You may think a historical novelist ought to have a degree in history. You might be surprised to learn that I have not. Will you hold that against me?
I do have History A-Level. That is as far as my official study of the subject goes. Is that what ‘education’ and ‘study’ mean to you? I will always be grateful to the late A.W.Merrison, the Vice-Chancellor of Bristol University in my day, whose speech on my Graduation Day (I had graduated in Economics and Accountancy) was about the importance of continuing to learn, whether formally or informally, throughout one’s life.
I have always followed that advice. Some years ago, I did a correspondence course in Church History via London Bible College. Otherwise all my study of history has been informal. I have read historical fiction and non-fiction. I have watched documentaries, costume dramas and swashbucklers. I am glad to note that the quality of these has gone up a lot in recent years. There was a time when the powers that be, or that were, at he BBC and ITV seemed to think historical documentaries had to be ‘dumbed down’ if they were to be made at all. I think Channel Four’s Time Team deserves some of the credit for the change.
Apart from that, we are lucky to live in a country where history is all around us. Of course, it is especially so, if you live in a historic city such as London, Edinburgh, York or Chester. However, if you look around you, you will find almost every part of Britain full of history. Everywhere there are castles, abbeys, cathedrals, stone circles, stately homes, Victorian civic buildings, and apparently ordinary houses with blue plaques.
Coats of arms tell something of the story of those who are entitled to display them. Some belong not to noble families but to institutions such as local authorities, charities or businesses. This is the coat of arms of Monmouthshire. The motto means ‘Loyal to Both’ – England and Wales, like me.
History is also written into our language. Words can remind us of our heritage from the Romans, the vikings, the Normans, and the Empire. Jodhpurs are named after the town of Jodhpur in India. Bungalows are Indonesian. Lots of everyday words and expressions come from our seafaring tradition: swing a cat, three sheets in the wind, on your beam ends.
Place-names and people’s surnames often tell a story. Dumfries was once settled by Frisians. Wallsend marks the end of Hadrian’s Wall. A tyler made tiles. A fletcher was a man who made the fletchings, the feathery parts, for arrows. Dyers and carders worked in the wool industry.
There are old traditions, local and national, not just at Christmas, that link us with their origins. From Trooping the Colour to Warrington Walking Day, we keep the past alive.
Even our food tells the story of immigration in the Twentieth Century, and earlier.
To know our history, just look, listen, taste, ask.