Speaking Volumes: W.C. Sellar's and R.J. Yeatman's 1066 and All That

August 29, 1997

Speaking Volumes on W.C. Sellar's and R.J. Yeatman's 1066 and All That.

My father, a man of genial but sceptical disposition, refrained from introducing me to this remarkable book until I had decided to read history. He, a journalist turned policeman by the economic fortunes of the 1930s, had not had such an opportunity, but in the everyday sense he too read history. He loved 1066 And All That, not just for its satire, but for the affection behind the satire. It is a book which can be approached on many levels.

As the "Compulsory Preface" to this great historical work puts it, history is "...what you can remember". 1066 And All That has thus a claim to be regarded as an early post-modernist text. More importantly, it is both brilliantly funny and a reminder to the professional historian of the need for humility.

For those of us who spend weeks every year contemplating examination papers, the evidence of what students remember, Sellar's and Yeatman's satire is on one level an extended examination paper, a nightmare paper, brilliant in its awfulness. It never misses the point but caricatures it, turns it upside down or puts it in the wrong place. More worryingly, it exposes the thinness of so many of the concepts and devices of historical writing.

Consider this succinct summary of early Scottish history: "The Scots (originally Irish, but by now Scotch) were at this time inhabiting Ireland, having driven the Irish (Picts) out of Scotland; while the Picts (originally Scots) were now Irish (living in brackets) and vice versa. It is essential to keep these distinctions clearly in mind and verse visa."

Though long books have been written on the subject, the following captures the gist of the Divine Right of Kings: "(a) He was King and that was right; (b) Kings were divine, and that was right; (c) Kings were right, and that was right; (d) Everything was all right."

The book has a modern format and appends test questions to every chapter. I admire these because they give students a clear indication of the politically correct line to take as with "Outline joyfully (1) Henry VIII, (2) Stout Cortez". I wonder whether we at the Open University shouldn't give more of a hint and demand that students "Outline mournfully the position of 19th-century women".

Nor are visual aids neglected for in addition to John Reynold's superb illustrations, we have the diagram of Mr Plimsoll's memorable line: -.

The book is a historical source in its own right, a primary source for the teaching of history in the inter-war years. We can feel superior to that list of good and bad kings and good and bad things, or can we? What would the authors have made of counter-factual econometrics, dominant ideologies or expansive hegemonies? How stupid, we used to say, that for so long history finished for students with the Versailles Settlement, "The Peace to End Peace" as Sellar and Yeatman called it, which added more countries and was thus a "bad thing, as it was the cause of increased geography".

Yet the concluding statement that "America was thus clearly top nation, and history came to a" has a rather modern ring to it. Francis Fukuyama came to a similar conclusion in The End of History and the Last Man (1992). Sellar and Yeatman were prescient as well as funny.

A.W.Purdue is senior lecturer in history at the Open University

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