So he left Saint Andrew’s bones there and, long after Regulus died, the town became known as Saint Andrew’s.

The Second Story.

Once upon a time there was a tough warrior king in Scotland. He fought the Vikings in the north and beat them. He fought the Angles to the south and beat them too. All his enemies were slaughtered.

But this king was not happy. He felt that no one loved him. He felt that something was missing. So he called his chief spin-doctor, a learned monk, and asked his advice.

“Well,” said the monk. “What your country needs is a patron saint. Then you can have a flag that everyone will recognise, a direct link with the Bible, and an excuse for parties. Tourists will come in droves and help you spend your way out of the recession. And I can give you a bigger and better patron saint than the English have got. This will give you and your country what we call “the feel-good factor.”

“Go on,” said the king. “Tell me more.”

 “Well,” said the monk. “In my monastery we’ve got a box containing three fingers, and arm bone, one kneecap and a tooth. The legend is that they used to be bits of Saint Andrew. Why don’t I get some of the monks to write up this legend, embroider it a bit, make it into a beautifully illuminated manuscript, and you can give us money to build a really grand church to keep the bones in.”

The king was a great warrior, a decisive man. “Right!” he said. “Do it at once.” And so Saint Andrew became Patron Saint of Scotland and, of course, because he was one of Jesus’ disciples, he is a much bigger and more important saint than George or Patrick or David. So on Saint Andrew’s Day we have the biggest parties.


Then they said: “Master, you have muddled us. Which of these stories is true?” And he replied: “I shouldn’t worry about truth. Just do your best like Regulus did and enjoy the parties as the great king would have wished.”

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

A poet draws inspiration from Mary Queen of Scots

“The Guidman’s Daughter” by Henry Marsh

Henry Marsh has just published his fifth major volume of poetry, “A Voyage to Babylon”. Its principal focus is on the Covenanters. His fourth volume, “The Hammer and the Fire” began with thinking about John Knox. I intend to review the new book – just published. But to whet your appetite I will post my reviews of Three and Four.

This is a review of his third volume. His friends and former pupils will not be surprised to hear that he is now regarded - by better informed judges than me - as one of the leading poets writing in Scotland today. One of the things that make him so highly regarded is that his poems are accessible as well as moving. If you have never read a poem since you sat Higher English, this book might get you back into the habit.

The poems are organised into sections which reflect the various themes. His reactions to paintings form one section – Titian, Rembrandt, Hopper, Kym Needle, Renoir. The Titian under discussion is “The Virgin and Child with St John” - and a lamb.
            The scene is pastoral, seemingly tranquil

But then, sixteen lines later, comes the shock:

                                    It has no comfort for her.
            She knows that lambs are for slaughter

Through Henry’s eyes we become very aware of the artists, and the models, and the subjects, as human beings, caught up in the creative artifice of picture-making. Why on earth, for example, does Rembrandt put such heavy armour on a half-grown boy? We can enjoy the poems, and be led ourselves to look deeper into paintings when next we are in a gallery.

Another section is inspired by his beloved South Uist. It takes just a handful of words to create a special place.

            A sea, deep blue, cavorting,
            running south…..


                                    From a doubt
            of sea or cloud the Atlantic
            resolves to milky green

There is passion here for the sailing fulmars and clues of machair flowers. But there is also wry wit at the local games:

            Grim, they are, in their wee shelter
            on the machair – the pibroch judges

and the poet has an eye for twenty-first century marauders:

                                                They hurtle
            past in cars. Their lager cans
            lie buckled in a ditch.

I hope you can get a glimpse, in these few quoted lines, of the sharp eye, the well-tempered, finely chosen words, and the deep humanity of the vision.

Other sections deal with his family, private moments of love laid out for us to wonder at, to sense the loveliness, and to share. Those of you who know Jackie Marsh will at once recognise the lady in blue of the opening section (and the dedication), with her insistent goodness. I guess that most people’s favourite verses will be the ones arising out of moments with his grand-daughter; I defy anyone who has ever loved a lively infant to be unmoved by them. We hear of her instinctive shiver under a massive pine tree, and her rapture at Tinker Bell. And it is impossible to believe that the description of her meeting with a toad will not end up as an anthologised classic.

            “Bonjour. Je m’appelle Emily….”
            Solemnly she’s addressing a toad
            in her one morsel of French.
There are eight sections altogether. Poems are sparked off by tunes – “McPherson’s Rant” – by spiders in the bath, by a summer holiday in France:

            Depths of sunlight where an eye might
            drown, flow in the cobbled fissures
            between shops and medieval houses.

The discovery of some of his own discarded manuscript blown off the recycling lorry under a hedge transports us in the twist of a line to the pages torn from the Sybiline books. Infant Emily plucking her first apple needs no words to set us thinking of how vulnerable is Eden. A chance encounter on a train produces one of the more moving poems, and a memory of the boyhood destruction of a garden syringe (used as a rocket launcher) one of the funniest.

Section Eight is devoted to the “Guidman’s Daughter” of the title: Mary Queen of Scots; and the final group of poems are reflections on her extraordinary career. Poets need historians, if they are to write with meaning about past (and John Guy is acknowledged in the introduction) but historians need poets too, to make sure that the individual and the personal, the human moments, the absurdities and the stresses and the tragedies and the fatigue are not ignored amongst the statistics, nor forgotten in the generalisations, nor trampled beneath insensitive analysis. Henry Marsh’s Mary is always a woman – a school leaver taking on an impossible country, a lover taken in by the beautiful boy who turned out to be the drunken, poxy Darnley, a mother, separated from her child, a victim of violent and selfish men. The mystery of her relationship with Bothwell remains a mystery:

            What desperate loyalty tied her
            after brutal nights, the anguish that reached
            the Maries through the bristling dark?

Then she was the prisoner:

            A spirit,
            is breaking her mind.

And finally condemned and executed:

            her dignity defiant, she wrested her meaning
            from a stubborn February dawn.

Superficially this is a book of three-score separate poems, each one a pleasure in its choice words, unexpected angles and precise observation. But the more they are read the more unifying themes emerge, and are brought together in Mary’s story.

                                    Was it just,
            in the end, she was a woman?
            You can see, any night, our
            crushing Scot’s brutalities,
            the blood and glass. And you hear
            the blast of that Trumpet – a woman’s
            rule is repugnant to nature,
            contrary to God

Poem after poem challenges – denies – the pessimism implicit in this question. Others deal with other subject matter altogether. But all the Scots who read this collection should not only have enjoyed a treat; they will also have been moved to think a little, laugh a little, ponder a little.

Monday, 25 November 2013

In defence of lecturing

There seems to be a campaign afoot on both sides of the Atlantic to blacken the reputation of the lecture as a method of teaching. Since I tweet under the name @historylecturer you will not be surprised to learn that I do not share this belief that lectures are inherently bad.

