Saturday, May 30, 2009

A History Lesson

Strange thing I've come to feel about history but there's a disconnect between the received version 'given' to us at school and the 'actual' or 'live' version that we stumble across by accident, usually, in my case, while traveling.

Great Yarmouth makes much of its Nelsonian connections: it has a column that predates both the one in London and that which used to grace Dublin's skyline, until, that is, another version of history meant that a British naval hero, even one whose fleet comprised many Irish sailors, was no longer acceptable, with explosive results. Either way, to reinforce its respect for this famous son of Norfolk, Great Yarmouth also boasts an annual Trafalgar Day parade on October 21st.

Remembering Trafalgar is all very well, but just a little way up the coast at Happisburgh, 'real' history intrudes uncomfortably into the well known Nelsonian legend. Just off the coast near Happisburgh in March 16, 1801 HMS Invincible was lost, along with the lives of 119 of its 600 man crew. The ship, which was en passage to join Nelson at Copenhagen, does not feature any further in the great man's history, and those 190 sailors lay in an unmarked mass grave in Happisburgh's churchyard until 1998, when the crew of the present ship to carry the name Invincible along with Happisburgh's PCC, placed a marker stone on the site of the mass grave, thereby honouring their predecessors and adding a fitting tribute – albeit 197 years after the event.

Live history and the received version separated by just 20 miles and 197 years.

When I was at junior school my 2nd year teacher, Miss Tipping, was a very traditionally minded 'old school' educationalist. Never one to spare the ruler, or pretty much anything else that came to hand, she was a stickler for received history. Her charges were well versed in the daring do exploits of Nelson, Clive of India, Florence Nightingale et al. Strange to say, but the loss of the Invincible didn't feature in the great exploits of Britain's imperial past that Miss Tipping liked to relate: her lessons were of victories, not losses; her heroes and heroines had dates and events for us to memorise, there was no mention of the site of mass graves to the victims of that same imperial past where the heroes didn't happen win or the 'good' didn't come through with shining colours.

Thursday, May 28, 2009