History is a serious business. The number of woman-hours that the History Girls, as a group, spend on meticulous research into their different chosen time-periods, the hours spent searching for the right detail, combing through drafts to spot anachronisms, reading around and behind, above, below and every-which-way through a subject in order to get a feel for it must be prodigious. Certainly, a good number of posts on this blog have been concerned with research. Research – fascinating, absorbing and so often surprising – is, after all, one of the great joys of writing historical fiction.
However, along with the delight comes, often, a large dollop of worry (have I got it right?). And so, as something of an antidote, I wanted to write today about history books that joyously fling such concerns out of the window. I wanted to write in praise of silliness about history.
My favourite silly book about history has to be 1066 And All That by W.C. Sellar and R.J. Yeatman. First published in book form in 1930 (having previously appeared in Punch magazine), it bears the marvellous subtitle:
A Memorable History of England, comprising all the parts you can remember, including 103 Good Things, 5 Bad Kings and 2 Genuine Dates
It’s a parody of the style in which history was taught in schools at that time, in particular of the popular history book Our Island Story by H.E. Marshall (1905). I was going to say I hope that, despite this, it can still be appreciated now but, rummaging around on the internet, I find that Our Island Story was reprinted in 2005 with the aim of sending a copy to every UK primary school (did that happen, does anyone know?), and was named by David Cameron as his favourite childhood book… In that case, 1066 And All That must surely be finding a whole new generation of fans.
(And by the way, for anyone who doesn’t know the book, it does not criticize this kind of history teaching – just makes it wonderfully hilarious.)
The premise of the book, stated in the
COMPULSORY PREFACE (This Means You)
is as follows:
History is not what you thought. It is what you can remember.
This, of course, is a great comfort to all children/students faced with the terror (as I so often was) of history exams. More comfort is to be found in the delectable sprinkling of Test Papers throughout the book…
7. King John had no redeeming features. (Illustrate.)
10. How would you dispose of:
(a) A Papal Bull?
(b) Your nephews?
(c) Your mother? (Be brutal.)
…which often come with additional bits of advice:
N.B. – Do not on any account attempt to write on both sides of the paper at once.
Cheering only that which is Memorable, 1066’s confusions, of course, become eminently Memorable themselves. I am for evermore unable to read anything about Lambert Simnel and Perkin Warbeck (pretenders to the throne during Henry VII’s reign) without thinking of them as Lamkin and Warmneck, as they are called (amongst other variations) in the book. Any mention of the opposing sides in the English Civil War (about which I know pitifully little) causes a popping-into-my-head of the surely indisputable assertion that the Cavaliers were ‘Wrong but Wromantic’, while the Roundheads were ‘Right and Repulsive’. Meanwhile, let me only approach 1689 ever so vaguely and I remember instantly that there existed a curious monarch named Williamanmary (who was, of course, an Orange).
There is even something serious to be said for the silliness. The concept that history is explained in terms of what is and is not a Good Thing, as in
The Roman Conquest was, however, a Good Thing, since the Britons were only natives at that time.
is one that is it always important to remember (i.e. what is the prejudice – personal or cultural – of the writer whose book/essay/film/documentary I am reading or watching?).
Also, the idea – which is a running joke in the book – that countries vie to be ‘Top Nation’ is eminently relevant: chillingly so in 1930, but also of course throughout the Cold War and no less so, I fear, today.
But I am not writing about seriousness. So let me leave 1066 And All That and show you, instead, this:
It is the notice at the front of Caryl Brahms and S.J. Simon’s No Bed for Bacon (first published 1941), and I cannot tell you how delicious I find it.
In a sense, it is nonsense. The book is packed with jokes and references which reveal the authors’ detailed knowledge of the life and plays of Shakespeare, and of Elizabethan England in general. But it is also, as Ernest Brennecke wrote (with approval) in a review in the Shakespeare Quarterly, “irresponsible, irreverent, impudent, anachronistic, [and] undocumented.” Bravo!
What is the story about? Here is Ned Sherrin’s summary in the introduction to the 1986 edition:
No Bed for Bacon, if it has a theme, imagines that Sir Francis Bacon wishes to acquire a bed that Queen Elizabeth has slept on to leave to his children’s children’s children as a gilt-edged investment. Lady Viola Compton, a young girl from the Queen’s Court, visits the theatre and is so infatuated by Shakespeare and his plays that she disguises herself as a boy player and inspires Twelfth Night and the playwright’s affection.
The story also features Francis Drake, Walter Raleigh, Francis Walsingham, Lord Burghley, Ben Jonson and Richard Burbage (among others), features every Elizabethan cliché you could want (potatoes, puddles and cloaks, plus the Armada) and is both unflaggingly energetic and gleefully silly.
One of the running jokes is that Shakespeare obsessively dithers over which spelling of his signature he prefers.
Another of the running jokes will ring bells with all Shakespeare scholars:
“Very well then,” [Bacon] said. “There is only one thing for me to do. I will take my suggestions to the Master of the Revels and you will be made to use them.”
Shakespeare sprang to his feet.
“Master Bacon,” he demanded passionately, “do I write my plays or do you?”
Bacon looked at him. He shrugged.
The book was written, astonishingly, in London at the time of the Blitz. I say astonishingly, because Brahms & Simon were both air-raid wardens, had a very tight publisher’s deadline and – due to the demands of their warden duties – sometimes only managed to meet for as little as an hour a day.
(But if, as a deadline-harassed writer, this achievement depresses you, let me lighten things by mentioning that they didn’t find it easy. In her diary, mid-way through the project, Brahms wrote: ‘Why did we ever start it? Why did we ever suppose we were the people to do it? Why didn’t our agent stop us?’ A feeling that I’d wager most writers have experienced, erm, once or twice.)
I could go on... There is the perennially delightful schoolboy Nigel Molesworth, of course, from the 1950s - the inspired creation of Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle - who gives us his view of History in Down With Skool! ('History started badly and hav been getting steadily worse') and writes, surely, the most entertaining essays one could want (Molesworth 2, by the way, is Nigel's little brother):
Meanwhile they discovered books and lots of people learned to read. This is nothing to boste about aktually as even molesworth 2 can read, but they thort it was wonderful and it all led to skools chiz chiz chiz.
It also led to KNOLEDGE.
A Serf: We are not hapy in our lot.
An Aprentice: Nor in our lot either.
This meant the Rise of the People and the People hav gone on rising ever since like yeast...
... but, in searching for a finale for this appreciation of all things historical and silly, I just want to bring things up to date. Due to the fact that I have two young children, I am more familiar than I might like with children’s TV. Reliable pleasure, however, is to be found in watching the award-winning Horrible Histories series. To those who don’t know it, I address a plea: do take a few minutes to watch the following two songs, which are (I think) wonderful. And, of course, very very silly.
First, a spoof boy band called ‘The 4 Georges’ sings ‘Born 2 Rule’ here.
And second, a Viking song called ‘Literally’ here.
H.M. Castor's novel VIII - a new take on the life of Henry VIII - is published by Templar in the UK, and by Penguin in Australia.
H.M. Castor's website is here.