As a matter of fact when I was studying history at university I attended relatively few lectures in my first two years. I found that a ten-o’clock lecture was the enemy of study. One did not (as a student) get much done before ten, and then, with coffee afterwards, it was nearly time for lunch. I also discovered that many of the first-year lectures were not much different from chapters in text-books. My morning was far more productive if I got into a library by half-past nine, found a quiet corner and worked through till lunch. After lunch I might shift base to a different library. Looking back I think I got the balance slightly wrong; it would have been better to seek out a few of the really good lecture courses for the stimulation they offered. Doing my PGCE I attended a lot more lectures, some with profit, some without.

For there were some really good lectures, from which I gained a huge amount. I also discovered, as a class-room teacher, that lecturing – standing somewhere (not always at the front) – and telling the class things, was something I was quite good at. I have often had good reactions to my occasional public lectures and evening classes. I have heard some magnificent lectures in a whole range of venues. Taking all these experiences together I would argue that bad lectures are a waste of time and counter-productive, whereas good ones are an excellent part of an education.

So here are a few thoughts about the art of lecturing, what works and what doesn’t. I do not claim it is a comprehensive list.  Note well, though, that I am only talking about History Lectures. One of the more absurd phenomena in education is the attempt to make all disciplines the same.

  1. Are you handing out a set of photocopied notes that covers what was in the lecture? If so, why bother to give the lecture? Why not just post the notes to students? If the notes are as good as possible, what else does the lecture add? If the notes are inadequate, why issue them?

  1. Is all the information and explanations in the lecture clearly available to the pupils in the books that they can be reasonably expected to read for themselves? This applies at Primary 7, with chapters in children’s text-books. This applies at university. Obviously there is an important matter of judgment here.  What can your pupils be expected to read and understand for themselves? As far as class-room teaching is concerned, this varies from year to year. The good lecturer is flexible and responds to the needs of his audience.

  1. “Death by Power-point” is no joke. It is awful. If the words on the slides are more or less the same as the words coming from the lecturer’s mouth, never go back to that class. I have more than once attended lectures (on teacher Inservice training days) where the lecturer actually read out their own power-point slides. I’ve been to very good Inservice lectures, too. In good lectures the spoken words and the slides complement and support each other. My own method (and I found Power-point a wonderful thing during those last few years of my career when it was available) was to have statistics, graphs, quotations and pictures appear on the screen that would have an impact on the audience. I might or might not refer to them directly. Thanks to modern technology one can almost as easily have snatches of music or clips of film appear (though do make sure you have checked out strange venues well in advance! The technology is certain not to work first time).

  1. Do you merely read aloud a prepared text or do you speak more freely? If it is a prepared text we are back to point one. Why not simply post it out? But speaking freely allows for changes of pace, repetition where required, response to audience reaction and so on.

  1. If the lecture is to some sort of examination class (adult evening classes for general education may be a bit different), is it structured in such a way that it is clear, and easy to take notes?

  1. Is the lecture only one part of a programme of learning? Some adversarial writing on the subject seems to suggest that the alternatives are all lectures or no lectures. This is rubbish. Good lectures are integrated into a course and timed so as to fit with tutorials, seminars, research exercises, group-work, set reading, essays, making models out of cardboard (yes, I loved teaching Primary 7 as much as A-level) and so on.

So finally:

A good lecture is not merely a piece of writing read aloud. It is a performance art in which the sound of the lecturer’s voice, his body-language, and the visual materials used are part of the performance. The lecturer will use many rhetorical devices to enhance the performance, devices that are not available on the printed page. Because the spoken word is more ephemeral than the written, the lecturer can be bolder about throwing out ideas without a full apparatus of scholarship, and so challenge the listeners to think and debate. The good lecture will include time – not necessarily at the end – for questions and discussion, with an immediacy that is impossible in any other way. In a good lecture the lecturer will have some knowledge or expertise that the class does not have but which, by the end, they will have begun to share. In a good lecture all the members of the class will feel, up to a point, that the lecturer has been communicating with them personally.

Every teacher, at every level, should be self-critical at all times, and self-analytical. Keep an ear out for praise or criticism from pupils and be ready to adapt. Play to your strengths and use the teaching methods that you are good at. But if there are effective methods that do not come easily to you, do not cut them out of your lessons and do not go on doing them badly. Instead observe and listen to effective practitioners, go to training days – above all learn from your own mistakes.

My written pieces for Kindle, which I have called “Lectures” are not, of course, oral performances. Some of them are closely based on lectures I gave to senior pupils; others are not. I like to think that, as with good lectures, they can enable the interested party with a busy schedule to learn some new history fairly quickly, and be interested at the same time. They are listed here:

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Some thoughts on bringing to life the Unification of Italy and of Germany in the Classroom

There was a tweet last night asking for advice on primary or secondary sources that could help bring to life the topics of the Unification of Italy and the Unification of Germany. Naturally, being a money-grubbing sort of fellow, I fired off links to my two Kindle pieces on the subject, and here they are:

However, I’m not sure they will bring a class-room to life in the way the tweeter intended. They were written originally to provide revision for able AS or Higher (Scotland) pupils who wanted to gee up their ideas and knowledge after they had mastered the text-book basics. Some kind friends tell me that they are also good as a rapid survey (they are short) for the interested general reader and as a first introduction for first-year university types. But they are at the tougher end of the spectrum for school-pupils though not, I hope, dull.

I taught these topics more or less every year of my career and experience did provide a few “enlivening” things that are worth sharing.

There was an excellent collection of primary sources on the period before 1848 when nationalism was getting a grip called “Metternich’s Europe” by Mack Walker. My copy, alas, fell to bits after 37 years and was binned when I retired. It is out of print, but here is the link to it on Amazon:

My most used sources from this book were Heinrich von Gagern’s letter to his father explaining why he were German cloaks instead of French fashions, Metternich’s letter to Tsar Alexander I explaining why nationalism was so dangerous, and Cavour’s article in “Il Risorgimento” explaining that “the economic rebirth of a nation can never be separated from her political rebirth” (or vice versa). For Italy there is an excellent selection in Derek Beales “The Risorgimento and the Unification of Italy”. Late in my career I discovered a collection of sources produced by the German Historical Institute that is just outstanding:

For secondary sources one can look no further than “Europe reshaped” by JAS Grenville. Except that there is so much more good writing it seems a pity not to mention it. For Germany I recommend Fritz Stern: “Gold and Iron”, Golo Mann “The History of Germany since 1789” and David Blackbourn “Germany: The Long Nineteenth Century”. For Italy, anything by Denis Mack Smith. Much shorter and easier, and ideal for interested pupils, is “Europe: Vienna to Versailles” by LCB Seaman. None of these books is “worthy but dull.”

