Sunday, November 27, 2011


This was one of my favourite books when I was a child. I think I got it when I was about nine, as a Christmas present. It was published in 1958 (and I was born in 1950). It has the grand title "A Pageant of History" and it's mainly - though not entirely - about English history. I read it and reread it - you can see how it's falling apart. It never struck me as odd that I, as a Scottish child, was reading about "History" as if England were the most important country in the world.

Reading it now, I can see that it very much presents a picture of Britain... well, England really... as a splendid place which had just won a war, had a new young Queen and was going to march with dignity into the second half of the century.

The introductory chapter is called "From Victoria to Elizabeth". The final paragraph ends: "When Queen Elizabeth mounted the throne in 1952, it was felt and hoped that... a new Elizabethan age would dawn, matching the first Elizabethan age for glory of achievement. ... Nothing is achieved without struggle and hard work.... Let us be worthy of that challenge."

I'm not sure that I have been, really.
Then we go right back to "England before the Norman Conquest" and trot through the centuries, reign by reign. However, every now and then there are chapters about a wide variety of other people or events: Julius Caesar ("financed by his friend, the very wealthy millionaire, Crassus"); St Paul; the Marbles Championship held every Good Friday outside the Greyhound Hotel, Tinsley Green; Alfred Nobel; Captain James Cook ("the brilliant explorer and navigator, who always remained simple and unassuming" - good to know); pottery and china; Vasco da Gama... .

We learn that Shakespeare would wait on his parents at table at lunch time "and when they were finished he would start. He would always address his father as sir".

I can't remember ever reading this... fact... anywhere else.

Scotland does get a tiny look-in with Mary Queen of Scots. Indeed, her chapter finishes: "In the end, however, Mary did triumph over Elizabeth for when the English Queen died, she was succeeded by James, the son of Mary and the ill-fated Darnley... ." (A satisfactory thought for a young Scot.) The writer then ruins it by waffling to a close: "Mary ... is an eternal mystery whose solution has been sought by a great many writers of all nationalities and will, in the future, be investigated by many more."

The whole book ends with the Second World War, predictably from England's point of view, though America does get a wee bit of credit in the final paragraph: "So Britain had once more saved Europe by holding, alone and unaided, the last bastion of freedom till the time arrived when Russia and the United States marched forward with their saving power."

Oh, it's easy to mock. But there's a lot of good stuff too: it's a broad sweep of mainly factual history and because I read it so much I knew the order of the kings and queens, their main conflicts and achievements and disasters, and also acquired some basic knowledge about Hadrian's Wall, Edith Cavell, Dante Alighieri, Raffles of Singapore, Father Damien, Mary Slessor, David Livingstone, Albert Schweitzer, the British Army, how we got our parliament, the Duke of Wellington ("His once weakly frame had waxed tough and wiry") ... and more .

So - thank you, Gareth Browning (who wrote about a third of the 80-ish chapters), Rowland W Purton (almost as many), Edward Boyd (quite a few) and the others who contributed one or two. I don't know who you were and you might have got the odd thing wrong and we can giggle a bit at you now, but I loved your book at the time and find it quite an interesting historical document now - though not entirely in the way you may have intended.


  1. Reminds me of some of the history books we had at school!

  2. We studied English history in my New Zealand schools, and it may as well have been Mars! No-one I knew, including my parents and grandparents, had ever been there. But I can still recite all the kings and queens, for all the good it's done me :)

  3. I'd love that for the Shakespeare chapter alone!