IN JUNE 1962, Windischgratz bombarded Prague. He did so the following year, both in the autumn and the summer, and for all I know he has been doing it ever since. I was never told if he was successful in his efforts or whether he became bored, or his gun barrels melted and his men helped with the harvest instead.
That summer of 1848, which was when the Austrian field marshal began his bombardment, was a particularly fine one in the Czech capital. Ladies in long dresses crossed the magnificent fourteenth-century Charles bridge, protecting their complexions with their parasols and glancing at the waters of the river Moldau below, where young men in caps and straw boaters were rowing. The composer Smetana was on the barricades, dashing off revolutionary marches as well as a rousing `Song to Freedom' between incoming cannon balls. Beyond the walls, in the world of fact-based, rote-learned history, however, Windischgratz fired his guns for the textbooks of history, inflicting casualties on generations yet unborn.
As a child, I developed a love of history -- as so many young people do -- by combining my imagination for play and improvisation with the admittedly limited factual content that I picked up from what I read or saw in films. I watched wide-eyed as Robert Taylor playing Ivanhoe rescued Elizabeth Taylor's beautiful Rebecca from the clutches of the tormented Templar, Sir Brian de Bois-Guilbert. While I played in the garden with my soldiers, British troops blundered into Suez, the Russians threatened London with missiles and the Americans came closer than most people will ever know to fighting the British in the Mediterranean.
School taught me a lesson. I learned that history could be just as tedious as any other subject. Like every child I experienced the closing of the gate to the Secret Garden. For the first time I encountered `dictated notes', by which the teacher's notes became the pupil's without passing through the minds of either of them. I also encountered homework, a junior form of army `bull', designed to occupy time that could be used for individual thought and, consequently, originality. History was facts: dates, kings and queens, Acts of Parliament, revolts and radical reforms. I soon appreciated that history was not regarded as a useful subject. Nobody ever cooked a meal with what they learned in history, or calculated accounts, or mended electric plugs. Pupils passed an exam in history and that was enough. Our teachers knew all that was needed to achieve this, and who could ask for more? `Shut up!' explained the teacher to any unsolicited enquiries.
I always did well in history as a subject even though I disliked the lessons. I had a good memory. I knew the complement and displacement of all His Majesty's warships of both world wars. I knew the nickname of all ninety-two clubs in the Football League and their record attendances. I even knew most of Roy Webber's book of cricket records by heart and that, for my teachers, made me good at history. History was remembering things, not understanding them: I never understood that but I remembered it. Reflecting that education is what is left when you forget everything you learn at school, I decided to forget as much as I could about my school history. I failed. For me Windischgratz is forever bombarding Prague.
I sought a means of redress in teaching, determined that Ivanhoe and his fellows should not have lived in vain. For fourteen years I tried to demonstrate that history could be both enjoyable and significant educationally. Each year my classes achieved the best examination results as well as enjoyed studying the subject in its own right. However, on the bizarre grounds that being a pseudo-accountant, manager or glorified filing clerk represented some kind of promotion from the vital part of education, which is passing on the oral tradition and teaching the next generation, I like many other teachers was moved from my field of excellence to an area where I could do less good. …