The most lively feature of the two stories is the intellectual and historical fascination, especially when placed in a long context, and I would introduce this early on in the course. For Germany the elephant in the room is, of course, Hitler. How did the most advanced new state in the world go so horribly wrong, and to what extent was it to do with the way Bismarck stitched together the German Empire. (I try to avoid the term “Unification of Germany” because that was the Bismarckian spin. He cut off Austria and Vienna. Bearing in mind that until 1918 there was a Saxon ambassador – well salaried – at the Prussian court, I see Bismarck’s Empire as a device to give tax-payers money to the Junkers.) but after 1989 there was another, jollier elephant in the room – the re-unification after the Cold War. I used to show video clips of (a) Germany wrecked in 1945 and (b) Germany rejoicing in 1989 and keep relating 19th century Nationalism to these.

Or the very long diplomatic context – going back to the ninth century – there is another Kindle piece by me about the Congress of Vienna:

As far as Italy is concerned the point is the great gulf between the official propaganda version of heroic nationalism sweeping the peninsular and the inevitable triumph of liberty, welcomed by all right-thinking people, and what actually happened. I would tell pupils early on about the Lega Nord, the modern Italian political party that wants to create Cavour’s vision of a modern, go-ahead state without the (as they see it) problems of the south. The propaganda version is well illustrated by the paintings of victor Emanuel in the Palazzo Publico in Siena.

Of course Italy has elephants in her room too.

The obvious physical thing to brighten lessons on this topic is maps. Show them that it is not only geographers who do colouring in. They will certainly be surprised to see how far east Bismarck’s Germany stretched.

I also used to brighten my lessons with music. For Italy there is the happy chance that Opera was one medium that could evade censorship, and so was used to spread nationalist messages. I was privileged to hear Verdi’s Chorus of Hebrew Slaves sung by Lithuanian Opera a few months after the Russians had left, and it moved me to tears. At Verdi’s funeral in Milan the vast crowd began spontaneously to sing it. In Austrian-controlled Venice opera goers would shout “Viva Verdi” meaning “Vittorio Emmanuele Re D’Italia” and there was not a lot the police could do. If Verdi is too cerebral for your class, hit them with the William Tell Overture – an opera in which the bad guys are Austrians oppressing the Swiss.

For Germany I twice managed to organise peculiarly jolly lessons. With the Head of German (who happened to be a musician) and the Headmaster (who happened to be a Germanist) and the Director of Music (ditto) I gathered round the piano with my pupils and we sang German student nationalist and drinking songs. If that is not possible for you to arrange, watch the moment in “Casablanca” where the German singing is drowned out by the Marseillaise. That’s a good example of the way German nationalism turned sour. “Die Wacht am Rein” started as a defensive song in the French War scare of 1840, and only became identified with aggression at a later date.

Not to mention Wagner.

What wonderful topics these are! How lucky you are if you are still being paid to talk about them.

Saturday, 5 October 2013

A few thoughts on marking and work-loads

There is a bit of a buzz about marking and teachers’ work-loads going on at the moment. So here are a few thoughts of mine. I taught History for the whole of my career, with frequent forays into English, Modern Studies and Politics. I hope some of my anecdotal meanderings will help some hard-pressed NQT, or even cause some more senior practitioners to reconsider what they do - before, no doubt, deciding that what they do is best.

Work loads are very great, and I see no way round that. Fortunately I thought I had the best job in Scotland (sometimes) and was able to concentrate a very large proportion of my work on lesson preparation, which was always a stimulating challenge. A feature of my subjects, by the way, was that they were constantly changing (Politics most of all, of course) so that there was no question of merely using the old lessons on and on. Lesson preparation was always needed. Mind you with age and experience one could find and adapt old materials pretty rapidly; it was no longer the same effort in my fifties as it had been in my twenties. This was why I was able to direct a school play or musical fairly frequently. When I was younger I could mark or prepare into the small hours. As I got older and this became impossible I did school work early evening and both days of the weekend. But by then my children had grown up and so that was possible.

I never argued that the work-load justified the holidays. My line to friends who sneered enviously at my summer holidays was: “Well, I chose my profession with care. Didn’t you?” A good part of the summer was always spent doing serious reading, which is undoubtedly essential for teachers who aspire to give good value to the ablest pupils, though what counted as work and what counted as a pleasurable hobby is hard to define. If you don’t enjoy reading serious history books, don’t become a History teacher.

The only marking that I did not enjoy, and resented doing, was internal assessment towards final grades. The reason for this was because there seemed to be no educational value; it was too late. There could be no beneficial feed-back to pupils since this was their final mark for that component of the course. It also annoyed me that the exam boards brazenly passed over a large chunk of their marking to us, and did not pay us a bean. How much better the Scottish Qualifications Authority method, where the History coursework at Higher and Advanced Higher is externally marked.

[Pedant watch. I use History with a capital H for the school timetabled/examined subject and history with a small h for the study of the past. Sometimes the distinctions are blurred.]

Marking for exam-candidate pupils should always be related to the standards required in the exam. I suppose all teachers make a close study of the published marking criteria. Familiarise your pupils with these early on and make sure they take them into account as they write. Perhaps I was lucky that both SQA History and OCR History had well designed criteria. Some of the English, Modern Studies and Politics criteria struck me as less good: there might be vagueness, arbitrariness, box-ticking or rules that penalised the best for the sake of standardisation. If your exam board’s criteria are really poor, seek to change boards. Now that I am a tiny cog in the SQA machine I can see that examiners are responsive to pressure from teachers.

What I enjoyed about senior marking was setting up the dialogue with pupils that developed over the year, trying always to get them to think about what they wrote and how they wrote it. I did not usually put grades or marks on their work until relatively late in the course, though I might say things like “This would surely get a B mark from all but the meanest marker” or “This would probably be in the A/B area – safe A if the conclusion added a bit of value to what went before.” Otherwise comments were personal from me to the individual always, as I say, with an effort to get more thought, better methodology and better prose.

With pre-examination years (and I was lucky enough to teach P7 as well as S1 and S2) I made it clear from the start that one of our main aims was to develop writing skills (and thinking skills and reading skills; but they were rarely marked), and that they way to improve a skill was to practice. So they did a lot of writing. In fact my junior English classes would usually hand in some piece of writing, sometimes very brief, after every lesson (we also had quite a strong home-work regime: that’s for another blog-post). This did create a huge volume of stuff to get through, and I did, over a long career, try to work out ways of marking it effectively without the process detracting from other aspects of my work.

The first aim was to encourage them to go on and write more, preferably with purposeful optimism, next time. In extremis (I hope not too many former pupils are reading this) I might merely skim a routine piece of work in order to put a tick at the bottom and some such comment as “Well done to tackle this task so interestingly. Next time do try to stay more focused on the set title”. I was careful not to do this too often to the same class, but I found that getting work returned “by return of post” was so valuable that it was worth marking sketchily in order to achieve this.

