“Where are you with the history lessons?”
“The Chartists, but only for one lesson.”
“Did you do the Luddites and Captain Swing?”
Mr Buchanan would have been disappointed that a significant element of Nineteenth Century English social history had received such cursory attention. The writers of syllabuses that provide for only the briefest of looks at important movements would have prompted him to ask questions.
Mr Buchanan was for two years, 1977-1979, my history tutor at Strode College in the Somerset town of Street. He had an infectious enthusiasm for his subject, regrettably my professed interest in the material was never matched by the degree of application required for success.
We studied European history from the French Revolution in 1789 until the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 and British History from the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 until the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. The history of Europe seemed filled with interesting things like wars and revolutions, whilst the British history was domestic, it seemed about social unrest and parliamentary reform bills and campaigns to improve the lot of ordinary people – and Ireland, always there, Ireland was waiting to make an appearance in each chapter.
It was Mr Buchanan who stirred up my abiding interest in Irish history. Whilst he had little time for the nationalism of his native Scotland, believing it diverted attention from more serious issues that needed to be addressed in late-1970s Britain, his presentation of the state of Ireland in the 19th Century evoked my sympathy for O’Connell and Parnell and Redmond.
Perhaps it was the books we read, perhaps it was that the compilers of the history syllabus for A-level students at that time did not want to court controversy, but our engagement with the history of England never evoked a passion in me that would have matched the passion felt in reading accounts of Nineteenth Century Ireland.
It was not Mr Buchanan’s fault. There were books he recommended, books that were in our college library, that I simply did not read. Notionally radical in my politics, I never troubled myself to learn a history that embraced the Somerset community in which I had grown up. I knew about Sans Culottes, and Red Shirts and Communards and Internationalists, but hardly a thing about Luddites or Captain Swing or Chartists. There was an entire radical history that took place in familiar places and that was just overlooked.
As technology continues to de-skill countless jobs and to supplant workforces, that overlooked history becomes ever more relevant.