At school I loved our history lessons. I spent hours drawing plans of castles and battles, and was a binge reader of historical fiction by anyone from Rosemary Sutcliff and Henry Treece to Mary Renault and Robert Graves. A little later I enjoyed exploring first-hand evidence from the past and I particularly remember some volumes in the school library called They Saw It Happen. The third of these English historical anthologies, covering the years 1689–1897, was especially well-known to us because it had been compiled by bufferish Mr Charles-Edwards and suede-shoed Mr Richardson from our very own History Department.
Reading that anthology now I can see how conventional its historical pedagogy was for the 1950s. These eye-witness accounts, while entertaining and informative, read cumulatively like 1066 and All That with a straight face. The two schoolmasters gorge themselves on accounts of British military victories, doings at court and great men, giving only token coverage to such juicy social and political issues as the railways (a Good Thing), radical politics (mobs), empire (heroic) and slavery and child labour (thoroughly Bad Things).
Humphrey Jennings’s anthology of historical witness to English history, Pandaemonium – which existed in typescript years before the third volume of They Saw It Happen appeared – stretches across almost exactly the same period. Yet it is a very different proposition. Jennings has not the slightest interest in the bloody exploits of Marlborough, Anson, Nelson and Wellington, or in the intrigues of Walpole and Disraeli. He focuses instead on what was, for him, the defining driver of change in English destiny: ‘the coming of the machine’.
Jennings was born in 1907, a contemporary of W. H. Auden, John Betjeman, Graham Sutherland, Michael Tippett and Carol Reed. He enjoyed a meteoric career in the 1930s, hardly straying more than two degrees of separation from the great ones o
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