Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Some thoughts on the writing of history books

For the last few months it has amused me to create a list of a hundred good history books and use twitter to let others know about them. (The hashtag is #100ghb). They are not arranged in any order of merit, though the very first (“The Defeat of the Spanish Armada” by Garrett Mattingly”) and the hundredth (“Memorials of his Own Time” by Henry Cockburn) are particular favourites of mine. I have not named the list “great” history books; it is enough to be merely “good”. Incidentally, no author occurs twice, so hundreds of what I regard as good history books are lurking just off-tweet.

The list is very much a matter of personal choice. The books are all ones that have in some way moved me, ones that I have read for enjoyment and improvement. If I ever turn the list into a book, with a thousand words or so about each one, it will be as much autobiography as bibliography. The first book on the list that I ever read was “People in History” by R J Unstead; I knew this off by heart, more or less, by the time I was ten. The most recent I read was “Voices of Morebath” by Eamon Duffy, recommended by my daughter, who is herself a historian.

When I was at school, and during the first decades of my teaching career, admission to Cambridge and to Oxford depended on performance in essay papers. These included not only a General Paper but also General Historical Questions. (In those primitive pre-GCSE days this was where I first discovered the problems of evaluating sources.) One question to a class of aspirants that usually provoked an interesting discussion was “What makes a good history book?” Sixth-formers would come up with a variety of answers, all connected to readability. I would let the argument run for a while before saying: “Surely the worth of a history book ought to be measured by the amount of new things about the past – factual information and interpretations – that it tells us.”

However, as far as readers are concerned, and that includes me, the sixth-formers were right. A book cannot be good unless it is good as a book as well as good as a piece of scholarship. The Cambridge don who complained to me that she did not approve of the books of Orlando Figes because they were “too popular” was talking rubbish. Those of us with history degrees have all spent weary afternoons dozing between the book-stacks in faculty libraries, trudging through volumes that will never be seen on the shelves of any shop and whose retail price is mind-bogglingly high because no one except faculty libraries will ever buy them. These are not good history books.

Occasionally I get asked to review books. Some of the ones that arrive are clearly PhD theses that have been turned into books with too little editorial scrutiny. One of these, that contained a lot of interesting history and that in some ways I enjoyed, included the following magnificent passage:

“Similarly John MacLean, in the presbytery of Kintyre, second son of John MacLean of Greshpol in Coll, admitted as parson of Kilmorie in Arran some time before 1688, was ousted shortly afterwards. He attracted influential patronage during his subsequent career in Ireland; minister at Coleraine and Antrim, he was chaplain to Lord Massereene and prebendary of Rosharkin. Married first to a daughter of Lachlan McNeill of Losset, by whom he had several daughters, two sons of his second marriage to a daughter of James Cubbage also carved out ministerial careers for themselves in Ireland: John became minister of Clogher in Ireland and James minister of Rochray. His middle son, Clotworthy, practised medicine in Belfast.”

This is not the way to write a good history book.

Another common fault is to write more than the data will warrant, and find verbal ways of papering over the cracks. I have in front of me a life of Eleanor of Aquitaine It is full of interesting things. But there is a 28-page chapter on Eleanor’s youth that includes the sentence: “Eleanor’s life as a child growing up in the ducal household is almost completely undocumented.”  Some medieval historians solve their problems with evidence better than others; however, there is a limit to the number of times the words “no doubt”, “possibly”, “she would have” and “perhaps” can be used without the reader’s mind drifting away.

Or, to take another case, I possess a useful book on the reign of Charles II. There is a section on economic development in which are found a couple of pages where vaguely quantitative words are freely used. “Advances”, “development”, “expansion”, “additional”, "expensive”, “spreading”, “expanding”, “increases”, “buoyant”, “scale”, “widespread”, “more”, “sheer quantities”, “growing”. As you may have guessed, there is not a statistic to be seen. What a contrast is my #100ghb Number 19, “Europe Transformed” by Norman Stone. I used to use it with classes to indicate the importance of “telling detail”. Open it at random (I would challenge pupils to choose page numbers) and discover a general point immediately supported by a fascinating snippet of statistical detail. Try it for yourself.

