One winter my father read all fourteen volumes of Fortescue’s History of the British Army. The public library got it for him and he sat, smoking and reading and tipping cigarette ash into the fire or the fireplace. He made ashtrays on a wood lathe but he rarely used them. I was falling asleep the other night many years later when I realised how much I liked my mother for not nagging him about this. As a child, I recorded the behaviour. As an adult I know it would driven me crazy. You see ? Stories are everything.
I rarely read the pure history that delighted my Late Victorian father. It’s too big, I can’t digest it and I always feel I am missing something, I wish there were someone to explain. But I love stories because stories always tell you about the teller, as well as those involved. It is nowadays more common for some history to be offered in the form of eye witness accounts. I looked up the word history and its roots are in observation, record, analysis and enquiry. Most of us only learn by mistakes and looking back – that’s history. The bigger the numbers of people involved an endeavour, the slower we are to learn, unless there is a formal core of people somewhere driving things and even then …
Earlier this year, I was asked to take part in a documentary about sitcom. For once the fee was reasonable, the cars provided, the location appropriate. The likeable team was tiny and the producer began by opening her laptop and quoting to me something touching, favourable and appreciative , said about me by a man I had never met. So when I saw that Mark Gatiss and Ian Hallard were appearing in Boys in the Band at the Park Theatre, I wrote in appreciation. Gatiss (he of Sherlock fame) invited me to come and see the play (bang on, check for the tour), which I did, and stayed briefly to meet the man. It is a demanding piece, dependent like cooking green vegetables on being just so. And I came away thinking of all the stories I have listened to, funny and terrible, bad and sad, sometimes all at the same time.
Sometimes you learn because you set out to. You may have a history with learning to drive a car but most of us can learn. Some people can learn to sew – I never did. But I learnt some French, probably inspired by a terrific teacher and the glamour inherent in my images of France then – a byword for a certain style. You may learn because it had to be. You may learn because, despite your best efforts, it was never going to happen. You may learn through unhappiness and failure or great success and achievement. Or both. To me the important thing is learning. My father used to ask “Did you learn something today ?” and very often I wanted to tell him what went wrong, whether I was a pupil or in my very brief teaching career. He would listen with great patience and then repeat the question. To him, no day was “bad” if you learned something. This idea has been absorbed, probably through repetition, into my viscera. “Oh God” I pray “let me learn.” The repetition of the blinkered donkey dragging the millstone round and round is another kind of violence. The donkey has no chance to learn unless he runs away – that way he might be hungry, wounded or unhappy but he might learn something.
Sometimes what you learn hurts you. Sometimes it shines a light too bright or just right. Either way, a story can do that. There are many who cannot learn until they find the story that speaks to them. It is the opposite of The Godfather: it is never business, always personal. I sat beside a young woman from Brazil doing doctoral work in nanotechnology in a large provincial British city where she had failed to make meaningful friends and told her about a segment about the Siege of Stalingrad in the series The World at War when, despite starvation and cold, the libraries stayed open. She loved the idea, a story from history. We have axed 8,000 jobs in British libraries over the past six years. Where are the storytellers?