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Diversions that unlock secret life of history

In my heart of hearts I thought that writing historical fiction would be a doddle after having spent so much time trying to write historical fact.

Just imagine: no longer having to check quotations for scrupulous accuracy; no longer having to spend more time on the footnotes and the bibliography than on the text itself; no longer gazing with a magnifying glass to see if the aircraft that are very dimly perceived on a far-away flight deck are Fairey Swordfish or Fairey Albacores (more or less identical, except the Albacore has a closed-in cockpit).

What I was not expecting was that writing historical fiction would persuade me of the poor quality of the changes that we have wrought in recent years in the teaching of history and English. I think I can remember golden days when one was allowed to talk about a text with a group of students, answering a genuine question about whether the Mary Rose meant the same to Henry VIII as did the royal yacht to the Queen. Now teaching is merely providing the answers that examiners mark highly. Tied to grinding exam specifications, the syllabus both defines what should be taught and impinges horribly on how it should be taught.

But suddenly history and English have become fun again. Researching for historical novels on the Gunpowder Plot, Shakespeare and the Spanish armada, leaves me free to read what I like, rather than what we, as teachers and students, are told we ought to read. For the first time in years, I have had a chance to gather flowers by the wayside.

I came across one such wildflower the other day in the shape of the story of Arthur Dudley. He turned up at the court of Philip II of Spain and convinced Philip's English secretary both to like him and to believe that he was the illegitimate son of Queen Elizabeth and the Earl of Leicester.

This fits in with the story that the pair had become more than just good friends when they were incarcerated at the same time in the Tower of London.

I have become obsessed with poor old Arthur, who, it appears, was "vanished" in Pinochet tradition by Philip, when he came to be considered more trouble than he was worth.

Other wayside blooms that I have gathered describe the daily reality of Shakespearean theatre: the theatrical professionalism of Shakespeare's players, with their cavalier disregard for the sanctity of the text; the lack of loos at the Globe and how this impinged on the non-artistic, olfactory atmosphere; and the stairways to the upper galleries, which proved wonderful opportunities for the men to goose the ladies (a tradition that has survived to this day, as a recent visit to the theatre confirmed).

This stuff will not get you an A grade and will not help you through a pay threshold, but the assorted social trivia of human history is fantastically exciting.

My own hero in this area is the distinguished historian Lawrence James, whom I first knew as a head of history. He famously spent most of one year teaching his GCSE class about the Crimean war, in which he had a passionate interest. The fact that the Crimean war did not actually feature on the syllabus did not bother him, nor did it appear to bother his pupils, all of whom obtained excellent grades. Now writing a book on the English middle class, he still finds time to tell any caller who will listen the gruesome details of the self-help syphilis cure adopted by British soldiers in India, or tales of the forced recruitment of Russian Jews into the armed forces by the Tsar.

It must have been wonderful to have been taught by him and terrible to have been taught by me when I was in please-the-examiner mode. Unless they have real courage, teachers are held hostage by their duty to their pupils and the need to get their students and their schools the magic bits of paper.

We've lost something by all this: a freedom, an eccentricity and perhaps, above all, something of our power to excite and amuse our pupils. It is probably futile to pretend that we can ever recover what we have lost. But I find it deeply ironic that my passion for history has been rekindled by fiction.

Martin Stephen is head of Manchester Grammar school. His novel, The Conscience of the King: Henry Gresham and the Shakespeare Conspiracy, and Lawrence James's The Warrior Race are both published by Little, Brown

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