An outstanding discussion of the problems of writing history comes in the first section of my #100ghb Number 8, “The Face of Battle” by John Keegan. Here he analyses in depth and with many examples quoted, the difficulties of writing military history, in particular of describing in words what actually goes on when armed men set about killing each other. Traditionally historians have resorted to metaphors, with waves of men sweeping irresistibly, or advances getting bogged down. Keegan uses the rest of the book to do better, with analyses of Agincourt, Waterloo and the Somme. If you have never read it, do so.

There is, undoubtedly, a serious problem for historians here. If their books are going to be good books they have to conform to the disciplines of a book. They need beginnings and middles and ends, division into chapters, enlivening character sketches, effective changes of pace and a sense of drive or flow through the pages. This tends to result in the history being distorted, perhaps subconsciously, in order to make a book; where this is not done the book may be dull and an effort to read. Writing good history is not easy, and we can be grateful that there are enough good history books out there to last a lifetime. (I am acutely aware that my list has far too little Ancient, Medieval, American, Asian and African history and hardly any Latin American history at all. Hundreds of good books still to read.)

Historians who are making television programmes (and there are lots of really good ones) face similar problems, enormously magnified. The disciplines and conventions of the medium have to be satisfied first. Scholarship comes second.

Some of my sixth-form pupils would suggest “nice pictures” as important in a good history book. They may have thought they were being flippant, but illustrations can be chosen well or badly, and good ones can improve a book greatly. Monochrome photographs of politicians do not usually add much; cartoons say much more. Pictures which relate closely to the text, which add to the text, or pairs of pictures where the contrast is instructive really are worth the thousand words of the cliché. Winston Churchill’s books are particularly strong on maps – vital for military history – and in some cases they are on fold-out pages so that you can look at the map as you read on. This sort of thing makes a book better. Many of my #100ghb have excellent illustrations.

A few years ago my friends kept recommending “Miss Garnett’s Angel”. I was put off right at the start, for the author, seeking to create a dried-up, spiritually dead character, makes her – wait for it – a retired history teacher. This is not a unique case. In “Wise Owl’s Story” by Alison Uttley, Hare, Squirrel and Little Grey Rabbit are sorting out Owl’s belongings after his house has blown down in a gale. The books are all soaked apart from a history book which was “quite dry.” Hare leafs through it and chucks it into a puddle, where it remains dry. What a dreadful reputation historians and history teachers have created for themselves!  We all have a duty to repair the damage. If what you write or teach is “worthy but dull”, beware of being what a colleague of mine described as “so dull as to be no longer worthy.”

That is quite enough for today.

Part of the point of this blog is to let you know about my writings on Kindle. If you want to contemplate my failure to live up to my own standards (and there are certainly no pictures or maps) you will find “Lectures in Scottish History” here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=Lectures+in+Scottish+History

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

How to write English prose, with John Donne and George Orwell

This post is about writing prose. It exists partly to advertise my own writings, so let us get that bit over first. You can find my “A-grade History Lectures” here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_ss_i_1_8?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=a+grade+history+lectures&sprefix=a+grade+%2Caps%2C1583

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I was lucky at school to have an outstanding English teacher. He told us that the finest sentence ever written in the English language comes in one of the sermons of John Donne. I see no reason, forty-seven years later, to disagree with him. Here is the sentence:

“The dust of great persons graves is speechless too, it says nothing, it distinguishes nothing: as soon the dust of a wretch whom thou wouldest not, as of a Prince thou couldest not look upon will trouble thine eyes, if the wind bloweth thither; and when a whirlwind hath blown the dust of the Churchyard into the Church, and the man sweeps out the dust of the Church into the Churchyard, who will undertake to sift those dusts again, and to pronounce, This is the Patrician, this is the noble flower, and this the yeomanly, this the Plebeian bran.”

(It is pleasing to find that the grammar-checker on my computer has no objection to this sentence, despite the lack of an apostrophe and of a pair of inverted commas, where one might expect them)

Later on, as a young adult, I began to read the writings of George Orwell for pleasure, rather than as set texts. I can remember thinking, after I had finished “Homage to Catalonia” that the use of words had been so good, so luminously clear, that it was almost as though they did not exist. The black squiggles on the paper provided no barrier at all between Orwell’s mind and my own.

Around about the time I retired I stumbled upon the writings of Clive James, whose work had rather passed my by as I was growing old a few years behind him. (It really is true that class-room teaching can be very time-consuming.) Not only did I enjoy his prose style hugely, I was also struck by his judgement that it is harder to write good prose than to write good poetry; and note that he is an accomplished poet as well as a writer of prose.

