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Paths Through History

As well the book I highlighted last week about the BBC’s Sports Report programme, another enjoyable read over the Christmas break was Anthony Seldon’s ‘The Path of Peace’.  Seldon is a historian, political commentator and educator, among the many other impressive skills he no doubt possesses.  Although for many years he and I have done basically the same job, albeit running rather different schools, I can only imagine that he brings a breadth of knowledge and depth of intellect to this work that I could never match.

Greg Jenner, who advised for ‘Horrible Histories’, hosts ‘You’re Dead to Me’ and describes himself as a public historian, also has a relatively recent book on the shelves.  It is called ‘Ask a Historian’ and it does what it says on the tin, providing answers to questions that have been posed to him in recent years as he has travelled the country.  Jenner’s informal style is ideal for a podcast, though it can come across as a bit too chatty at times on the page, but the book is filled with fun facts for fact fans, and with a suitably eclectic and wide-ranging coverage to provide something for everyone. 

I should add that it is a bit rude in places, for example with quite a lengthy discussion about the size of parts of the male anatomy.  We also learn that the Bayeux Tapestry depicts 623 men and only three women, two of whom are naked and the other is pictured next to a squatting man who is naked and beckoning to her, so please think carefully before suggesting it to younger readers.  But it was hard not to like the author when he said that he judged ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’ as the most historically accurate film he has ever seen.

I also learned that the days of the week in French are rather more straightforward in their origin than ours because we get all muddled up with old Germanic gods like Tiw, Woden, Thor and Freya.  For the French, it’s Lundi (Lunar), Mardi (Mars), Mercredi (Mercury), Jeudi (Jupiter), Vendredi (Venus) and Samedi (Saturn).  It is only Sunday (Dimanche) where they abandon the pagan polytheism and embrace a Christian idea, with Dimanche coming from ‘Dies Domenica’ and meaning the ‘Day of the Lord’.

When we name eras, Jenner tells us, historians also employ anachronistic labels that were not in use at the time.  The Aztecs did not call themselves Aztecs, they used ‘Mexica’ (hence Mexico); the Vikings did not call themselves Vikings; the ancient Greeks called themselves ‘Hellenes’; the ancient Chinese were ‘Han’; Tudor monarchs were embarrassed to call themselves ‘Tudor’ and Henry Tudor’s defeated enemy, Richard III, did not call himself a Plantagenet.  The Byzantines of Constantinople did not say, ‘Hi, we’re the Byzantines!’; they were ‘Romans’, but from the eastern part of the empire.

And it is best not to get him started on the Tudors, whatever they called themselves, because of their tendency to overshadow everything else in British history.  Jenner says that one of his biggest disappointments is the public’s shrug towards seventeenth-century radicalism, which I can relate to because it is the topic I still teach at A Level.  In France, America, Italy and Russia, their revolutions and civil wars are held aloft as talismanic moments of national significance; and yet, here, we seem to frown at the century in which the king’s head was sliced off, devastating civil wars erupted, Ireland endured a genocide, plague ravaged the land and an anti-Catholic coup forced the introduction of a strange, compromised constitutional monarchy whose rules are so arcane that during the Brexit debate nobody knew if the queen was legally allowed to shut down parliament or not.  Apparently, every time he has tried to tell these stories on television, he gets the same response: ‘Sorry, the 1600s doesn’t rate well with viewers – have you got any Anne Boleyn?  People love Anne Boleyn!’ 

Anthony Seldon’s book was somewhat more serious in its approach, but it was certainly not without humour, much of it self-deprecating as the author acknowledged his own shortcomings during his ultimately successful attempt to walk the length of the Western Front from the Swiss border to the North Sea, a journey of about 1,000 kilometres that is far from properly signposted and comes with many hazards.

The Western Front Way was the vision of Douglas Gillespie, a former pupil of Winchester College, who was killed on the first day of the Battle of Loos in September 1915, which was a particularly futile battle without clear objectives, and part of a series of attacks that seem to have been conceived out of little more than a desire to be doing something.  Before his death, Gillespie, whose younger brother had been killed in the war the year before, had written of his dream of a ‘Via Sacra’, where people from all over the world would come to walk the Western Front and to reflect on the need to learn from the silent witness of the dead about ‘where war leads’.

Progress is clearly being made with the Western Front Way, not least thanks to Seldon’s efforts to highlight its significance, but it will be a few more years yet before it becomes an established feature of what happened over a century ago.  Although much of the war was indeed bogged down in stalemate, there were nevertheless times when the front lines moved quite significantly and where key towns and/or fortifications changed hands, sometimes several times, so it is not therefore easy to draw a map of the front that can tick all the boxes.

Apparently, the Belgian authorities have been universally supportive, though the picture in France is mixed, with the French Cycling Federation very keen but some local authorities rather less so, perhaps because they are less keen to remember.  This may seem an odd reaction when we think about the places we tend to visit, usually where the British were fighting such as the Somme and Ypres, but it is easy to forget there was just as much destruction and carnage across the front, particularly in the south where the French and Germans tended to clash more often, and where the Americans became involved towards the end of the war – often in conflicts that Seldon tells us seem forgotten back in the USA. 

Seldon’s walk certainly had its challenges.  The weather was unremittingly hot, but I am not sure what else he expected by choosing to walk in August.  It was 2021, so Covid played havoc with his original plans, though surely he should not therefore have been surprised to find so many towns effectively shut down?  Some things were clearly beyond his control, but it was hard not to get frustrated at times reading about his poor navigation, the repeated loss of his glasses, blisters that were not properly looked after, dog bites, insect attacks, sleeplessness and avoidable dehydration.

As well as the interesting history, I was perhaps most impressed by his honesty, not least with regard to self-doubt.  Having stepped down from his role at the University of Buckingham, and before he took on the temporary headship of Epsom College, he was clearly struggling between posts – not helped by the death of his wife from cancer in 2016.  He asked a poignant question at one point, to which I can relate as I contemplate my own retirement, about who he is when he is not defined by his job.  He did not find an answer during his walk, but I got the sense that the issue was of more concern to him in his situation than it is to me in mine.

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