Why you should know your history

JOHN DE BUEGER
Last updated 10:40 26/05/2011

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Over our years together, my late wife and I had an unspoken, yet clear understanding on the division of domestic duties. I washed the dishes and fixed things, but otherwise kept my nose well out of the kitchen or such matters as the bringing up of children. My wife didn't concern herself with plumbing leaks or chainsaw maintenance, but neither did she bother consulting me on what colour curtains to buy, when to replace the kitchen tiles, or if we needed some new plates. Sensitive New-Age petals may well regard such an arrangement as positively Neanderthal, but it worked pretty well.

The trouble only really starts when one of you dies, and the other is suddenly faced with having to do all the myriad other things you have taken for granted for 40 years.

Included amongst those activities is setting the alarm on the bedside radio - a procedure that still eludes me. Consequently, of late, I have had to rely on self- programmed brain circuitry to try to wake up every weekday at 5am in order to catch what is the best programme on the radio by miles.

Why National Radio sees fit to run A History of the world in 100 objects at such an ungodly hour eludes me, but you either wake up, miss it, order the book (which is excellent) or employ the good offices of Dr Google.

Presented by the curator of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor, this quarter-hour BBC doco looks at history in a very different way to the dry, boring manner that we got it rammed down our necks at school.

As a young officer serving the British Raj on the North-West frontier, Winston Churchill forwent the frivolities of the officers' mess after polo, and in order to prepare himself for a life of politics, he read volume after volume of history books. His mother sent them out from England by the box- load. Years later, he famously remarked that if any aspiring politician wished to really understand human nature and avoid repeating stupid mistakes in public life, then, reading history was the best grounding they could get. When I first read this observation years ago (probably in one of his early books), I thought he was talking nonsense. Looking at the world and its works through the eyes of old age, I now realise how right Winston was. History really is the most important subject of them all, and it is impossible to consider yourself educated - or for that matter, fit to govern a country - unless you have a good grasp of it. (Unfortunately this is not the perceived wisdom among those currently tasked with setting school syllabuses). One wonders what insight led Winston to realise this truth so early in life - and hence set himself up by doing the best thing he could have done at that time. Winston was a bit of a dunce at school, and it is always possible that history, and English, were the only subjects he mastered.

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It is extraordinary that of the thousands of items in the British Museum collection, that Neil MacGregor was able to present the relevance of human history in such a compelling manner by discussing so few. Objects chosen range from a 1.5 million-year-old fleshing stone through to a modern solar panel.

We're currently in the nineties, and so there's only a few days left for Neil to wrap-up the intermingling strands of empires, trade-routes, religion, enterprise, art, science, folly, power-lust, cruelty and greed that have all combined together to produce the world as we know it. Careful selection of artefacts has shed new light on how the adoption of settled agriculture in fertile river valleys led to population explosions which begat empires. These in turn needed skilled administrators, who in turn developed written language, mathematics and record keeping. To control vast empires for a long time needs a well-equipped military machine and this spurred developments in metallurgy and technology; and over long sea voyages, map-making and complex instruments so you knew where you were. Intertwined are the influences of religion and the arts on such matters as culture, rituals of worship and places of burial, and how mundane matters like trading and the general exchange of goods spur concepts like money and a need for universal agreement on the measurement of time.

It has been a fascinating series. The next problem is deprogramming the internal alarm clock and sleeping through to a more gentlemanly hour - until a certain hairy beast reminds me that dog-nuts for breakfast are an immediate and extremely pressing priority.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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