Sunday, 10 January 2016

Telling history the old fashioned way ..... People in History, R.J.Unstead

I am not a fan of that new generation of history books aimed at young people.

True they are colourful, offer high quality photographs, along with original source material and can be imaginatively presented, but all this comes with a price.

And that price is that they seem to sacrifice the story with its sweeping narrative and opportunity to get lost in the tale.

Added to which the amount of material on the page can be a tad bewildering and overpowering.

So I have turned to a fine collection of stories written by R.J. Unstead in the 1950s.

Now I am the first to point out that People in History was written from the stand point of “the great men and women in our country’s history” and of the twelve covered in the first volume only two are women.*

Nor is this any better in volume two in which only Queen Philippa and Saint Margaret, Queen of Scotland strut across the pages which are otherwise dominated by Kings and Princes.

But that is to miss the point.  In much of the books I was given at school, women played no part at all in “our country’s history” and there was a very clear assumption that our past was shaped by the actions of Kings and generals with just a grudging acknowledgement that perhaps Elizabeth 1 and Queen Victoria had to be included.

And Mr Unstead widened his interpretation of what constituted “great”.

So in volume one alongside King Alfred and Queen Boadicea were saints, a Pope and the Roman general Agricola while in the second volume Geoffrey Chaucer, William Caxton and Wat Tyler rub shoulders with William the Conqueror, the Lion-Heart  and Henry V.

And the presentation of men like Wat Tyler and John Ball are fair and the explanation for the Peasants Revolt does not trivialise or ignore the genuine grievances of the poor in Medieval England.

Of course with the passage of time, Boadicea has become Boudica and some of the illustrations would no longer pass the test of historical accuracy but that said Mr Unstead’s stories remain a jolly good read, and that I think is an important consideration.

For long before any of us develop the analytical skills to make sense of original sources we have  to have been captured by the magic of the past.

And while the stories are Mr Unstead’s version of events the selection and presentation of pictures and sources in the new generation of history books are themselves the product of someone’s choice, the logic of which may not always be explained.

So I think I shall go back to Boadicea’s anger that “the Romans treat us like slaves” and follow the marauding Iceni army’s encounter with the 9th legion and then on to Camulodunum, Londinium and Verulamium, before meeting their fate at the hands of the 14th and 20th Legions.

Picture; drawings  by J.C.B. Knight, from People in History, R.J. Unstead, Volume one

*Introduction, People in History, Book 1 From Caractacus to Alfred 1955

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