You know how sometimes you find random mentions of a book in quite different places, and that these usually go in threes? This has happened to me in the past week with 1066 and All That by Sellar and Yeatman*, first published in 1930 and one of the great comic classics. So I read it again. When I was a student, everyone had to read What is History? by E H Carr. Sellar and Yeatman answer the question thus: it is what you can remember. I first met the book at school and these are the kinds of things I found killingly funny when I was young:
Richard I being known as ‘Richard Gare de Lyon’ because as soon as he arrived back in England he set off again for the Mediterranean.
‘Prince Rupert of Hentzau, who was very dashing in all directions’
(Palmerston’s) ‘heartless conspiracy to murder Bill’
The book is full of such obviously funny things (well, they’re funny to me), but a lot went over my head then and it’s so densely written that I’m sure there are plenty of jokes in it I still haven’t got. Just on this last reading I noticed for the *first time* duh, that in the chapter on James I, when ‘1 New Presbyter = 1 OLD PRIEST’, ‘old priest’ is actually ‘writ large’ in the book.*2
It seems to be taken for granted that S & Y were mocking the style of narrative history made popular by H E Marshall in Our Island Story, a history book for children published in 1905. (This was recently reprinted at the behest of conservative-minded people feeling that children are now deprived of narrative history.) Fifty years later the same style could be found in the Ladybird Adventures in History series, written by L du Garde Peach. These are among my very favourite history books: ‘Everything would have been wonderful in England if it hadn’t been for the Danes’. Oh, those pesky Danes, coming over here, of course in Waves.
Waves, ‘that long succession of Waves of which History is largely composed.’ is just one of the many clichés used throughout the book. Good Things, Bad Kings, surfeits, causes and results abound But S & Y are laughing not only at historical writing but at the Anglo-centric attitude that the English *must* be best. This is brilliantly expressed in the Flanders and Swann song The English:
‘And all the world over each nation's the same
They've simply no notion of playing the game
They argue with umpires, they cheer when they've won
And they practise before hand which spoils all the fun’
In 1066&AT the English always prefer to be fighting against the odds (the reason they were defeated at Bannockburn by a spider) and are Whiggishly progressing inexorably towards being top nation.
Sellar & Yeatman wrote several other ‘funny’ books which no one reads now. I think the reason is that there are some serious points buried in 1066&AT. Take this account:
‘The Scots (originally Irish, but by now Scotch) were at this time inhabiting Ireland, having driven the Irish (Picts) out of Scotland; while the Picts (originally Scots) were now Irish (living in brackets) and vice versa. It is essential to keep these distinctions clearly in mind (and verce visa).’
I don’t think many people could explain that any better! There’s certainly a lot of truth in the assertion that Gladstone’s attempts to ‘guess the answer to the Irish Question’ were doomed because ‘whenever he was getting warm, the Irish secretly changed the question.’
I think a lot of the writing is actually rather subversive. Each clause of Magna Carta ends ‘(Except the Common People)’; ‘religion’ usually means killing people; blowing up Parliament would have been a Good Thing; the ‘Industrial Revelation’ ‘changed the faces of the North of England.’ The chapter on late nineteenth century imperial wars (‘wave of justifiable wars’) is masterly.
There’s almost a rage in some of this, such as Jim Dixon expresses at the end of his notorious lecture on Merrie England in Lucky Jim:
‘The point about Merrie England is that it was about the most un-Merrie period in our history.’
Lucky Jim is another book written after a World War and also discusses briefly the proper teaching of history.
I’d be lying if I said I read this book for its historiographical criticism. I read it because it makes me smile. It also confuses me. I’ve been reading Private Eye for so long that I sometimes can’t remember the real names of the politicians, lawyers and other malefactors they’ve given funny names to and the same applies to 1066&AT. For goodness sake, don’t read it before taking an exam or doing a quiz; you’ll never know Perkin Warbeck from Lambert Simnel again. Or is it Perkin Warmnel, or Lamkin or Warmmneck or Permnel…?
*Apparently, pronounced ‘Yetman’
*2 James I said, ‘New presbyter is but old priest writ large’