In a now famous injunction, E.H. Carr in his classic text What Is History? suggests that if you want to know the historian, then you should know their history. While Carr meant this in terms of the politics that will have informed the historian, I’m using it in this post, as a jumping off point for an extension of Carr’s injunction. More than just knowing the historian’s history, it might be worth knowing their reading history. And so, here’s a short look at one of the history books that I can both recall reading in a vivid way, but which has also survived in a way that many other books I was given over the years has not.This gives the book, The Young Oxford History of Britain and Ireland (1996), a weirdly totemic presence in my childhood (and teenage) bedroom where it can still be found. Recently at home, I was fascinated by it and its contents.
A large, colourful hardback book, this partly explains its continued existence, long after its dust jacket has been binned. Covering the history of these islands since the stone age to just before the millenium, the book was authored by some four individuals under the general editorship of Kenneth O. Morgan. Those authors were: Mike Corbishley, John Gillingham, Ian Dawson, and Rosemary Kelly. Although concrete information is difficult to find on all four authors, they each seem to have in various ways, dedicated at least part of their careers to bringing the past to life for young learners. While many children will encounter history first through Terry Deary’s Horrible Histories series of books, this behemoth of a book I was given when I was younger, is a decidedly more sober affair.
What is perhaps most remarkable about it, aside from the sheer breadth of the work and the array of illustrations, is the clarity of the prose and the earnest attempt to frame things in terms of a totalising experience across class boundaries and national borders. Consider this passage from the book:
In the early 1900s there was plenty of work in factories and mines, but wages were low. Unions, which now had a right to strike in law and a booming membership, were in a strong position to demand better wages and better working hours. Between 1910 and 1912 a series of strikes swept through nearly every major industry. Afraid there would be violence, the government used troops to support the police to control strikers. Winston Churchill, the Home Secretary, was to be branded for the rest of his life in the mining valleys of South Wales as the man who sent the troops against the miners of Tonypandy in 1910. A year later troops shot and killed two workers at Llanelli during a national railway strike. To many it appeared that Britain was on the verge of class war.
As with many passages in this book, I don’t have very distinct memories of reading those words precisely, though I know I did since I recall the photograph next to the passage. one of troops marching, quite distinctly. Nonetheless, I am quite certain that when I did read this, this was surely the first time I ever encountered the term ‘class war’ in a book. But that’s not all, a few pages beforehand I note images including one WG Grace selling Colman’s Mustard and a painting of lords and ladies at the Epsom Derby: sport too was present in the pages of this remarkable book, and I can recall especially reading the passage describing the Epsom Derby.
One of the reasons why I decided to take a look at the book once more in recent times was that I was reading a new book which I got just after Christmas Bricks and Mortals by Tom Wilkinson. The book looks at ten buildings, their architectural heritage and in the words of the books subtitle ‘the people they made’ included a chapter on Finsbury Health Centre built in 1938. The chapter opens with Abram Games’ 1942 poster featuring the Health Centre in front of a bombed out lot with an ill-looking child staggering about the bombed out shell of the building. As I read the chapter and looked at the image again and again, I was quite sure I had seen it before. And I had. In the Young Oxford History of Britain and Ireland. So, when I was home last, I went to check the section of the book dealing with the Second World War and sure enough, there it was, a colour reproduction of the very same image.
It is this remarkable prescience of the book which remains its most fascinating element, as throughout, it touches on, in varying degrees, a whole range of complex historical issues relating to Britain and Ireland which I recognise better now having studied history at university.
Far from perfect, in this eyes of this reader, the book falls down perhaps in its promise to offer a history of both Britain and Ireland. This is chiefly because since much of the history related about Ireland in the book is contingent on Ireland being in the political ambit of the United Kingdom. This means that post-1922, the only further mentions of Ireland in the book are related to the troubles in Northern Ireland in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It would be harsh to be overly critical of the book on this count, however, as Ireland is engaged with as a place better, in this book aimed at young adults, than is often the case in many of the serious academic works I have since read that makes some claims to offering views of the United Kingdom before 1922 while happily ignoring Ireland.
A formative book in my reading of history, it is not difficult for me to look at its words and images and recognise myself as a historian now in it.