I recently went for my first job interview in over a quarter of a century – for a position as tour guide at a local stately heap.* The job advert said the ideal candidate would need a knowledge of Scottish history and – preferably but not essentially – Renaissance art. They’re both subjects I know something about, but only in a fairly superficial way, so I spent the week before the interview speed-reading as many books on Scottish history as I could, and prowling around the house declaiming loudly about Edward Longshanks, Robert the Bruce, The Duke of Queensberry and the Black Douglas. (Much to the startlement of my two Jack Russells, I also took to waving my arms around, vaguely indicating non-existent portraits of Pompous Men in Wigs.)
I have a fairly absorbent brain, and find that if I read around a subject enough, scribbling notes as I go, the salient points eventually sink in via some form of osmosis without me having to make too much of an effort to remember them. The main problem with this technique is that sometimes (all right – quite often) the information ends up in the wrong place, the wrong way up and attached to the wrong people, whose names I can only half remember. It doesn’t help, of course, that there are so many Scottish kings called James – most of whom came to Bad Ends. James III? Was he the one that was blown up by his own cannon? The one who was murdered in the sewer? Or the one that fell off a cliff en route to his pulchritudinous new wife? Or was THAT one of the Alexanders – the one who died inconveniently and started all the bloodletting over the Scottish succession?
Most of the information is in there somewhere, but it’s all washing around like noodles in minestrone.
In fact, it’s very like having your brain hijacked by Sellar and Yeatman.
Their perennial classic – 1066 And All That – is entirely predicated around the premise that history is composed of memorable bullet points, many of which we recall only imperfectly, and all of which feature characters who morph into one another and also get confused with all the other cultural rubbish cluttering up our brains.
As a bit of light relief after the interview, I picked up my copy of 1066 and read it through (for the umpteeenth time) in a couple of evenings … and I was SO glad that I didn’t make the mistake of re-reading it earlier.
I don’t think, for instance, that this would have helped my poor overloaded brain one little bit:
The childless Scotch King Alexander the Great had trotted over a cliff and was thus dead; so the Scots asked Edward to tell them who was King of Scotland, and Edward said that a Balliol man ought to be. Delighted with this decision the Scots crossed the Border and ravaged Cumberland with savage ferocity; in reply to which Edward also crossed the Border and, carrying off the Sacred Scone of Scotland on which the Scottish Kings had been crowned for centuries, buried it with great solemnity at Westminster Abbey.
This was, of course, a Good Thing for the Scots because it was the cause of William Wallace (not to be confused with Robert Bruce), who immediately defeated the English at Cambuskenneth (Scotch for Stirling) and invaded England with ferocious savagery. In answer to this, Edward captured the Bruce and had him horribly executed with savage ferocity. Soon after, Edward died of suffocation at a place called Burrow-in-the-Sands and was succeeded by his worthless son Edward II.
Somewhere at the heart of all that inspired lunacy there is a sound grasp of the facts … and therein lies the secret of the genius of Walter Carruthers Sellar and Robert Julian Yeatman: it’s not total gibberish, however much it may appear to be. Before you can start making hay of history, you have to know what you’re talking about: only then can you shelve half of what you know, throw the remainder up in the air and see where it falls. On top of that you need a light touch with language, a gentle irreverence and an ability to tap into the common educational luggage that so many of us (of a certain age, anyway) carry around with us: and Sellar and Yeatman qualified on all counts.
Both injured in the First World War (Sellar only superficially, Yeatman more seriously) they first met at Oriel College in Oxford after they were demobilized, quickly recognized that they were kindred spirits and formed a friendship which would last for the remainder of their lives. Sellar became a much-loved teacher at Charterhouse and Yeatman followed in Dorothy L Sayers’ footsteps as an advertising copywriter at Bensons before becoming the advertising manager at Kodak Ltd.
1066 And All That first surfaced in print as a serial in the magazine Punch. Its good-natured wrecking ball approach to history was an immediate success with the readership and a book followed very shortly afterwards. It’s never been out of print since.
With its gently tongue-in-cheek style and irresistible cast of characters who are in many cases more memorable than their historical counterparts (who doesn’t cherish the Venomous Bead, Alfred’s wife Lady Windermere or the Right but Repulsive Roundheads?), 1066 And All That occupies a unique niche in British affections. Often imitated but never bettered it’s one of those books you can return to over and over again, and always end up sniggering like a schoolboy over that forward little hussy Spinning Jenny.
But I don’t recommend it as a revision aid.
‘And to our left,at the top of the stairs you will see a portrait of the famous monarch, Williamanmary, known in Holland as The Orange, and descended from Nell Glyn …’
* I got the job.
Edition shown here: The Folio Society. 1990.