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Bookish Delights.

Douglas Johnson, historian of France and HT academic board member, explains how a youthful attraction to libraries opened doors for him.

IN 1934 MY FATHER took a job in Lancaster. We went to live there and I became a pupil at the grammar school. I was there until the end of 1942, when I went to do two terms at Oxford as a history student before joining the army.

I should admit immediately that I didn't do many of the things that other contributors to This column have listed as being steps towards becoming a historian. In spite of the opportunities offered by `time-honoured Lancaster', I did not visit old buildings. Nor did I want to dress up as a Roman warrior.

My enthusiasm for history always went hand-in-hand with my enthusiasm for libraries. When, after my first day in the school's preparatory department, I was taken to the junior library and told that I could borrow a book, I was overwhelmed. I had never seen a room filled with books. I had no idea what I should do. Finally I took out a `What do you know?' type of book, which asked questions mainly about history and geography and gave answers with illustrations. I read it avidly and returned the next day to borrow something else.

Lancaster was fortunate in having a large lending library, equipped with a reference room. I got into the habit of going there whenever I could. As my parents rarely went away on holiday, I spent the school vacations there.

The main school also had a fine library and eventually, when I reached the sixth form, I became Assistant Librarian and then Librarian, which meant that I had the keys and could use the library whenever I wanted, including vacations.

What did I read? I was enthusiastic for certain novels that had a historical interest. I liked G.A. Henty, Stevenson, Buchan. I didn't read much Scott but I found The Fortunes of Nigel particularly attractive and less difficult than others. By the age of twelve, my favourite books were Pickwick Papers, the Sherlock Holmes stories and the Wodehouse hooks about Jeeves.

I think that, apart from the immediate enjoyment they offered, they also provided illustrations in the past of a problem that I was becoming conscious of in the present. This was the question of social classes. Where did Mr Pickwick's money come from, why wasn't Sherlock Holmes rich, why was Jeeves so subservient? In my form at school were the sons of a doctor and a bank manager. There were also the sons of a window-cleaner and a gardener. If we were friends, did we go to each other's houses? There were rumours. It was said that some boys had mothers who went to bridge parties or who smoked with cigarette holders. When I read the life of Disraeli by Andre Maurois (a present for my thirteenth birthday), I again wondered about the origins of social elites. Was class distinction a permanent feature in British life?

At school, history was a dull subject, taught by dictated notes and dominated by boring textbooks. But when I reached the fifth form, I had an enlightened and able teacher. I still remember the lesson he gave us on Bismarck.

I entered history essentially through literature. I discovered Macaulay's essays in the Everyman edition. I soon could recite passages by heart. In 1740, Frederick of Prussia launched the War of the Austrian Succession by attacking Maria Theresa and seizing Silesia. Macaulay wrote `in order that Frederick the Great could rob a neighbour that he had promised to defend, black men fought each other on the coast of Coromandel and red men scalped each other by the Great Lakes of North America.' And when an Upper Sixth former boasted to me that he had read all the volumes of Lecky's history of England in the eighteenth century, I went immediately to the library and borrowed them. Again, I cannot forget certain passages. The portrait of the younger Pitt, `his pale face, which seemed always when in repose to wear an expression of forbidding sternness or supercilious disdain', and then, when amongst the few men whom he trusted, `he was the most charming, witty and gayest of companions.' In this, wrote Lecky, he could be compared to Cromwell.

At the end of New Street, in Lancaster, there was a second-hand bookshop run by a Mr West. He had no objection to me wandering about his shop and reading his books, although he knew that I could not buy much. One day I found a very short book, the text of a lecture given by the great Lecky. I read it then and there and learned something about the purposes of history. It gives young men something of the experience of old men, he said. And he pointed out that the English had made mistakes because they had tailed to recognise that other nations had values that were different from theirs.

I am giving the impression that I was an intensely serious youth, quite insufferable. Obviously, this was so, but I enjoyed the humorous side of history, too. I liked the story of the eighty-year-old Lord Palmerston fathering a child by a serving girl and Disraeli saying that if the news of this got about at election time, he would sweep the country. I took pleasure in referring to Henry VIII as `the happy widower', the `wilful widower' or `Honeymoon Harry'.

One morning in 1936, I came down to breakfast and my father said, `the German army is on the march again'. From then, much changed. I knew what the occupation of the Rhineland meant, it meant sooner or later that there would be a war. My mother had lost two brothers in the 1914 war, and this was never forgotten. My father had served in France from 1914 to 1918 and although he never spoke about it, he agreed that the danger came from Hitler and Germany. Later, Neville Chamberlain on his return from Munich could wave his bit of paper and talk about `peace in our time', but my family never believed him.

We studied all this in our history classes. From 1940 onwards, in the Upper Sixth, we were a small group studying modern British and European history and discussing the war, what had happened and what would happen. We read about the innate wickedness of the Germans, about the roots of National Socialism, about the inheritance of Bismarck. We all read the Manchester Guardian. I was back in the public library reading the New Statesman and The Spectator. I shall never forget these sessions as I do not forget that five of our n umber were afterwards killed in the war that we had talked about together.

Before the war, other events had been important in shaping the role of history for me. In 1936, the abdication, then after this the impact of a film about Queen Victoria (with Anna Neagle), both caused widespread and sometimes violent discussions about the monarchy, both inside and outside school. I knew an old man who had worked for the Conservative Party in the 1890s, and he assured me that `Billy Gladstone' had been a republican. And a widely read textbook by Sir Charles Petrie said what a bad thing it had been for England when the Old Pretender had been rejected in favour of his `boorish German relative'.

Then there had been a dramatic local event. In 1935, Dr Buck Ruxton, who lived and practised in the centre of Lancaster, in Dalton Square, was accused of murdering his wife and serving maid. He was eventually found guilty and hanged. I learned the story bit by bit: the discovery of the dismembered bodies in the countryside; that Ruxton had another wife in India; the race question (Ruxton was Indian) and the social question (he treated the poor and did not always make them pay). I asked myself, when it was all over, could I not write the history of this? It was more than a murder story, it was about life in Lancaster.

But most important of all was the defeat of France and the Armistice, in June 1940. Everyone wanted to know what had happened. The school porter (known as Jerky Bill) told me that Petain had always been untrustworthy and in the 1914 war the generals were told `Watch Petain'. A Catholic priest told me that the French people had practised birth control and had lost all sense of dignity and courage. Everywhere, on streets, in buses, at school, people were saying that the French were our real enemies, not the Germans, and were recalling past wars.

I was badly placed. The teaching of French at school had always been porn, and after September 1939 completely disorganised. But I started to listen to the French service of the BBC. I found a leaflet in W.H. Smith's bookshop telling me about the Free French. I sent off some money and eventually I was sent a badge. It was the Cross of Lorraine. After some hesitation, the headmaster allowed me to wear it. I discovered that the Free French would send lecturers to schools and eventually a Captain Barlone came. It was the first time that anyone in school had heard a talk in French by a Frenchman. For me it was another point of departure.
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Title Annotation:historian describes how books and libraries influenced his interest in history
Author:Johnson, Douglas
Publication:History Today
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Apr 1, 2001
Words:1568
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