Not All That Again: Jonathan Conlin Reads 1066 and All That, a Book That Served as a Point of Departure to So Many People, Seventy-Five Years after Its First Publication
Conlin, Jonathan, History Today
'HISTORIES HAVE previously been written with the object of exalting their authors. The object of this History is to console the reader. No other history does this.'
When it came to launching their 'memorable history of England' in 1930, Walter Sellar and Robert Yeatman were anything but tentative. Their 'Compulsory Preface' began with the above words, and ended with the equally dramatic claim that 'History is now at an end ... this History is therefore final.' The runaway success of 1066 and All That made the book a classic. The book's malapropisms, surreal essay questions and garblings of famous lines themselves became quotable. 'Flora Macnightshade' and the injunction to 'Contract, Expand and Explode' 'the Charters and Garters of the Realm' doubtless resonate with many readers of this magazine.
A decidedly unscientific poll of current history undergraduates at a certain Fenland University gives pause for thought, however. For a younger generation the book (if known at all) is about as enjoyable as a run-in with Morton's Fork. Sellar and Yeatman's account begins with the Roman Invasion of 55BC and ends with the End of History in 1918. Although such a broad historical sweep is common in American schools, most British school or university syllabi focus relentlessly on Nasty Nazis and Revolting Russians. Allusions to 'Alfred the Cake' and Queen 'Anna Mirabilis' are not amusing if you don't know who burnt the cakes or what the annus mirabilis was. You have to have learned quite a lot of history quite badly in order to appreciate 1066 and All That correctly.
What with its relentless puns, lack of nuance and cheerful bloodthirstiness, the decline in its appeal could be seen as a welcome sign of maturity. When it comes to historical agency the book is curiously bipolar: either events are impelled by individual Kings and their eccentricities, or by highly depersonalized 'waves' of 'gadgets', 'beards' and other non-sentient objects that successively overwhelm England. Moments where the 'Common People' presume to strut the historical stage are either ignored, or, as in the case of the 'Pheasants Revolt', relegated to an Appendix. Mostly they are there to be slaughtered, burned, pillaged or impaled. Scots only 'come right into History' when Edward I decides to hammer them. The Irish only emerge from their bogs when they have an 'Irish Question' with which to confute English leaders. Indian history, only begins when the British turn up to wage a series of victorious wars against 'various kinds of potentates called Sahibs, Wallahs, Jahs, Rajahs, Hurrahjahs, Mahurrahjahs, Jhams, and Jhelhies.'
Our understanding of history is, we tell ourselves, much more complex, serious and empathetically attentive to the voices of the oppressed. In this seventy-fifth anniversary year, therefore, do Sellar and Yeatman have anything to offer us, or should we let all that continue its slide into forgetfulness? In short, is it a Good Thing that 1066 and All That is no longer Memorable?
The eclipse of this classic work is apposite, precisely because the history it presents is a vanishing one. After graduating from the same Oxford college as Yeatman in 1922, Walter Sellar taught at a series of public schools, including Canford and Charterhouse. The book's tone and structure echoes that of a public-school textbook; the content consists of schoolboy 'howlers' of the sort cherished by schoolmasters. Yet this is a book that contains only that historical material which is memorable to the Establishment. Rather than searching for historical knowledge in the Bodleian, like the history professors whose works they send up, Sellars and Yeatman explain that their work is the result of 'years of research' into ignorance of history, as found 'in golf-clubs, gun-rooms, green-rooms, etc'. The book was originally to have had four 'genuine Dates', but their number was halved, 'research done at the Eton and Harrow match having revealed that they are not memorable'. …