Half facts are worse than no facts at all

Remembering dates has always come easily, dates of any description – birthdays, marriages, deaths, special functions and the rest –  and that extends to pets as well as humans.  And if I did start with some talent in this department, then it was certainly honed by the history teaching methods of the time where knowledge of dates reigned supreme.   And by a history teacher who insisted that half facts were as useless as no facts at all.

At school I became a walking compendium of dates for European and South African history.  I knew all about modern European history, some American history and what seemed to be a disproportionate amount of South African history.  Disproportionate because it seemed to focus so narrowly on the interaction of the Afrikaner people with the British in the nineteenth century.

The manner in which it was taught in the 1960’s could be likened to one of my favourite Clint Eastwood spaghetti western movies.  The Afrikaners – or trekkers as they were known – were the “good”, the colonising English from whose control they were trying to escape were the “ugly”, and the African tribes into whose lands they wandered were the “bad”.  Bad because unhappy events befell many a trekker in his encounters with the African peoples who, quite reasonably, weren’t convinced that a bible was a fair exchange for their land.

The French Revolution was a standard history text in South African high schools in the 1960’s.  Many years later, I pondered the irony of a regime which simultaneously legislated separation of races while allowing its youth to learn about methods of dealing with inequality.

My all-time favourite history acronym is the Duke of Marlborough’s “telephone number”, BROM 4689.  This equates to the victories led by the Duke at Blenheim (1704), Ramillies (1706), Oudenarde (1708) and Malplaquet (1709) in the war of the Spanish Succession.  It wasn’t part of the school syllabus.  It was taught by my father, a man of some preciseness.  Had it passed down from Harris?

Random encounters

I grew up and spent my early adulthood in Cape Town.  In my late twenties, I moved to Sydney with my husband and have lived in that city ever since.

While my personal jury is still out on how much control we have over our lives, there have been a few occasions that have given me cause to wonder whether things which are beyond our control may happen for a reason.

On a visit back to Cape Town in the late 1990s I met up with a school friend who had married a distant cousin of mine.  Marion was compiling the family tree and asked if I could fill in a few blanks for her.  Sure, especially if it related to my parents, siblings and their families.  Even aunts, uncles and cousins, all this was a subject well known to me.  And being good at dates, I could even proclaim years of birth, marriage and death with as  much confidence as the official certificates on which these dates were inscribed.  I might add at this point that I won the history prize at high school.

As Marion unfurled my family tree, I saw a myriad of names under “Descendants of ? Saltman”, most of whom I did not recognise.   Were all these people really connected to me?  It was almost overwhelming to think that I had such a large family, although not beyond the realm of possibility.   After all, my grandmother had been one of twelve siblings, so multiplying out from this number meant that X number of children and their children….no, numbers have never been my strong suit, but I’m sure you understand where I am going with this.

I searched for familiar names and eventually found “Harry, born in Sheffield about 1873”.   Aha, a name I recognised.  Harris.

I knew that he had been born in Sheffield because my father had told me.  But I also knew how old he was when he died and 1873 did not compute as his birth date.

But if it didn’t, how would I find out what did?