When I made the time to mark junior work “properly” my most important principle was to include some praise and some suggestions for further improvement. In about 2006 we had visiting expert on a CPD In Service Day who encouraged us to mark with “Two stars and a wish”. I was able to glance smugly at the Deputy Head, because he knew this had been my strict departmental policy for over twenty years. (It was one of only two strict departmental policies I had. The other was that members of the History department were forbidden to teach boring lessons.) We had no marks, grades or orders. Many of our junior pupils produced work of outstanding quantity and quality for no other reward than a favourable comment, and pride in something well done.

Also, all our junior work was done in jotters, so that the dialogue with the pupil really could build up over the year. I could look back, and so could they. I might say: “If you look back five pages you will see I urged you to check the spellings of “parliament” and “government”. Why have you not done this?” also the nature of the comments would be tailored to the personality of the pupil. I remember one frail but muddled child whose page headed ”The Monk’s Day” was for some reason completely blank. I put “Not a very interesting day”. On the other hand later in the year, as one got to know the chancers, a comment might be: “Three lines in 20 mins is not acceptable. I know you can do more than this….. or else.”

I did make it a personal rule that I never assumed a child was being lazy until there was irrefutable evidence. I think this is really important. An able child who gets away with being lazy for a few weeks has suffered no serious educational damage. A child who has tried hard, but produced little, may be badly set back by harsh comments.

As for those important “nuts and bolts” of English, the trick is to get pupils to keep practising doing them better without causing those who find them hard (and it is rarely for want of trying) to think and write less, so as to make fewer mistakes. This is a matter for constant judgement in individual cases, and compromises.

Everything I have written here makes it sound as though all my marking was wonderful. It wasn’t. I had bad days like everyone else. Also my recent memories are of those relaxed days when I had been able to give up taking a games practice (Oh those hours spent umpiring the 3rd XI on a Saturday!) and my children had left home for University. It was possible to take a stack of jotters to a café round the corner from the school and mark and doze in a comfy chair with a mug of double-shot latte and a chocolate slice. My more distant memories are of marking till 2 in the morning while rocking a cradle and after coming in tired from “coaching” thirty eleven year-olds how to pass a rugby ball. Happy days! 

Monday, 9 September 2013

The Significance of the Battle of Flodden

These are a few fairly rapid thoughts, typed out on the morning of September 9th. It will be interesting to see further contributions.

Today is the five hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Flodden. Those of us who know about it, and who care a bit about it, do wonder why it is not better known. Presumably part of the reason is that it has not been taken up by historians as a battle of any great significance – unlike, for example, Hastings, Bannockburn, the Marne, Gettysburg, Kursk and so on. These were battles that changed the course of history.

So, what about the significance of Flodden?

Clearly it was of huge significance for all those killed that day – probably over 10,000 Scots and over 1,000 English. All those families suddenly turned up-side down. In Scottish history it is seen as important that so many of the great ones of the realm were killed, not merely one of Scotland’s more successful kings, but all those earls and abbots and so on. Since genealogy and family history are important to aristocracies the memory of that day has been kept alive in castles and stately homes all over the country. We, in our more democratic age, might consider the death of one earl as no more nor less significant than the death of one half-trained feudal levy clutching a pike, for “every man’s death diminishes me.”  The Selkirk Common Riding every year commemorates the fact that of 80 men who left the town to join James, only one returned.

In the history of warfare there are some interesting points to be sure. As a reminder that generals ought not to get stuck in the thick of the fighting, that modern weaponry is only useful if soldiers are properly trained in its use, and that impressive siege guns were less useful in an open battle than light field guns, then Flodden did provide some lessons to be learned. But the military revolution being pioneered by the French and the Spanish continued regardless of the events in Northumbria (and see the works of  Geoffrey Parker for more on this.)

As far as England was concerned the significance was slight. Surrey’s remarkable triumph did not save England from invasion. James’s army was really engaged on a great raid, as a diversionary tactic in a wider European war. The slaughter at Flodden exacted terrible revenge for the raid, but James was on his way home anyway; nothing much was altered.

Possibly the raid, and Flodden, reinforced the powerful anti-Scottish feelings in England in general, and in Henry VIII’s arrogant head in particular. An analysis of gentry/lairdly marriages in the period has found only one cross-border marriage. The two sides really did regard each other as aliens. James IV’s marriage to Margaret Tudor (Henry VII’s daughter, Henry VIII’s sister) might have begun a slow change in this ancient hostility. After Flodden there was no chance of that. The dreadful wars surrounding the Rough Wooing, and the overweening ambitions of Henry VIII and Protector Somerset brought generations of misery that, but for Flodden, might not have happened. Ninety years later, of course, James had the last laugh when his descendant, not Henry VIII's, became the first king, James VI and I, of both kingdoms. But if the 1503 marriage of the Thistle and the Rose had brought a more lasting peace, perhaps the intervening years would have been less troubled. Of course the rift came not so much with Flodden itself as with James’s decision to take the French, not the English side in the war. Certainly this renewing of the Auld Alliance, and rejection of partnership with England, were significant.

James IV was having a pretty successful reign. He was popular with his nobles, asserted royal authority extensively, and presided over a lively renaissance court. His death was inevitably followed by faction fighting, since his heir was an infant. But that heir eventually grew up to be a reasonably successful James V. Scotland’s very dreadful decades in the sixteenth century had three big causes: the feuding rivalries of the great families; the struggle for dominance between England and France – into which Scotland inevitably was dragged – and the Reformation upheaval. I suppose if Scotland had had a succession of monarchs who took the throne as adults, rather than babies (as James V, Mary Queen of Scots and James VI all did) they might have weathered the storms better. But there would still have been storms and James VI did weather them in the end. So maybe James IV’s death didn’t change all that much.

Part of the great tragedy of Flodden is that so many died for so little gain on either side. The one definite winner was the Howard family. They had been Yorkists, and the head of the family had been killed at Bosworth in 1485. His son, as Earl of Surrey, commanded the English at Flodden – in itself a bit of a put-down as Henry VIII’s glitterati had gone with the King to France. It was thanks to his great victory, however, that he recovered the Dukedom of Norfolk, which the Howard family still holds.

If you want to know more about James IV you might like my piece about him that is available on Kindle. It is short and not very expensive.

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Are exams getting easier?

A lot of stuff gets written at this time of year about whether or not exams are getting easier. A lot of this stuff is ill-informed drivel, and in any case the whole issue is usually tackled in a naïve way. Here are a few thoughts of mine on the subject.

  1. The actual grades awarded depend to a very great extent on the threshold marks. Is an “A” awarded for 81%, 80%, or 79% (or 71, 70, 69 in Scotland)? These thresholds are arrived at after a good deal of enquiry and discussion and study by senior figures. The simple statistics are used. One does not want “A” grades (for example) to rocket from, say 23% of candidates to 46% of candidates. But the markers’ judgements as to whether questions have turned out to be harder or easier for candidates, the quality of some answers selected at random with marks close to the threshold, and so on, are also taken into account.

