Since history is supposed to save us from future idiocy, there is a bunfight over which lessons from the past to cram into the school curriculum. So many mistakes, so little time! Colonialism, the Nazis, witch burnings, the slave trade, the feudal system, Victorian scullery maids. (We’ll leave out the Irish; it’s still too awkward.)
The idea, a very noble one, is to raise a kinder generation. But from a child’s point of view, this interpretation of history – that it was a time when people behaved badly, and for their sins we must all now say sorry – is about as fun as any telling off, which is to say: not much. The delicate flower that gets trampled underfoot here is the romance, the thing that Edward Gibbon felt when he “sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol while the barefooted fryars were singing Vespers in the temple of Jupiter” and decided to write the decline and fall of Rome.
But capturing the imagination of children with stirring tales from the past is a moral project, too. If they are to expiate the sins of their forefathers, they first have to, well, care. The good news for parents, anxious to repair the damage done by lockdown to their children’s education, is this: I know a novelist who can help.
Ronald Welch, a tank commander turned schoolmaster, is one of the 20th century’s most underrated children’s writers. Like Hilary Mantel, he understood that what makes a lost epoch stick in your mind is not the dates but the details.
His books positively foam with information: why a longbow is so much more deadly than a crossbow; the art of reloading a screw-barrelled pistol; how to get revenge when your 14th-century warlord neighbour pinches one of your fields; the cheapest way to get from Cambridge to London in 1789, what those charming cylindrical, be-pom-pommed hats in the Napoleonic Wars are called (shakos, apparently). Such was Welch’s mastery of detail that his publisher, Oxford University Press, asked him to fact-check their other historical novelists.