I still remember the day in 1988 when a friend of mine at Westminster School pointed out the memorial to Old Westminsters killed in the Crimean War. My friend (still a friend today, now a divorce barrister-how quickly we become serious grown-ups) said, without showing off, that he always looked at monuments. Since that day, so have I.
I must have walked past that memorial several thousand times in my four years at school without giving it a second glance-or even a first one. With that first proper look, I not only learnt about the memorial, but my knowledge of the school was also expanded, and an interest in the Crimea was born. That, I think, is the most compelling of many reasons to study history it enables you to look around you and look properly, to observe things, to see what lies beneath our surroundings.
It’s not just a question of knowing facts (although they are extremely important, the skeleton onto which opinions and feelings are fitted). It’s also a question of knowing why Britain looks like Britain, why the world works the way it does, why humans behave like humans. When we talk about history, we think about it all too often as the narrow study of countries, kings, queens, politics and laws. Of course, it’s crucial to study these things. But history bleeds into all sorts of other areas of life.
When I was at the Courtauld Institute, there was a visiting expert in the history of dress, who exploded when a student quoted from Henry James’s Daisy Miller (1878) to show what Americans wore for the Grand Tour. ‘My lessons are about clothes, not words,’ the professor shouted. That struck me as being entirely the wrong attitude to history. History is about words, clothes, politics, art, buildings, cinema, central heating-everything, really, and how everything’s changed to become what it is today. Not to be interested in that is not to be interested in anything.
Alan Hollinghurst captures the pleasure of broad, deep historical knowledge in his Booker Prize-winning novel The Line of Beauty. At one point, he describes people who understand history-really understand history. These people can look back at the world as an enfilade of rooms, he writes: ‘Greece gives way to Rome, Rome to the Byzantine Empire… the Renaissance… the British Empire… America, and then, who knows, maybe a lavish new Chinese room at the far end of the corridor?’ Of course, you can live your whole life in the modern room, without a single glance backwards into the past-and you can live a perfectly happy life in that modern room, too.
You don’t need history to become, say, a banker or a lawyer, although many historians will tell you how useful their training has been in those worlds. I’m not sure that’s really true. I spent brief periods as a barrister and a banker, and I can’t say my history degree ever helped much, except for giving me greater pleasure in my lonely lunches in Middle Temple Hall, London’s loveliest Elizabethan room, where the première of Twelfth Night was held in 1602.
But the thing is, you can be a banker or a lawyer, or pretty much anything, and you can be a historian at the same time, irresspective of what benefits history may or may not bring to your job. Your life will end up being that much more fully lived if you thicken it with added historical layers. Surely that’s the point of us hanging around on this planet for a short while-to live as full and deep a life as possible? And history is the great expander and excavator of life. ‘How England Made the English’ by Harry Mount is published by Viking (£20)
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