Once when I was a child my mum bumped into a gentlemen in a lift in the St Enoch Centre. He exclaimed “Cath!” and they chatted for a short while, before he exited. After he left, my mum said that she didn’t remember his name, only his face, and that they had gone to high school with each other. She said that over time you forget things like that, people and places and dates, as the merge into one collected memory of “school”. I then remember the following week sitting in my science class looking around at the students thinking there was no way I’d forget them and their names, nor the teachers and the classes and the names of things.
Now, as a 30 year old, I know that I was being naïve. A friend of mine pointed out recently that more time has now passed since we left high school in 2003 than passed at the whole time we were in education, from Primary 1 to Sixth year. It has been thirteen years since I left high school, and I was in school for thirteen years. Only one of them is slowly still counting up. I don’t remember everyone in the 20-strong practical class, nor the 33-strong registration class (xD6 for life), and certainly don’t remember the teachers that taught all my classes. Some certainly do stick out; the teacher who kicked me out of Maths, the one who drummed, the one who slapped a kid once, the “lesbian” one.
I am reminded of this as I cast my memory back to History at school, and my utter reluctance at paying attention to the class. I had one history teacher, whose name I don’t remember, and what topics we studied are barely a ghost against the fog of my memory. I think we did the wars, and maybe some stuff about Kings maybe, but my main memory of history is watching Back to the Future and the idea of anachronisms. Don’t ask what that was all about, but it still sticks out. Only one other memory returns from that time; the time Gary Doc threw my rubber out of the window. There is a reason for this casting back to history, and it’s the realisation that I don’t know any.
At all, basically.
Connie and I spent a full night reading Wikipedia following the history of the British and Canadian (and Germany, Scottish, French and others) monarchy. Connie remembered quite a few points of it from movies, but mostly from her Life in the UK test that she needed to pass to be able to stay in the UK for her visa and soon her citizenship. I remembered none of it; barely able to name a few Kings and Queens, I didn’t know the order nor the historical implications of the wars fought. Since then, I’ve read a bit more, and picked back up an audiobook that I’d bought a long time ago. Andrew Marr’s “A History of the World” is one of the most ambitious books imaginable. It is of course an opinion on history, like all written and recorded history, but what it does for me is link events that I am aware of with empires I haven’t ever heard of.
It is funny as I listen to the book as it links things I did know with things I thought that I didn’t, but actually do. I remember as a kid having a book about older civilizations written for children that had fascinating pages about the Egyptian gods and their world of the dead. It was more interesting to me, the idea of polytheism, than the big beardy guy in the sky. It was with excitement that the creation of monotheism came about, and why it existed, but also the total and absolute cultural revolution that it caused. I also know a lot of Roman towns and bits and pieces of their history because of Asterix the Gaul, which has more historical fact in it than I expected (Marr doesn’t touch on the fact that the Gauls were not totally conquered, that a tiny village in Armorica held out and was surrounded by three roman camps).
One thing that the run through the world history has brought to the front of my mind is religion and how it is so fluid. It feels like it isn’t, what with the world rules by seven large-ish religions and defining whole swathes of the world, but the reality is that it has really only been this way in modern times. Throughout the ancient world power went hand in hand with religion, with religions springing up around rulers and vice versa. It is amazing to think that someone listening back to how Jesus created his branch of Judaism, and how for the longest time it sat unused really, before conquering back the Arabic empires from the Muslim world, you realise how your history you are brought up with is seen as the “right” one. We went in, took over entire continents (as a European Christian series of crusades wiped out huge parts of the world) after literally thousands of years of being the “dumb back water” of the world. Europe really was far far behind the rest of the world in terms of it’s advancement, certainly at odds with the way the western world is portrayed today.
The biggest unknown as I have listened to the book is that Chinese empires were so disconnected and vast it is hard to imagine a time without them. It is a narrative that I was fed as a child, but the history of China and it’s massive and long dynasties are incredibly rich and interesting it puts the quarrels of a King who just wanted a divorce into perspective.
It also reminds me of a book I read that I loved, Alasdair Roberts’ “House of Suns”. Set 6 million years into the future, it depicts an immortal line of clones as they watch empires rise and fall and entire worlds blink in and out likes lights. It is a fascinating idea; the future empires of our race will be in spac,e but that this attrition (known in the book as “turnover”) isn’t fanciful – it has been the driving force of our race for thousands of years, and happens all the time. The ebb and flow of rule and life is startling, and the book has amazed me as many a book has in my life.
And I’m only up to AD 700 or so right now; there is a lot of middle-ages and modern history to come.