The one-minute history teacher

22nd September 1995 at 01:00
When the troops are flagging, be economical with the past, says Michael Duffy, a veteran of the school history trip.

If they gave medals for arranging history visits, my chest would gleam and jingle like a Russian general's. I'm a veteran. I've led my straggling cohorts round Dickens' London, Wren's Greenwich, the Prince Regent's Brighton and Dobson's Newcastle.

I've tramped the walls of Berwick, York and Chester, traced medieval drains from Jedburgh to Tintern, mapped canals and locks from Bude to Birmingham and scaled more ramparts than any mercenary condottiere.

From Ditchling Beacon to Maiden Castle, Warwick to Warkworth and Pembroke to Beaumaris I've expounded on fortification and defence. I can tell a garderobe from a gargoyle and a barbican from a bailey, and at the drop of a worksheet I will. All very educational.

One lesson I learned early - at Bamburgh Castle, to be exact - was that it pays on these occasions to be economical with the past. High on the tower of the Norman keep, I was holding forth on border warfare and the historical significance of that castle-studded coast. "And what do you see to the north? I asked, grandly gesticulating towards the strip of lowland between the Cheviots and the sea. A sharp-eyed young listener peered obediently over the battlements. "I can see a Coxon's ice cream van," he triumphantly proclaimed.

Then and there, I vowed to follow henceforth what my students came to call the 60-second rule. Some history was permitted, on these termly history visits - but to make it work it had to be in bite size episodes."I want you to enjoy the visit," I would say. "Most of what you see will speak for itself. When it won't, I'll comment or explain - but never for more than 60 seconds at a time."

Which is one of the principles that the editors of the monumental International Dictionary of Historic Places have clearly tried to follow. In effect, it is really a selection of history visits -200 in this volume, covering Europe north of the Danube, the Alps and the Pyrenees, 1,000 in all when the five-volume series is complete. Each visit contains a brief location note - Runnymede, we learn, is "on the banks of the River Thames just west of London, near the village of Egham and the city of Windsor" - an address for more information, a scholarly list of further reading, and a brisk history - more than 60 seconds'-worth, but all you need to make your own explanations accurate and short.

Brevity, of course, is not enough: children on school visits (and, I suspect, their parents) like detail too, particularly if it is of the bloodthirsty or inconsequential kind. The editors are strong on this: on the weaponry and tactics at Agincourt, for instance, and the slaughter yard behaviour that it encouraged, or the less conventional weaponry of the German defenders of Aachen in 1944, drunkenly bombarding the advancing Americans with empty Champagne bottles. Or (to return to the Runnymede example) on the beard-pulling insults of the boorish and blustering King John. Sometimes, as in the essay on Auschwitz that meticulously recounts the precise procedures of extermination, the detail is literally and properly overpowering.

But there are some reservations. Inevitably, selection is a problem. What do you leave out, when you have a mere 200 entries (half of those in the British Isles and France) and half a continent to choose from? No room, for example, for Lascaux and the other great caves of Les Eyzies - but, engagingly, Letchworth, first of the garden cities, is included. I know which one I'd rather take a school party to. Some of the essays read rather as though they are lifted from the local guide book; some, even making allowances for editorial excisions, are oddly incomplete.

What a pity, for instance, to write about the splendid city of Narbonne without a mention of the Horreum, that vast warren of Roman granaries which lies beneath its medieval streets, and tempts right-thinking children to lose themselves, their parents andor teachers.

But at Pounds 95 a volume and a shelf-bending 4kg in weight this was never intended to be a guide book, still less a book for schools. It's a work of reference: an introduction for the discriminating traveller to the history of some of the places that might be on his or her next itinerary. It serves its purpose, though I'm surprised, given the price, that no maps are included and that the pictures, grey and grey rather than black and white, are so dire.

True, some of the essays, like that on Vezelay, are extraordinarily evocative of the places they describe. They cannot quite catch the magic, though, that all too rarely the place itself may work, especially on the child who is still impressionable enough to learn, in spite of the overtones of school, directly from the past. Once, at York, under Clifford's Tower, I told the story (it's in this book) of how in 1190 the city's Jews destroyed themselves there by fire rather than submit to the bloodlust of the Christian mob. One child, moved by those 60 seconds, came surprisingly close to tears. Another, down to earth, said he was hungry and there was a McDonalds over there. You win some, you lose some. It is the immutable law of history visits - and, I suspect, of history books as well.

* International Dictionary of Historic Places, Vol 2, Northern Europe. Fitzroy Dearborn Pounds 95, 1 884 964 01 X.

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