Here is the text of a talk I posted on my Spreaker podcast today

I cannot speak for other bookshop-keepers but it is unusual for me to select a book from our stock and place it in my library at home.  When I do, it is often a small ephemeral item.

I recently found pocket-sized book – one hundred pages – of GCE A Level History questions from the 1950s.  I always enjoy these. The range of questions prompts mental gymnastics as I flit from one teaser to another.


I remember the days when these questions felt like the be all and end all, questions that would determine the rest of my life and might easily turn the whole of my school-years (the greater part my existence, at the time) into wasted time. Then, my ready reaction was to criticise the examiners for phrasing the questions so carelessly, and that’s still the case. For example –and this is supposed to be a question, remember – “the use and abuse of archaeology as historical evidence” (page 56 question 1). Am I supposed to criticise the statement, or illustrate it, or explain it, or merely nod at the phrase, not even a sentence, and pass on?


Oh yes, I am soon back in those tall, cold, echoing examination rooms where my first hurdle was to solve the puzzle of numbers.  Answer questions from both sections but no more than three from either section and answer five questions.  Seated at the back of the hall, checking that my pen, pencil, rubber and ruler were neatly in place, I would notice that the other students were already confidently scribbling their second paragraph while I was still trying to work out what those directions meant and, more pertinently, their implications for me.


Then, before the riddle is solved, I spot an opportunity that is clearly focussed on me. “Attempt a description of Elizabethan London.”  (Page 28, question 7).  Notice, we are not required to describe the capital but merely to attempt a description.  Clearly, the examiner has already accepted that I am bound to fail. Like a soldier, useless in the line, I have been tossed a forlorn hope. I take it on trust that I will be given marks for the impertinence of the attempt rather than any knowledge of history.


However, I do find some questions (but no more than a few) where the examiner shows a perceptive grasp of his or her subject.  “Why did John Wilkes become a popular hero?”  (Page 48 question 6).  No-one could answer that without a sound knowledge of the times.  Cute, that one.


Another game is to answer a question, completely and competently, in no more than two words.  Now, don’t be a smart-aleck.


“What was the civil war of 1642 really about?”  (Page 5 Question 5) My answer: God knows.  I hope the examiner will think about my assertion and not treat it flippantly. After all, it is a good answer.


“What grounds has Marlborough to be described as England’s greatest general?”

Are you sitting comfortably?

Every ground.


Now here’s one that catches me out.  “During what period of the middle ages was farming most prosperous?” (Page 4, question 10).  You know, I have no idea. But the question will direct my reading when I next want to put aside a couple of hours at my shelves of history books.  (The subject is especially relevant because my neighbouring village is Theddingworth, one of the first settlements to enclose their farmland in the middle ages.)


There are 1200 questions in the book. One question stands out from the rest.  Stands out? Question 7 fairly leaps from page 29.  “To what extent was Dr Johnson a Tory?”  The question raises two points about Johnson. Firstly, the taste and tone of it suits the over powering presence of the man.  He was a towering figure in his age and achieved so much for literature that, after two hundred years, booklovers still have much to thank him for.  I’ve no need to argue for his place in literature’s history; just go to any dictionary of quotations and read the entries for Sam Johnson; you’ll be convinced.  I’ve always been drawn to him because his reputation seems to defy the rules. He shows us that a man can fail in many elements of his life yet still be judged on the sum of his days. He was rude and aggressive in talk, but held to a brilliant conversationalist.  He was a slob, but people queued for his company. And he achieved his best through sustained bouts of almost cruel hard work.  There’s no clearer example of genius being 99% sweat.


The second point in the question is more puzzling.  It suggests that we shouldn’t expect to argue that Johnson was a Tory or that there is some doubt about it, yet I had always taken him to be very much of one.  I nosed through a few books on literature and history, just to reassure myself.  And yes, here, the Oxford Companion to English Lit. confirms that he was a “fervent Tory”.  Now, I don’t think the examiners in 1954 were adrift from opinion and, most certainly, it couldn’t be an attempt at humour, since it is a law of nature that examiners have none.  I wonder if the accepted view of Johnson’s character has developed in the past sixty years.


If so, how reassuring to know that it is the rest of us who have changed but Dr Samuel Johnson has stayed the same.