It is universally acknowledged, and self-evidently true, that the best training is to study the great masters. This applies to art, teaching, music, sport and, I suppose, cookery. Young persons seeking to improve their own prose cannot do better than read lots and lots of the good prose that has accumulated over the centuries on library shelves and, in the twenty-first century, free on-line. I have mentioned three authors worth reading. There are countless others. One of the turning points for the growing reader is the discovery that books called “classics” have achieved this status not because they are boring but because they are read and re-read with pleasure by every generation.

However, in this blog I will concentrate on Donne and Orwell, though with frequent references to others.

There is a great deal of discussion just now in the press, by people involved with education, and (if my circle of acquaintance is anything to go by) amongst the wider public, about the extent to which the rules of grammar ought to be taught in schools. There is a widespread anecdotal feeling that they are not taught enough.

Of course some rules ought to be taught. I work as a history examiner, and the work of otherwise quite good candidates frequently includes sentences where the meaning is not clear, or where the words as written mean the exact opposite of what the candidate must have meant. Common faults include the use of a plural verb after a singular subject, so that the reader’s mind casts about for a plural noun somewhere that could be the subject. Or adjectival clauses, containing present participles, float freely so that the reader may or may not attach them to the intended phenomenon.

My father (another fine English teacher; not the one mentioned above) used to write on the blackboard: He did not go to school because he was ill and then ask “Well? Did he go to school or not?” the correct answer was “Yes. He did go to school, not because he was ill but for some other reason.” One missing comma can reverse the whole meaning.

When I became a teacher I was occasionally roped in by the English department to assist with characters who were re-sitting after poor results the previous year. My greatest compliment came from the First Fifteen coach. “What have you been up to? Half my team was discussing the use of the semi-colon all the way to Durham.”

However, these rules need to be kept in their place; they are servants not masters. The two things that make the difference between good and bad prose do not include the accuracy with which specific rules are applied. The two things are meaning and rhythm. Write with your brain perpetually alert for meaning and your ear perpetually alert for rhythm.

As far as clarity of meaning is concerned there can be no better model than George Orwell. Read as much of his journalism as you can get hold of, and do read his magnificent essay “Politics and the English Language”, which is freely available on line: https://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/orwell46.htm Learn from Orwell, if you do not know it already, that words are weapons and that obscurity in prose is the enemy of freedom.

As far as rhythm is concerned, study the sentence from John Donne’s sermons with which this post begins and see how the words are used to make a piece of prose that is a subtly rhythmical as any piece of music. Notice how short phrases are juxtaposed with long ones, how there are runs and linking passages and cadences. Hear how the sound of the words is used to evoke the whisper of dust. Enjoy the way the definite rather than the indefinite article is used; we do not imagine a man sweeping a church but the man sweeping the church. And so on.

I am not suggesting you should imitate Donne’s style, but you can learn from it. Another of my good English teachers – when I was about ten years old – used to read to us often. As he read “Kidnapped” he pointed out how easy and pleasurable it was to read, because Robert Louis Stevenson took so much trouble over the structure of his prose – word choice, rhythm and punctuation. It is said that RLS would lie awake worrying about a comma, and get out of bed to make adjustments. Good prose matters.

This post has gone on quite long enough. Perhaps my next post will be specifically about the writing of history. We shall see.

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Post Script: One of the genuine pleasures of being a history examiner is to be reminded every year how many young people do write excellent prose, even when they are scribbling under extreme pressure.

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

The Great Disraeli Mnemonic

More than three decades ago, during Harold Wilson's Second Ministry, I used to teach something called History O-level. The so-called essays were really disguised facts tests. There were no marks for style, structure, argument or analysis. The markers (so I was reliably informed) simply put a tick in the margin for every correct and relevant fact or point and then counted up the ticks.