  1. Yes, the definition of “A” has changed a little over the years. It no longer means “super excellent”. It means “you can do what this exam requires very well.” The first definition had little value; the second one means something useful for all concerned. Exams do not exist to make it easier for would-be elite universities to select their students (though if they do save busy academics time, then fair enough). Mind you, one can over-state this case. In the old days “B” was universally regarded as a good grade (because it was) whereas now you too often hear people saying “He only got a B” – as though that meant mediocrity, not competence.

  1. The questions set in an exam must be related to the content of the course. When I was ten years old I had nine Latin lessons every week. Naturally the Latin exams I sat contained more words, and more complicated grammar, than exams for candidates who had undergone a more balanced timetable. we did no science at all. To a very great extent questions become easier or harder not because of some absolute standard of difficulty but simply whether or not they test material that the pupil has studied in depth during the course. Questions on stuff that comes at the end of the syllabus are always harder than stuff that was covered early on and re-worked, used and revised over the whole session.

  1. In all the subjects for which I have prepared senior pupils (History, English, Politics, Modern Studies), the way in which essays are marked has an overwhelming effect on final percentages. One of the things the profession has done over the last few decades is start to think that very good essays should get close to full marks, whereas when I started teaching 60% was regarded as a very good score. That is really just pedagogical fashion, and has nothing to do with falling or rising standards.

  1. In all the essay-writing subjects, when I started teaching there were no clear definitions of what the syllabus was and no clear definitions of an A-grade essay. For example, should an essay begin with an introduction or not? What relative weights should be given to quality of argument and sheer quantity of recalled material? And so on. I recall teachers-meet-the-examiners meetings in the 1980s at which teachers who were also markers became incandescent with rage as they discovered that some markers had different notions on these things from their own. Only in the late 80s and 90s did we start to get attempts at definition. Today, thank goodness, every teacher, and every pupil, can find on-line their exam board's definitions of A grade, B grade and C grade qualities. Good teachers – even not very good ones – use these in their teaching and so candidates are more efficiently prepared for what they have to face.

  1. The same applies to syllabi (or is it syllabuses?). When I started teaching the A-level European History syllabus was just that – European History. A study of past papers gave good clues as to what might be examined (French History overwhelmingly, as I recall) but the lottery effect was terrifying. One candidate might revise four topics and get four questions: another candidate might revise seven topics and only get three. That certainly made exams “harder” but in a totally uneducational and silly way. Now every syllabus clearly explains what may or may not be tested. If it is in the syllabus you have no complaints if it is asked. If is not in the syllabus, it won’t be. Candidates should cover everything in the syllabus and nothing else. This is harder work, but fairer.

  1. One very specific procedural change has meant that more candidates get “A” at A-level. The AS courses are intended to give pupils a grounding in the basics of the subject and are generally more straightforward than A-levels, where “curve balls” – questions of unexpected scope and complexity – may be thrown. An able candidate who works hard ought to be able to get good marks at AS (though I have known pupils so able that they could not think themselves down to the necessary brevity), and these marks are added in to the final A-level grade. This is not about making the exams “easier”, though. The key phrase in the previous sentence was “who works hard”. Pupils in what I still think of as the Lower Sixth work far, far harder than their predecessors did, in the days when the first meaningful exam was nearly two years away. Their academic studies are not “easier”; but they know that their efforts will be rewarded, and so they make the effort.

  1. Moreover, candidates can re-sit AS papers to improve their marks. For some this has become more of a mark-grubbing exercise than intended. But that is the fault of the universities. If UCAS conditions are “3 As”, then the luckless applicant will leave no stone unturned to get them, even if that means trying to claw an AS score up from 80% to 85%. What was intended, however, – and what still happens – is educationally a very good thing. AS courses are supposed to develop the basics. A candidate who has not mastered the basics is encouraged to work on them some more to achieve competence, just as many of you, dear readers, were allowed to re-train as drivers and re-sit the driving test after you had failed it the first time. School and examination structures must include ways for those who don’t get everything right first time to have another go.

  1. Then there are those wretched league tables. Since they were introduced almost everyone in schooling – pupils, parents, teachers, heads, governors, journalists and politicians - looks at them first. Just as the DRS system in cricket is not being used quite as those who devised it intended, so league tables are making almost everyone grade-grubbers in a way that was not at all so when I was at school, or when I began teaching. Thank goodness that for all my career I worked for people who put individual pupils above statistical tables; but I was lucky.

  1. And finally (to leave the most important point till last), the main point of the exam system is NOT to produce grades and orders of merit, and to save university selectors’ time. The main point is to see that pupils have worthwhile experiences in school. What has happened in History (which I taught for nearly forty years) is that courses have become far more demanding, even as grades have improved. The modern candidates have to do the old fashioned stuff of learning a great deal of information, making sense of it, and writing essays based upon it. But they also have to be able to analyse the value of modern historians’ arguments (a very difficult skill indeed, which my generation did not encounter till university) and make intelligent use of primary sources. They also have to plan, research, draft, improve, proof-read and finalise a longish dissertation of some sort (rules vary between exam boards). Their grades may be better, but they are also better educated. As for the O-level/GCSE change – it is chalk and cheese. Instead of marks for relevant factual recall (with a question lottery) and little else, now a range of questions have to be interpreted, sources have to be analysed and synthesised and coursework prepared. The courses are (if properly set up) far better.

There could be more said on the subject, but that is quite enough. Scientists and mathematicians please note that I lack the knowledge to say things about your subjects.

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Some Thoughts on the Teaching of Spelling

I had better declare an interest right from the start. I am not a good speller. I have a note at the bottom of one of my final-year university essays in the hand of Norman Stone: “Your spelling is rather bizarre”. Naturally this has made me inclined to be sympathetic to pupils who are not good spellers; but it does not mean that my sympathy or my methods are wrong. In fact I am more sure that I am right on this matter than on most others in education.

Of all the things that make up written English, spelling is the least important. (I do not say it is unimportant, but I do assert that it is the least important.) Punctuation matters a lot because it can change meanings. The sentence “He did not go to school because he was ill” means that he did go to school, but not for the reason that he was ill. Word choice matters a lot. For example, to use the word “decimate” to mean “kill almost everyone” will confuse readers who know that it really means “to kill ten percent.” Even if words are used accurately, a writer with a wide vocabulary will write richer, better prose than a writer with a limited vocabulary. Sentence structure is important. An ear for the rhythm of sentences is important. Grammatical points such as making sure that adjectival phrases are unambiguously linked to the intended noun are important. A sensitive awareness of the needs of the reader when it comes to paragraphing is important. Spelling is less important than all of these.

If you do not believe me, try reading some Shakespeare or Donne in their original spellings. Spelling had not been standardised in their day, and yet they were great masters of language.

