Sunday, 31 March 2013

What the Ancients did for me

I remember very distinctly one school trip from my days at primary school. I remember weeks of preparation as I helped my mum to convert a white bedsheet into a tunic, mum doing the sewing whilst i gave artistic and historical guidance, and I recall spending many hours lovingly painting a design of snakes and hieroglyphs along the hem. I remember in-depth discussions about the issue of my hair: a light shade of ginger simply would not cut the mustard on this occasion, and a wig of black, glossy tresses was constructed using an old headband and a bin bag. This was also the day that my lifelong love-hate relationship with eyeliner began.

This wasn't just any old school trip. I was going to meet King Tutankhamen, and I needed to look the part of a genuine Egyptian to fit in, not to mention the fact that I had been practising for this moment for a while- I was known to have Ancient Egyptian days at home where I would wander around with an old gold necklace on my head declaring myself to be an Ancient Egyptian princess, whilst quietly cursing my more Celtic colouring and lack of servants, wealth, and ancient palace to live in.

I was-and still am- utterly enamoured by the Ancient Egyptians. Nothing quite adequately describes the thrill of being faced with a sarcophagus or two on a museum visit. My favourite things to pore over for an inordinate amount of time are the smallest things, the charms wrapped up with mummies. Small, shiny trinkets that were so highly revered they were thought to have magical properties; it perhaps explains why I am so easily distracted by glittery shiny things to this day.

My point is that this love of a culture so exotically distinct from my own was started in school. I have no recollection of history teaching in my primary school because memory is so bad, but I was left with a fascination of all things ancient and foreign, and that fascination still shapes my life today. Once I moved from primary school to middle school (do they even exist any more?), I can remember the thrill and excitement of starting a new subject in history, and all the possibilities it could bring. 'Ooh, the Romans!' I would think, 'there'll be people being eaten by tigers and stuff! Brilliant!' The Ancient Greeks, with their alarmingly modern gods arguing about the pettiest of things fascinated me back then and have continued to do so throughout my school and adult life. I remember a school librarian being somewhat alarmed by me dusting off and taking home the copies of The Iliad and The Odyssey to take home to read "just for fun" when obviously I should have been drinking cider on street corners instead.

Why am I wittering on about this on a blog supposed to be about healthcare? Well, because I just happen to have been listening to a podcast discussion about Gove's proposed new history syllabus. I am very demonstrably not a teacher of young people, nor do I require any history in my daily life (nor do I actually have any idea about the details or practicalities of Gove's syllabus), but I think this may make me weirdly qualified to actually comment on this subject. Gove wants a more Britain-centric teaching of history: well guess what Gove: British history is frankly boring. Its also not particularly British, given that we are a mish-mash of Angles and Saxons. Sure, Harold got an arrow in the eye, but in the face of all that exotic otherworldly-yet-just-within-our-grasp excitement of the Egyptians, Moors, Romans and Greeks, any child in their right mind would be bored of this country's history. Not every child is going to end up a history scholar: the majority of them will, like me, end up in a job where they don't *need* any history. But the key is surely to get them to engage enough with the subject when they're young that they end up *wanting* it in their lives and seeking it out.

So here's the thing: children at that age, before any prejudices of the state or the people surrounding them have properly kicked in, are open to and utterly interested by other cultures. When I think about it now, it would seem that my love for urbanity and multi-culturism has its roots in those days as a child learning about people different to myself. To instil some passion for history in children is to instil a thirst for looking deeper beyond surfaces and for searching for the hows and whys. It seems to me to be a real shame to politicise and manipulate this so it becomes focused on a narrower understanding of one country, and a series of dates.

There's quite a high likelihood that none of this makes sense, given that its very early in the morning and I'm typing this on my iPod. Apologies for all the errors and/or fallacies and oversharing of my childhood geekery


Oh, and FYI: Elgin Marbles tour guide available to hire, for the mere price of train fare, London-based accommodation and a pint in that pub i like round the corner from the British Museum. I'm often vague on the dates and things like that, but apparently quite entertaining on the important bits.

P.S. King Tutankhamen was very impressed with my outfit on that visit, and allowed me to do the demonstration of mummy-wrapping. I think it was the hair that did it. He was less impressed when one of the boys who had put decidedly less effort into his ancient styling kept demanding to know why King Tut had a Geordie accent and no sun tan if he was supposed to be Egyptian.

PPS. Clearly when I was writing this I had forgotten about The Tudors. They were quite cool, particularly Elizabeth I. I still stand by my point though that British history just doesn't have the panache or history from further afield.