Named names

19th September 1997 at 01:00
Gerald Haigh reviews three separate series on keyhistorical figures


CAPTAIN SCOTT. By Emma Fischel. THOMAS EDISON. By Karen Wallace. WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART. By Harriet Castor. Franklin Watts. Pounds 6.99 each


CLEOPATRA. By Haydn Middleton.

AMELIA EARHART. By Andrew Langley. GALILEO. By Jacqueline Mitton.

THOMAS EDISON. By Haydn Middleton. ALEXANDER THE GREAT. By Andrew Langley.

Oxford University Press Pounds 3.99 each


SAINTS. By Philip Sauvain.

EXPLORERS. By Peggy Burns. INVENTORS. By Peggy Burns. ENGINEERS. By Peggy Burns.

ARTISTS. By Jillian Powell.

KINGS AND QUEENS. By Philip Sauvain. Wayland Pounds 8.99 each

If you want to know about the development of the Labour party, pass the textbooks by and read Michael Foot's biography of Aneurin Bevan. The old public school mantra that whereas geography is about maps, "history is about chaps" holds good at every level.

At school, each generation of pupils is presented with a slightly different tranche of famous people, chosen for varying motives. When I was at school, it was all about role models, which is why we knew about Grace Darling, the heroic lighthouse keeper's daughter, and Boy John Cornwell, RN, VC, who, though mortally wounded, stayed by his gun on HMS Cheshire at the Battle of Jutland.

Now, though, the driving force is the history national curriculum. Pupils at key stage 1, it insists, "should be taught about the lives of different kinds of famous men and women ..." And at key stage 2, the study units - particularly that on Victorian Britain - mention key people by name. Hence this collection of three separate series on key historical figures.

The Famous People, Famous Lives series is for younger readers in the lower primary school. This latest batch of titles covers Louis Pasteur, Queen Victoria, Florence Nightingale, Captain Scott, Thomas Edison and Mozart. The challenge for books like this is to avoid sounding either precious or trivial, and without using "get-out" words to avoid explanations. Examples of such words are "important", as in "Robert (Scott) met a very important man called Sir Clements Markham" and "special", as in "A special school was started in Paris. It was called the Pasteur Institute."

To be fair, these two examples are about the only ones I could find in all six of these books. I conclude that they succeed in being interesting, informative, factually correct and accessible to younger readers. Perhaps you would not expect much controversy in such books - Scott's questionable equipment decisions, for example, have no place here. Not all contentious issues are shirked, however, and John Brown has his place in the Queen Victoria story - "some people nicknamed Victoria 'Mrs Brown'".

Oxford's What's Their Story series, in format and print size, looks as if it is intended for a slightly older primary-age group. The subjects of this batch are Henry Ford, Cleopatra, Amelia Earhart, Galileo, Thomas Edison and Alexander the Great. The "important" and "special" syndrome appears from time to time, and Galileo's confrontation with the Church becomes: "He got a severe ticking-off and was told to go away and keep quiet or else".

Nevertheless, the important issues are addressed. The contribution of Henry Ford (relentlessly referred to as just "Henry", as Edison is called "Tom") to the development of the assembly-line system is well explained, for example. These books, which have copious and excellent colour illustrations, are good value for money.

The history key stage 1 programme of study gives the following examples of categories of famous people: "rulers, saints, artists, engineers, explorers, inventors, pioneers". Hence, presumably, the titles of Wayland's Famous Lives series: Saints, Explorers, Inventors, Engineers, Artists and Kings and Queens.

Each book - larger in format than the other two series - covers six people. Saints, for example, has Paul, Thomas a Becket, Francis of Assisi, Joan of Arc, Thomas More and Bernadette of Lourdes. Within the consequent limits of space, the job is well done. What I particularly like about these books is their use of contemporary illustrations. These range from wonderful medieval pictures of the world of Thomas a Becket, to sumptuous Victorian paintings of engineers and their works. The Artists volume has adequate, though necessarily often small, reproductions of work by Leonardo, Rembrandt, Turner, van Gogh, Monet and Picasso. I note, incidentally, that Explorers, eschewing chauvinism, gives us Amundsen rather than Scott.

The obvious problem with the "famous people" approach to history is that you end up with a group of well-documented individuals - Edison, Florence Nightingale - whose stories are endlessly re-circulated to the detriment of the memory of others. Where are the architects? The women medical pioneers? Where are Billy Butlin, George Formby, Lady Astor, John Maynard Keynes? The problem is, I suppose, that the list of "accepted" figures becomes self-perpetuating, and the national curriculum, by naming names and thus appearing to be prescriptive, does nothing to broaden the field.

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