I was lucky enough to have enlightened teachers who could write in reports such things as “He writes well, despite his poor spelling.” On the other hand when I began my own career as a junior teacher I was surprised to find highly intelligent pupils in lowly sets and streams. Their work had been marked on the “Spelling mistake? Minus one mark” approach. Some of them overcame these handicaps, and the loss of self esteem, to achieve eventual academic success. Others did not.

After a couple of years teaching I began to get a reputation for being “good with” lower sets. My only particular method that I can recall was to put as little red ink as possible on their written work. Many pupils who found spelling hard had developed a cunning plan to avoid making too many mistakes: write very little. I stopped marking all their mistakes in red, praised more than I blamed, and they wrote at greater length.

There seem to me to be two big problems with spelling. The first one is that spelling errors are, for most ordinary readers, the most conspicuous errors; and they are used, by those who lack professional experience, as the bench-mark for literacy. In the thank-you letter to the uncle, the job application, the public notice or whatever, bad spelling is noticed above all else, so of course all pupils need to be helped and encouraged to improve their spelling.

The second problem is that some children seem to have no difficulty with spelling at all. I can remember this with some of my own friends at primary school and I have seen it often with my youngest pupils. There seems to be a mental facility for precision which some possess. However, it is probably true that an above average proportion of the successful in our society were naturally good spellers (I admit I have no evidence for this) and so it is as hard for them to think that children cannot be fairly easily be taught to spell as it is easy for me to sympathise with those who find correct spelling a struggle.

It was during an In Service Training talk given by an expert when I was about 35 that I learned about my own case. She explained that some children learn so rapidly how to read that they never go through the careful piecing together of words letter by letter. That was me. For other children there are many different explanations, not one all-embracing one.   

During my career my ideas developed in conjunction with an increasingly active and enlightened Support for Learning Department. Some of my methods I worked out for myself. Some I learned from them.

In the first place I found that there was almost never any need to motivate younger pupils (we started at ten years old) to try and improve spelling. They had already been corrected tediously often by well-meaning adults and they knew that they wanted to spell better. What was needed was to persuade them that poor spelling did not make them “bad at” History or English, and to provide them with methods for improvement that worked.

When I was teaching junior history we did lots of writing. When I was teaching junior English they wrote something almost every day. I would mark the misspelt words with a tiny red dit – about the size of a hyphen – under the word. (The sprawling red S can spoil the finest piece of work) Then at the end of the piece I would write the word spelled correctly and (this was the Support for Learning slogan) they would “Look – Cover – Write – Check”. If, on checking, they found it was still wrong they would repeat the process. Keen pupils sometimes wrote the word out three times; that was their choice.

The other thing I did was explain from time to time the point I made above – that spelling matters but is not all that important. It was worth a certain amount of effort to create the balance between working at spelling and avoiding the low esteem, or time-wasting, that can come from giving spelling too high a priority.

As I have already said, there are many causes of poor spelling. One of them can be, with some children, a casual carelessness. Part of the teacher’s job – one of the hardest – is to observe when a pupil needs to be pushed to improve as well as encouraged. Certainly with some older pupils, at GCSE stage, a brisker treatment of the “I know you can spell perfectly well when you try…” variety may be appropriate. I once cured a future doctor of putting “would of” and “should of” by one carefully devised lunch-time detention. He thanked me later. However, with little children over-emphasis on spelling can become a real burden and a barrier to educational achievement. A casual child will take no hurt from being allowed to coast for a while when he might be pushed. Earnest children who are criticised and pushed, when they need to be encouraged, may be set back very seriously.

In my role as a senior examiner in History I can tell you that in essays scribbled under exam conditions the spelling is hardly noticed – whereas errors in grammar and punctuation that distort meaning inevitably damage paragraphs, even if they are not explicitly marked down. Equally a candidate whose prose is a pleasure to read inevitably does better, all other things being equal. In course-work dissertations, on the other hand, we take a dim view of spelling errors. Where there is time to check and proof-read, spelling should be accurate. Beware, though, of the automatic spell-checker. It let through one outstanding typo recently: “The Medici came from an eminent Florentine baking family.” I fear my blogs contain some similar slips of the key-board.

Those of you who teach senior school pupils may like to make use of my A-level History spelling test. It is very short.

Parliament – Government – Independent – Toleration – Tenant – Privilege – Develop

If you do the nineteenth century add:  Napoleon – Gladstone – Palmerston – Russell – Denmark - Bismarck

Once we had marked it I would say “If anyone got full marks, I apologise for wasting your time.” I don’t remember that many pupils ever did.

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

A Bibliographical Commercial Break

"Thanks Mr Harris for all your history lectures. They're really good" (Anonymous review)

I have made no secret of the fact that part of the point of this blog has been to publicise my pieces that are for sale on Amazon Kindle. So this post will be nothing else; it is a list of all my Kindle pieces with a few words about each one. I fancy you may learn a fair bit of history if you just read this blog and don't buy anything – but I'll be pleased if you do buy some, of course.

When I started, my target readership was the most ambitious and enthusiastic AS or Higher (Scotland) pupils. That is to say 16+. They typically follow a course based on text-books that are ruthlessly exam-focused and incline to the “Worthy but dull” end of historical writing. A lot of this material – and a lot of the revision material available – is aimed at candidates who are hoping to pass, rather than those who plan to get good A grades and then go on to study history at a higher level. My “A grade history lectures” were intended to plug this gap.

Older pupils, studying for A-level or Advanced Higher, ought, as much as possible, to be using real history books, written for adults. It is by reading the best history that they learn to write the best history. Besides, the ability to work with long books is essential training for university. But – and it is a big but – many history books are far too long for most readers most of the time. It is said that when George III visited Edward Gibbon he exclaimed: “Scribble, scribble, scribble Mr Gibbon. Another damn great thick book!” My stuff at least is short. You can read it on the train to work. There are frequent references to longer and better books by great historians, for those who have the time to read them.

I call my pieces “Lectures” because, in my experience as a listener and as a talker, the lecture format allows great freedom to challenge, to cross reference, to entertain. I believe there are readers who find the word “Lecture” a turn off; they have experienced monotone droning accompanied by photocopied notes or, more recently, death by power-point. That is not what I do.

When the first set of Kindle “Lectures” came out I was flattered to find that various friends and relations who fit into the category of “general readers” viewed them very favourably. This led me to bear them in mind when I was writing some of the later pieces. I no longer concentrated on mainstream exam topics. Obviously, the more people read them the better I am pleased.

Then in 2014 I finished a rather different piece. It's a lot longer (40,000 words) and is about Edinburgh. It has been written as nine walks about the city and will show visitors all sorts of things. It is also good for Edinburgh people who have had to move away; it is a cheerful reminder of home. in fact even if you live in Edinburgh you will learn somethings from it, unless you are a real expert. It is not a work of reference; it doesn't have everything. It deals with the things I like - history and art and with a few references to Henry Cockburn, Robert Fergusson and Walter Scott. being much longer, it costs a bit more than the lectures, but is still much cheaper than any book I have seen on sale.