The course was not necessarily without educational merit, but this depended a good deal on the ways the teacher chose to spend the lessons. The most testing feature of the actual exam was the lottery on which questions would come up. However, one dead certainty for a while was Disraeli's Second Ministry (1874-1880). During these six years his government was responsible for ten major pieces of domestic legislation, and the candidate who could remember all ten was well on the way to achieving a pass. After a little experimentation I found that the Acts could be arranged in the following order:

  • Artisans' Dwelling Act
  • Rivers Pollution Act
  • Sale of Food and Drugs Act
  • Employers and Workmen Act
  • Factory Act
  • Agricultural Enclosures Act
  • Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act
  • Education Act
  • Public Health Act
  • Merchant Shipping Act

Read down the initial letters of this list and you will see at once why no pupil could possibly forget the Arse-Face Prime Minister. As far as I can remember no pupil of mine ever failed O-level during the "Happy Time" when Disraeli held a preeminent place in the syllabus. My old Head of Department refused to spend two years on this mind-numbing memorisation; in what was in theory the first year of the O-level course we did some of the sorts of things that came in to GCSE courses later on.

It is still, quite rightly, impossible to do well in History examinations without memorising a fair amount of information - rather a lot of information, as a matter of fact. Everyone has their own methods of learning by heart, but a good mnemonic is as good as anything. The army (where rote learning can be a matter of life and death) I think uses mnemonics. At least, from my days in the CCF during Harold Wilson's First Ministry, I can still remember how to give a fire order: GRIT ("Group, Range, Indication, Type of fire).

My Disraeli mnemonic is the only one of mine worth preserving. I am happy to offer it as a gift to the hard-pressed candidates of 2013 and beyond. However, since part of the point of these blogs is to advertise my lectures published on Amazon Kindle I must tell you that Disraeli's part in producing the Second Parliamentary Reform Act of 1867 is summarised (along with much else) in my lectures on "The Development of Democracy in Britain":


Wednesday, 1 May 2013

It does seem a pity not to take advantage of Blogging, since it exists. So here goes. My plan at the moment is  from time to time to bring the long perspective of a historian to bear on items that appear in the news. Two recent examples that made me consider this were the debate over Baroness Thatcher's legacy and the North Korean crisis. I never saw the name "Gladstone" mentioned when great Prime Ministers were being discussed, and I do remember the Cuban missile crisis a bit. Perhaps occasionally I shall have something interesting to say.

There will also be shameless advertising for those of my writings that I have self-published on Amazon Kindle. At the moment there are some pieces called "A-grade History Lectures" and some called "Lectures in Scottish History". The first lot are written with an able and ambitious senior school pupil in mind. They are not revision notes to memorise; they are supposed to provoke thought, and they would probably be a bit challenging for a pupil who had not already got a grip of the text-book. Since publication, however, I have been very pleased to discover that several adult general readers enjoy them. They are short, they are meant to be interesting and stimulating and they are my best effort to use over forty years of reading and thinking to explain things about the past. They also contain a lot of information, so anyone who is in a pub quiz team, or who watches "Pointless" will find them useful.

The ones on Scottish history are written with the visitor to Scotland in mind. I like to think of travelers from all over the world sitting in Princes Street Gardens with their Kindles and improving their knowledge of the country while resting their weary feet. In case anyone is interested, here are the links.




It is mildly interesting to see which exam topics are most popular. "The Causes of the First World War" is way out in front, with "Hitler's Rise to Power", "Appeasement", and "The Russian Revolution" vying for second place. My own favourite, "Votes for Women" is doing very badly, almost as badly as "The Congress of Vienna Reassessed" (which I will admit to being an unfashionable topic).

To my surprise "The Place names of Scotland", in the Scottish set, is currently outselling "Hitler". The other two Scottish ones so far are about the first Jacobite rebellion - an investigation of "Bonnie Dundee" that uses Walter Scott's poem as a starting point - and the Scottish Enlightenment.

All of my so-called Lectures (only a few of them have actually been delivered to live audiences) are short. They are intended as introductions, reminders, or a stimulus for fresh thinking. There are plenty of very long and very good history books, but it seems to me that their length can be off-putting to the busy modern reader. One of my favourite quotations is from George III, when he visited Edward Gibbon. "Scribble, scribble, scribble Mr Gibbon. Another damn great thick book." Another favourite comes from Pascal: "I apologise for writing you such a long letter, but I have not had time to compose a short one." George III and Pascal are my witnesses for the defence.

That is more than enough for a first blog post. It is really a try-out, to see if I can cope with the technology. Google doesn't like the photo I have chosen because it says my friends won't recognise me, but who cares. I like it.