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?