Anyhow, here's the list, roughly in chronological order.

Getting to know Edinburgh

In nine walks this book takes you to museums and galleries, up Calton Hill, along the Water of Leith, through the Old Town and the New Town and so on. Packed with history and commentary.

During the Edinburgh Festival 2015 the following tweet turned up: "Am fan of the book; have used on last 3 trips to Edinburgh, always new things to learn about"

The Place-names of Scotland: a first introduction

This lecture makes no pretensions to scholarship, but it will tell the visitor to Scotland a good deal about the early history of the country. Towns on the East coast include Inverness (Gaelic), Aberdeen (Welsh), Pittenwheem (Pictish), Coldingham (Anglo-Saxon) and Berwick (Norse). Add the Normans to this (the original Robert de Brus came from Picardy) and you have a fine mix of genes, languages and cultures.

This is NOT, by the way a gazetteer of names with definitions. Do not be disappointed to find that it is not this. Whang any name into a search-engine to discover its meaning and origin.

An Introduction to the Renaissance

I can remember when I first became aware of the Renaissance. It was in 1960 and we were being shown round the Chateaux of the Loire by a French guide. I was only ten, but it was a formative experience. I have been looking at Renaissance paintings, sculpture and architecture ever since. I've read a fair amount about it too. This lecture tries to summarise the main points of the artistic revolution of the fifteenth century. It also – and this was harder – tries to explain the meaning of that elusive concept “Renaissance humanism”. This is a lecture to take with you on holiday in Italy.

I do not pretend to any original insights, but I do think the quotations from primary sources are particularly interesting. My text is based on numerous holidays in Tuscany, Umbria, London, Amsterdam, Venice and Rome. I am aware of four authors as particularly influential: E H Gombrich, Michael Baxandall, Giorgio Vasari and Desiderius Erasmus.

James IV: Scotland's Renaissance King
I've had this in mind for a while, but I was reminded of the need to get on and write it by a visit to the site of the Battle of Flodden. The fields below Branxton Edge, where the battle took place on September 9th 1513 have been very well laid out with paths and sign boards, and a visit is highly recommended. However, this lecture is mostly about James' reign before his disastrous last campaign. He was a contemporary of Henry VIII, Louis XII of France, Pope Julius II and Ferdinand of Aragon, amongst others. I would argue that his approach to kingship, and his achievements, mean that he should be listed with them as a Renaissance Prince. He is too little known. These 6,000 words will rapidly show you why he should be remembered, and also recommend further reading so that you can get to know him better.

The Protestant Reformation briefly explained

Those of us who were brought up going to church, and then spent a whole life singing in church music, can hardly help being interested in church history. Those of us who have ever witnessed an Orange March, or a Catholic cathedral in southern Europe, cannot help but be interested in what makes Christians so diverse. Besides, those historians who have no church backgrounds must struggle when they encounter religion as a major factor in all European history. With luck this lecture will get the main points clear. What did Luther and Calvin stand for? I also re-tell the story of Henry VIII’s break with Rome. It is all over the TV these days, so a clear summary can do no harm.

The "Glorious" Whig Revolution 1670-1720, explained by the Vicar of Bray

One of the questions in my English History A-level in 1968 was "What was the significance of 1688?". Whatever my answer was then, that date remains one of enormous significance in British history - as great as 1066. The old satirical song, "The Vicar of Bray" covers the momentous so-called "Glorious Revolution". The vicar tries to keep his parish despite the changes of political and religious orthodoxy as Charles II, James II, William III, Anne and George I took the throne. This lecture goes through the song verse by verse and explains the many issues involved.
Among other things here are explained the Divine Right of Kings, Whigs and Tories, High and Low church, the Hanoverian succession and much else. It was originally written in response to a lament from English Literature tutors that their students knew no Eighteenth Century history, so I hope it will help plug that gap. If you add in my Bonnie Dundee lecture and my Scottish Enlightenment lecture, that's a fair chunk of Eighteenth Century Britain covered. (This Vicar of Bray piece is definitely about England only).

Bonnie Dundee and the First Jacobite Rebellion

Those of us who were at primary school in the 1950s learned lots of traditional songs in music lessons. “Bonnie Dundee” was one of them. Walter Scott based his rousing ditty on a real set of events and characters. What I do here is take the song verse by verse and explain the history that lies behind it. The fact that John Graham of Claverhouse had three nick-names – “Bonnie Dundee”, “Bluidy Clavers” and “Black John of the Battles” – surely makes it worth reading about him. The song – and the lecture – deals with one of the more remarkable episodes in Edinburgh’s colourful history.

The Jacobites

This movement began as soon as James II and VII was thrown out in 1688. It lasted until his famous grandson, Bonnie Prince Charlie, was defeated at Culloden in 1746. With over fifty years, and five rebellions, it was a challenge to keep this as a short piece. Fortunately there are many excellent long books already, so I end with a select bibliography. I begin with a simple chronological table to help readers get the main facts sorted out. Then there is an essay on why people became Jacobites, and another on Jacobite warfare. The piece I am especially pleased with is set out as a chat in an Edinburgh pub as three friends chat about the risings, and cover a huge amount of history. There is also a suggested Jacobite tour, through the Highlands.

The Jacobite story has attracted so many myths over the years that many people who think they know the history still have a lot to get straight. This short e-book (18,000 words) will help you put the heroes and villains and battles in context.

An Introduction to the Scottish Enlightenment

This lecture began life as an evening talk to a bunch of Scottish teachers, few of whom were historians. So it has, I hope, a general appeal. The Scottish Enlightenment was phenomenal – and was recognised during the eighteenth century as something remarkable. How could such a small country, on the fringes of Europe, suddenly produce a generation of world-changing thinkers, writers and scientists? It is a massive and complex subject, but this lecture will start to help you get a grip of it.

Cockburn's Edinburgh

I discovered Henry Cockburn's wonderful book "Memorials of My Own Time" when I first moved to Edinburgh. I wrote this play so as to make his Edinburgh readily accessible to non-historians. It is packed with scenes of life in the city during the French Revolution and the Regency. These include: a duel; the funding of "The Edinburgh Review"; a dinner party; the Great Fire of Edinburgh; the Edinburgh Fencibles on parade; the case of Burke and Hare; the City Guard. wherever possible I used Cockburn's own words as he chats to his friend Francis Jeffrey. It is as full of history as an egg is of meat and, thanks to Cockburn's style, full of wit and insight. 

The Congress of Vienna Reassessed

During the first three decades of my career I taught this topic very often, and it seemed to me that most text books dealt very poorly with it. Too often it was in a book about the nineteenth century, and so was related to liberalism, nationalism, Napoleon III, 1848 and so on. Whereas the men who made the settlement had hardly heard of any of this. They were eighteenth century statesmen, men of the Enlightenment, who sought to create a rational, stable Europe. They certainly did not wish (as one often reads) to put the clock back to 1789. Nor did they.

