Friday, 8 July 2011
When the new school curriculum decreed that every child should learn about the ‘Industrial Revolution,’ History Departments up and down the country had a problem: how to persuade children that history was more interesting than Richard Arkwright’s Water Frame, and Hargreaves’ Spinning Jenny? And don’t get me started on ‘Turnip Townsend.’
In short, how were we to persuade the brightest and best to choose History as a GCSE option and so maximise the grades by which a Department was judged?
The process was inexorable. Child poverty and abuse, became ‘entertainment;’ the ‘Slave Trade,’ the Workhouse, children in mines, exploited again in order to provide cheap thrills for otherwise bored students; prurience and sympathy curiously mixed.
Titillation reached its peak just before students came to make their final choice of options for Years 10 and 11.
Then we moved on to the Holocaust and Kennedy’s brain. These were ‘taster’ lessons, pedagogic commercials for the joys awaiting them should they choose to do history the following year.
These two years of modern history have formed in my mind a sombre montage of Horst Wessel and wasted corpses, lynchings and burning barns, men ranting in white pointy hats, others in uniforms and surrounded by flags. And every year we dissected Kennedy’s brain in our search for who murdered him.
This was the highpoint of our coursework for over a decade, the reason why many chose to do history in the first place. Who killed President Kennedy? It had everything: a who-dun-it caught in colour and never resolved. It combined serious analysis of varied and conflicting evidence with the gravitas of Greek tragedy.
Twice a year for a decade or more, my life would be briefly dominated by endless freeze-frames of Kennedy’s head jerking back…or was it forward? Trajectories, Oswald’s marksmanship, or lack of it, Jacqueline’s undignified scramble out of the car, or was she trying to grab a piece of her husband’s head. No reverence here, the children wanted to know.
And I was part of the process, at one with Oswald lurking behind that window, or the possible second gunman behind the white picket fence on the knoll. Only every year, unlike Zapruder, I knew what would happen. I stood poised to freeze-frame what Zapruder had filmed. I had the remote, doomed to pause and repeat history year after year. Had a president died for this?