Left out


March 14, 2013 by Lydia Syson

I’m developing a new obsession, fuelled this week by a number of chance media encounters.  Today I read an article by Mariko Oi reflecting on her own extremely selective education in history as a teenager in Japan – just nineteen pages of a textbook were devoted to events which took place between 1931 and 1945. Oi then outlined the ‘curriculum battles’ taking place in Japan right now. While Nobukatsu Fujioka and his Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform regard the majority of current textbooks as “masochistic”, putting Japan only in a negative light, historian Tamaki Matsuoka believes the very opposite is true.  She says that a number of the country’s foreign relations difficulties can be put down its stance on history in schools:

“Our system has been creating young people who get annoyed by all the complaints that China and South Korea make about war atrocities because they are not taught what they are complaining about…It is very dangerous because some of them may resort to the internet to get more information and then they start believing the nationalists’ views that Japan did nothing wrong.”

Earlier this week I listened to Edmund de Waal talking about his grandmother’s posthumously published and distinctly autobiographical novel about returning to Austria as an exile after the Second World War.  He commented on the very different approaches taken now to the history of the same period in Austria and Germany. I was delighted to discover last month that ‘A World Between Us’ will be translated into German, and interested to see on my German publisher’s list – among a number of issue-based Young Adult novels about teenage alcoholism, bullying and anorexia – a story about a teenager’s difficulties in extricating himself from a far right youth group.  Now I wonder whether a book like that would find as ready an audience in Austria as in Germany.

The Anne Frank Trust travelling exhibition was hosted this term by Elmgreen School in South London – culminating in a visit by Holocaust survivor Herbert Levy, which I was invited to attend.  The message he left the students with – ‘Never again’ – rests on the assumption that only by talking and remembering the past can we prevent the repetition of atrocities.  When I went to talk to some of the same year 9s a few weeks later, they were surprised to hear what a very different approach Spain has until recently taken to the idea of ‘never again’.

This is a hasty post, as I’m off to two events on related subjects this afternoon – a seminar on Middle class recruits to Communism in 1930s Britain at Gresham College, followed by a discussion at LSE with Paul Preston, Daniel Beer, Helen Graham and Dan Stone: Franco’s Terror in a European Context.  Both should be available to view online in the next few weeks.  Two brilliant examples of the kind of high quality, accessible-to-all history events for which our higher education institutions should be celebrated.  Long may they last.

What do you feel got left out of your historical education when you were growing up?  And how have you filled the gaps since?







  1. Jennifer Chapman says:

    Anything interesting! Before history gave me up at the age of 14 in 1964 the most recent thing we studied was the Franco Prussian war. However, from my 20s onward I read dozens of books on the First World War – autobiographies, poetry, fact based fiction, then WW2, in particular Mass Observation diaries, studies etc. Hilary Mantell taught me more about the Tudors than I learnt at school and in much more interesting fashion. Then I was given A World Between Us which was so wonderful and it whetted my appetite. The same lovely lady gave me Unlikely Warriers by Richard Baxell and now I’m fascinated and horrified by the Spanish Civil War! I’m not a bellicose person, just astonished by the bravery all these people. I wonder what it will be next?

  2. Lydia Syson says:

    How lovely to hear that ‘A World Between Us’ ignited your Spanish Civil War fascination. Such courage is so astonishing, I agree. I ‘did’ 1917 to the present (ahem – 1982) day for ‘O’ level history, but don’t remember any mention of Spain in that, and had to leap from the Tudors to the twentieth century aged 13. So George Eliot taught me about Reform Bills, and I only began to grasp the Glorious Revolution in the context of the eighteenth century when I was working on my book about James Graham.

    I suspect my school history gaps were about incompetence rather than politics, but I do regret all those weeks studying cavemen, which seemed to go on forever.

    I’ve just been reading Nella Last’s War for my next book – coming out this October. There’s lots more Mass Observation material online now, though you need to log in via an institution:

    Have you ever thought about becoming an Observer yourself? Info here: http://www.massobs.org.uk/becoming_an_observer.htm

  3. Jennifer Chapman says:

    Terrific, I’m looking forward to your new book already! I’m afraid I never fit the observer profile that Mass Obs are looking for. They just don’t need women in their sixties living in the south east though I live in hope that they will suddenly discover we are exactly what they want – or all those already observing will suddenly get bored! I’m a friend of the archive and find Mass Obs and its history riveting. Should you ever have the time between writing and bringing up four children, try and get hold of Naomi Mitchison’s diary ‘Among you taking notes’. It’s fascinating.

    I had a look for your book about James Graham but see it’s an ebook and I don’t have a Kindle. I prefer the physical book in my hand and you can’t borrow / lend books easily on a Kindle, which is the way most of us discover new authors. Not a Luddite but this is my current sticking point! Sorry, seem to have wandered a little!

  4. Lydia Syson says:

    Thank you for the Naomi Mitchison recommendation – I shall definitely look for that. I know what you mean about the kindle, but now three out of four of the children happily read on one or on a kindle app I’m finding it amazingly useful for zapping and sharing new books with them. And the youngest loves trying all the samples and then deciding which to pursue.

    I do have some hardback copies of ‘Doctor of Love’ left from the original print-run which I can sell half-price (£10) in rather an informal way. Do email me if you’re interested. I’d better weigh one and see what the postage would be. You can get it as a print-on-demand paperback, but absurdly, that’s more expensive.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

“A mesmerising portrait of a family unravelling” THE TIMES (Best historical fiction in 2018)

“Powerful, intense and beautiful” HISTORICAL NOVEL REVIEW

“This tense, evocative, richly-imagined novel conjures the voices of a strange time and place, and makes them universal” EMMA DARWIN

“Syson brings history alive” THE OBSERVER

Search this site