As well as dealing with the sorts of issues that come up in exams I also try to set this settlement in the long context of European settlements, from the death of Charlemagne to 1945.

Slavery and the Causes of the American Civil War

This piece is based on two evening class lectures I gave in support of a course on American literature. I was alarmed to find that the class included a High Court Judge and two highly educated Americans. They were kind enough to find what I had to say interesting, so I hope you will too. I think of this as a useful introduction for people who have little previous knowledge and who will then (maybe) go on to read more and more for themselves about these vast areas of study.

The Unification of Italy

My career began with a lucky break. I was, aged 23, given the top O-level set. When we reached the Unification of Italy I was able to say “On this topic your text book is completely wrong. Italian historiography has moved on since it was written” (This was in the days when Denis Mack Smith was writing). This went down very well with this hard-working, ambitious bunch and I achieved a not-wholly deserved reputation for scholarship.

Most of my pieces are analytical, but this one follows the narrative and, I hope, makes sense of it; and gets Garibaldi, Cavour, Victor Emmanuel and co correctly placed within the story.

Bismarck and the Making of the German Empire

One Amazon reviewer called my assessment of Bismarck “trite”. All I will reply is that my main sources have been Golo Mann, Fritz Stern and David Blackbourn. (Not to mention dozens of others over the years). The key to my assessment is in the title: not “The Unification of Germany” but “The Making of the German Empire”. Bismarck did not want to unify Germany, and did not (he left out Austria altogether). He was a diplomat of genius, but not even he could manipulate all events. His trick was to pretend that what happened was what he had planned all along.

This is a long and dense lecture, but that is the nature of the topic.

The Development of Democracy in Britain

There is a very readable book by Robert Rhodes James called “the British Revolution”, dealing with the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. And it is remarkable that this revolution took place so peacefully (with due acknowledgement to serious violence over the issue of Irish independence). This piece is made of three lectures. Numbers two and three deal with the various developments – mostly Acts of Parliament – and explain what they signified and why they were passed. Part one is an analysis of the meaning of “Democracy” that has found favour with teachers of Citizenship and of Politics.

Votes for Women!

If I had to pick a favourite lecture it might be this one. It separates the social and cultural question of why women got the vote during the early twentieth century from the political question of why they got it precisely when and why they did. Both strike me as fascinating. My argument is that the militant suffragettes were less significant than mythology has made them. Many remarkable women – Josephine Butler, Elizabeth Garrett, Beatrix Potter among others – take their place in the analysis.

The Great Liberal Social Reforms 1906-1914

A century ago a government began to deal seriously with the problems of poverty and began to spend tax-payers money as part of the solution. This was a substantial revolution in government and we live, of course, with the consequences today. This lecture covers all the reforms, considers why they were passed and also why they were like they were, with considerations of the pressure of political realities on the decision-makers.

The Causes and the Course of the First World War

This got such a friendly Amazon review from W Goetsch of Pittsburgh PA that I shall quote it in full:

After reading book after book on the lead up to WWI, always something of a mystery to me, it is here in this elegant and concise lecture that I became satisfied that now I had the matter in hand. It focused like a laser on the underlying issues which otherwise I had not been able to extract for myself from the plethora of detail that I had read. The British are clearly better with language, and nuance, than we Americans.

More generally, I now see a place for what might be called a new genre: brief essays not previously available to a general public, and priced appropriately. The trouble with many recent book length offerings today--not all--is that they have a nugget of an interesting take on some interesting subject, but the author feels compelled to flesh them out to book length with additional matter, presumably to construct a salable "book". I rather like the nugget part straight, like a shot of whiskey, quite unencumbered with the chaff. This saves everyone time. Now we can buy what amounts to an article in a magazine, the tune in an album. I think this notion will take off.

I only wish it had included the bibliography to the lecture. That would have been useful to Amazon as well.

I did include more “further reading” in later lectures. As far as the First World War is concerned, I have read so much over 40 years that it would be hard to single out a small number of books that have influenced my thinking.

Scotland and the Causes of the Causes of the First World War

For the centenary year, 2014, I was asked to give this talk three times. The listeners were all very interested and knowledgeable adults, so I was on my mettle. I tackled the controversy about the causes of the War that was exercising historians, journalists and politicians by relating it to the changes and developments in my own thinking. For the Scottish dimension I made use of contemporary newspapers. These primary sources were, as always, most revealing and interesting.

Socialism and the Early Years of the Labour Party

This is another two-lecture piece. Part One tries to explain Socialism (before 1914), what it meant and what some of the main varieties were. I like to think it is clear and accurate though, being brief, it does not go into all the subtleties and complex arguments of Jaures, Bernstein, Lenin, Macdonald, Beatrice Webb and co. Part Two tries to explain the paradox of the British Labour Party in its early years – the way in which it simultaneously did well and yet did not do all that well.

 The Russian Revolution of 1917

Perhaps this should be called “The Russian Revolutions”, for February and October are distinct. Here are two lectures, one on why the tsar fell and the other on why the Bolsheviks triumphed. In the first one I avoid talking about causes in a general sort of a way, but try to relate them to precisely what happened, so that it is possible to form a judgement as to which causes were more important. Lists of causes in general are the enemy of precise historical thinking.

Hitler’s Rise to Power

Here is how this one begins:

The question “Why did Hitler come to power in Germany?” sounds like a reasonable one. But it gives a wrong impression from the start. The question should be: “How on earth did a gang of obsessives, losers and misfits manage to get supreme power in one of the most advanced and civilised democracies in the world?”

There are two parts to my explanation. One is to explain why a good many Germans (never a majority) voted Nazi in the crucial elections of 1930-1932. The other is to show how, step by step, the Nazis converted electoral success into absolute power.

The Causes of the Second World War and Appeasement

Poor Neville Chamberlain utterly failed to prevent the Second World War. But does that mean that he and his associates were “Guilty Men” or merely unlucky? The section on Appeasement is succinct and clear.

The section on the causes of the Second World War in general emphasises that we are dealing with six different wars that all got mixed up together. Their causes are best considered separately or muddle will undoubtedly ensue.

Why did the Allies Win the Second World War

I reckon I've been studying the Second World War for longer than any other topic (since 1955 at least). This is my attempt to make some sense of what happened, in brief. There are numerous longer and better books available – see any bookshop – but you can read my piece in less than an hour. It does owe a good deal to Richard Overy’s “Why the Allies Won”.

The Cold War

I found it strange, towards the end of my career, to be a primary source in my own lessons. (Did you sing carols to Hungarian refugees in 1956?). It was most stimulating to be forced, by exam options, to do some serious reading on the subject. As with all these lectures, I am pretty sure this would be a good introduction for an interested adult and good revision for a sixth-former.