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TV review: Ian Hislop's Olden Days loves a good story

A person must have dragons and wizards trailing behind them if they want to be remembered by history.

Ian Hislop's Olden Days examined the way British people look at the past, and suggested we're hardly strict scholars; rather, we love a whimsical, romantic story and are not too fussed about whether that particular story happens to true.

According to Hislop, this is because we are 'in love with the past' and, not with history itself, but with the hazy concept of 'the olden days'.

We love to wallow in a 'heightened, idealised, imagined past', he says, and the more crowded with heroes, and clanking with knights, the better.

The programme focused on the two Dark Age kings of Arthur and Alfred, with Arthur being glorified in literature and resurrected by Hollywood whereas the latter is often portrayed as a poor soul who couldn't even bake a cake. Paintings show Arthur handsome and rugged, clad in armour and partnered with beautiful Guinevere, whereas a famous image of Alfred shows him red-faced, being scolded by an old crone. Arthur has whopping stories of swords and knights and dragons and wizards. Alfred just burned some cakes.

Yet, shoving aside the glamour Hislop suggests much of Arthur is pure myth whereas Alfred was perhaps more substantial and made a clear contribution to education and the English language.

But these days whom do we most revere? When confronted with 'the fairytale Arthur versus the workaday Alfred' the romantic Arthur always wins.

'You may have the truth on your side but if your story is dull no one will want to read it,' says Hislop, so reality and evidence and footnotes don't seem to matter in how we perceive our history. This is all fine if you just want to hear a good story about dragons but there's clearly a potential danger in romanticising a country's past and snipping out all the dull but tiresomely true bits.

But how can we expect our children to want to study History if, in the classroom, they are just presented with lists of facts and dates and pie charts? There has to be a narrative linking the numbers together otherwise the study of History becomes simply the interpretation of statistics. We can't deny the -story part of History.

I always found History dull at school but went on to take a History degree. I hated sitting in the classroom looking at pictures of lumpy Iron Age tools and colouring in the flag of Prussia so there was no way a love of history was going to be sparked by History. Instead, it happened in my English class. We had to write an essay on anti-semitism and the teacher laid out a bundle of novels on her desk which accompanied the subject and we would pair our essay with a book review.

She read out a summary of each and asked us to raise our hand if we wanted it. Then she picked up QBVII by Leon Uris and said she had to warn us - this novel was harsh and disturbing and we would need to ensure we were prepared to read it. Oh, I nearly dislocated my shoulder. 'Miss! Miss! Me, miss! Please miss!' My hand was up but she gave the book to someone else, and I ended up with Sophie's Choice.

I grumbled and sulked and slumped off home with the book, wanting the disturbing one, not this book with a weepy Meryl Streep on the cover.

The rest is History, as they say. The novel engulfed my permed 14-year old head and sent me running off to Rutherglen Library to find out more about the war and the Holocaust. I was hooked and went on to study Higher History and then a degree - and it was all because of a novel: a story which was dramatic and wild and over-the-top, but it did the trick.

So by all means use dragons and wizards and evil Nazis to lure people into History. Stories will help jerk aside the musty old curtain which seems to perpetually hang in front of the subject.

There can be no harm in dabbling with stories as long as we're able to distinguish between truth and reality and Ian Hislop's programme made this point very clear at the end when he stood on a hillside interviewing a man who claimed to be a resurrection of King Arthur. Ever polite, Hislop worried about how he should address him, but the resurrected king assured him 'Arthur' was fine.

This new version of the legend stood glinting in his chain mail and silver jewellery and said he was a 'post-Thatcher Arthur' and marched with the trade unions and went off on a lecture about the Coalition Government whilst little Ian stood next to King Arthur, fighting to keep a smile compressed.

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