One hundred and ninety eight years ago today, a motley collection of British, Dutch, and German soldiers sat huddled, soaked to the skin, in farmland south of Brussels. Across a misty valley, they could make out the equally bedraggled, yet formidable French Imperial army. The epic struggle that followed ensured that today’s date would be fixed in the calendar as one that – in the timeworn cliché – ‘every schoolboy knows’. Or at least it used to be. I doubt many of the schoolboys or schoolgirls of 2013 could name even the year, let alone the day, that Napoleon met his Waterloo. If a survey were to prove my hunch correct, a predictable panic would surely follow – that we are raising a generation that knows little of our national history and cares even less.
Yet is this familiar media image of our children, as dazzled by digital distractions and lacking interest in the past, really true? Look beyond the obsession with dates and great deeds and there is plenty of evidence to suggest the contrary. As technology hurtles them ever faster into a cyberspace future, I believe today’s youngsters are, if anything, becoming more – not less – curious about the generations whose lives were so very different from their own.
Today the inaugural awards for a new Government sponsored competition, Read for My School, will be held in central London. Designed to create a sense of excitement about reading, the awards are supported by the publishers Pearson who presented pupils with a range of titles, either in the form of traditional books, or online.
By far the most popular book, read by more than 13,000 children, was about the Titanic. Books about Anne Frank and historical medicine also featured in the top eight most popular choices, and evidence of such historical curiosity isn’t confined to this prize. The reading charity, Booktrust – which helped organise Read for my School - runs a scheme which offers children the chance to choose a free book from a selection of the best new fiction. We’ve noticed that any book set in the past, or with an historical image on the cover, will always be popular. This is good news, because there is no better way to create the historians of the future, along with an audience that will appreciate their work. I can trace my own interest in 19 century British history back to my schoolgirl encounter with Georgette Heyer’s beautifully written Regency romances. Heyer’s books were great fun, but also good history: her account of Waterloo in An Infamous Army was so accurate, it was used as a set text at Sandhurst for many years.
I wonder how many Independent readers discovered history through children’s books? An informal survey of today’s professional ‘history boys’ and girls reveals that I am not alone. Was it a childhood reading of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall that first led Mary Beard to study classical civilization? Not quite. I was delighted to learn that Mary’s love of ancient Rome was first kindled by close study of one of the empire’s most implacable enemies, a plucky Gaul named Asterix, and his cartoon companions, Obelix and Dogmatix the dog. For Mary, the road to studying Augustus began when she met that rather less august Roman, Phonus Balonus.
Or take one of our best known young historians, Dan Snow, whose love of history was sparked when he went on an imaginary journey with Jim Hawkins to Treasure Island: the 18th-century, as imagined in the 19th, inspiring a 20th-century boy to pursue a career as a professional historian. Modern academic knowledge would make short work of Robert Louis Stevenson’s historical accuracy, whether it be the latest research on musket technology, or learned papers on the socio-economic basis of piracy in the Spanish Main. Yet Stevenson put Dan on the creaking, salt-spumed, decks of an 18th-century ship in a way no academic thesis could ever manage.
Will children today be led to historical knowledge through reading for pleasure? When I look at the authors who now choose historical settings and themes for their children’s books, I feel confident that the future of the past is in safe hands. We are living in a new golden age of children’s historical fiction – Philip Pullman’s richly imagined recreations of Victorian London in his Sally Lockhart series immediately springs to mind. And how many pupils will take a passionate interest in the centenary of the First World War, having had their imaginations stirred by the writings of the incomparable Michael Morpurgo and his stories of war horses or Private Peaceful?
David Starkey recently took exception to sharing a judging panel with the historical novelist, Phillipa Gregory. Few have done more to bring historical knowledge to a wide audience than David, but I believe that the writers of imaginative fiction can do just as much to bring the past alive for children - perhaps even more – than a rigorously fact-based history curriculum.
And if you want new generations to engage with the history of the Napoleonic Wars the writers of imaginative fiction for children are our best allies. On this day, two years hence, we will mark the bicentenary of the battle that finally brought an end to those wars, and secured a century of global dominance for Britain. The drama of what Wellington memorably called a "near run thing" once inspired William Thackeray and Victor Hugo to create equally memorable fictional representations of Waterloo, which stayed in the minds of British and French readers for generations.
Perhaps Michael Morpurgo can let his formidable imaginative powers stray back another hundred years from the Great War, and take us into the yard of the Chateau of Hougoumont where – on another June 18 - the outnumbered, red-coated Coldstream guards fought valiantly to close the wooden gates against hordes of Napoleon’s finest and by so doing turned the tide of the battle. I for one would be delighted.