November 26, 2004

The textbook that changed my life

It was Bible thick and buff bound with the figure of a mounted knight picked out in black and red on the cover. At six years old I had never held a book quite like it. I could not believe that my grandad had given it to me: R. J. Unstead’s Looking at History (1955).

Robert John Unstead, who was born in 1915 and educated at Dover Grammar School and Goldsmiths College, London, became the head teacher of a primary school in Hertfordshire. After serving in the RAF in the Second World War, he established himself as a prolific author of history textbooks for the young. He retired to Suffolk and died in 1988. Although I never met him,
his books had a profound effect on me.

Inside the covers of Looking at History I found the raw material to feed a growing enthusiasm for history. The volume united four primary-school texts ending with the coronation of Elizabeth II. My favourite section - the first - was grandly titled “From Cavemen to Vikings” and no two eras could be so inspiring to a red-blooded infant. What a shame St Augustine had to come along around page 50 and spoil all the fun. Unstead placed particular emphasis on illustrations; there were a thousand in the book. Line drawings - some specially commissioned from someone called J. C. B. Knight, some reproduced from primary sources - fought for space beside black-and-white photographic reproductions of quirky Victorian historical paintings, and 16 rather luridly coloured plates. More than 30 years later I can still close my eyes and see images from that book: Roman children playing at gladiators, two Saxons cresting a windy hill top, a medieval tournament, a child being lowered into a London street at the time of the plague, a still of Charlie Chaplin in The Kid . Unstead jumped over the hurdle of my illiteracy and communicated directly with my imagination.
How did he do it? First, alongside the expected pictures of kings and queens, the book included a wealth of detail about ordinary people and everyday life. History, clearly, was not just about those with power.

Second, the sheer variety of pictures in the book revealed the possibility of multiple perspectives on the past, opening up the intriguing possibility that we might not know exactly what the past was like. It was an invitation to dig further.

Above all, the book embraced the sweep of British history from the Stone Age to the present within a single set of covers. Looking at History provided the essential skeleton of a grand chronology around which all my subsequent schooling could be structured. It was my starting point.

Nicholas J. Cull is professor of historical studies, Leicester University.

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