Blackadder and all that
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
(Right, bear with me on this post as it could meander all over the place.)
I have been reading about the Michael Gove-Sir Tony Robinson-Blackadder history education hoo-ha. And it’s got me going back in time to my teenage years at school in Devon and as a student at Lancaster.
I was 11 when Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister in 1979. I was 22 when she was usurped by John Major. By then I was married, living in London and doing my PGCE. I went on to teach in what were known as ‘inner city’ schools in Camberwell and Plumstead, with an interest in early years and how we learn to write.
After a few years, I had my own children, three of them, in quick succession (when our daughter was born, her brothers were just 2 and 3 years of age). Those years are a blur, to be honest. But I do remember it was the steepest of learning curves.
Now, in 2014, those infants are teenagers, one on a gap year, one in his final year of sixth form, and one in Year 10. I have not returned to primary school teaching. But I have seen my kids go through the education system. I have taught in pre-schools, been a youth worker, and done a Masters degree. And now I teach adults creative writing. I have experienced more than my fair share of education.
Going back to 1987…
I met my husband at university. He was a history and politics student and active member of the student union and Labour club. I was studying English and Women’s Studies. We had a shared worldview, even though I was a yokel and he was a Londoner. And what made our political development more honed? We had something to rail against. The excesses of Thatcherism.
The ‘alternative comedy’ scene was central to this for me. Spitting Image, Saturday Live, French and Saunders and Blackadder were a huge part of my growing up and instrumental to my development as a writer. But especially Blackadder as it was a ‘sitcom’ and hence had a narrative. Blackadder Goes Forth, aired first in 1989, was the most complex of the four series, comi-tragedy at its Shakespearean best. Who can stay dry-eyed at the final moments as our beloved characters go over the top and the terrifying scene is replaced by poppy fields? (See clip at end of post.)
Fast forward to another Tory government. 2014. And Mr Gove. I am angry but not in the least bit surprised that the Education Minister is attacking the way WW1 is taught in schools. Sir Tony Robinson aka Baldrick has retaliated with his support for teachers, teachers who know how young people learn best: through dynamic and multi-media means (a little bit of alliteration there). How amazing that we can learn about the past through poetry, letters, memoirs, ‘official’ documents, academic books, comic strips, art, music, photographs, field trips, film footage … and, yes, satire.
BGF is satire. It flags up the absurdity of war, the senselessness and futility of sending millions of men to their untimely, tragic deaths. Declining empire pitched against rising empire. And the result? The Nazis. WW2. The Holocaust. Miilions of civilian deaths. All in the name of power.
Doesn’t mankind (and here I really do mean mankind) ever learn?
What have we learned one hundred years on, as empires once again shift and pose and strut. What can we learn?
We’ve tried to bring our kids up to be progressive, anti-racist, feminist, to ask questions, to argue. And boy have there been some arguments. The most momentous was at the dinner table a few years ago when DS1 and DS2 (forgive Mumsnet-type acronyms) conflicted over the outcomes of the Treaty of Versailles. It still bubbles to the surface even now.
It is hard being a teenager. It is very hard being a teenager in 2014 as they have to navigate their way through a minefield of social media and sexualised images and celebrity non-culture. Yes, they have their own generation of comedy too but the ‘alternative’ is now mainstream. (Jack Whitehall is lovely but he isn’t Ben Elton.) So I am glad my boys were shown Blackadder Goes Forth at school as part of their learning experience of the Great War. I am saddened that our daughter chose not to take history as an option. But she has seen Blackadder Goes Forth at home. And she has had to endure listening to her brothers battle it out over the Treaty of Versailles (if you’ll pardon the pun).
But imagine being a teenager in 1914?
My hope is for all three of them to go through the rest of their teenage years and into adulthood always questioning, never settling for the status quo. And to remember that most of their worries and problems are ‘first world’ worries and problems.
I hope they put their experiences into the bigger picture and ask what it is to be a good human being.
I hope my daughter can take on her brothers over the outcomes of the Treaty of Versailles.
And I hope that teachers continue to show Blackadder Goes Forth to their students and that Michael Gove doesn’t win in his elitist attempt to rewrite history.
And I thank God that this is not 1914 and that I do not have to wave my boys off to war.
http://www.wordsforthewounded.co.uk/index.html Do consider entering the Words for the Wounded writing prize. Closing date March 11th 2014.
We will remember them.