Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Look and Learn

When I was a child there was a very well known educational magazine published weekly called Look and Learn (a quick google of it tells me that it ran for twenty years from 1962-82). My older brother who is terribly clever used to subscribe to it and another great sixties classic, Knowledge. Of the two L&L was my favourite, as there was rather less emphasis on Difficult Scientific Topics (though I did love the stuff on astronomy) and more on my favourite subjects of literature and history. It also came with a weekly cartoon strip called the Trigan Empire, which featured the eponymous hero, the Emperor Trigo, who weekly staved off evil to defend his empire and its people from threat. Bizarrely though ostensibly an SF story, all the characters dressed and acted as if they were living in Roman times, so the result was a weird meld between ancient history and sixties high tech futuristic musings. But for all that oddity, somehow it worked...

I think that L&L was probably quite pricey because we didn't always get it, but at some point during the seventies some incredibly generous person offloaded about ten yearsworth of L&Ls on my parents so we had a veritable store to choose from. I can remember the pleasure of going into our ancient toy cupboard, and grabbing a magazine from the shelf where they were crammed while simultaneously trying to ensure the whole lot didn't come tumbling down on your shoulders, before settling down for a reading experience, the like of which I haven't had replicated in my adult life. Ever.

Until this week that is. It was Spouse's birthday on Monday, and in a total nostalgia fest kind of way, one of the presents I bought him was The Big Bumper Book of Look and Learn , compiled from the best bits. (OK, OK, I did buy it for me, as he didn't read it as much as I did, but what's the point of other people's birthdays if you don't buy yourself the occasional treat, hm?)

As we settled down to watch the other nostalgia present (Control about the tragic life of Ian Curtis, lead singer of Joy Division, if you're interested), I flicked through the pages of the annual recapturing that flickering of enthusiastic interest that the original mags inspired in me. There were a lot of historical tales in there - including that of William Wallace, Elizabeth I, The Great Fire of London - as well as literature, L&L evidently had lots to say about Shakespeare, for example, Ancient History, Geography, and of course, the Trigan Empire. I was really disappointed when I got to the end of the first strip because I feared that the compiler of TBBoLaL might have given me just one episode, but I needn't have worried. Embedded in between the stories about Shakespeare and Pepys, a complete story emerged. A totally ludicrous preposterous story it's true, but compelling none the less. Aiens in the forms of floating orbs land on Elekton, the planet where the stories are set, infiltrate first some Trigan animals called gelfs - which look more like yaks to me - before taking over the old man who herds the gelfs and then a succession of people, until they reach shock, horror! the Emperor Trigo himself. Once they've got him onside they aim to take over the world, destroying all in their path etc etc (it must get boring being an alien invader, you only ever get to do one thing. I expect sometimes they probably just want to sit down and have a nice cup of tea. ) Anyway. All would have gone very ill for Trigo et al, except that inconveniently for the aliens, there were only three of them and one had to leave a host to take over Trigo, leaving the ex host - one of Trigo's pals - the chance to raise the alarm and sort the whole shebang out.
The sheer brilliance of the Trigan Empire, I decided on this thoroughly enjoyable rediscovery is that despite the preposterous plot, the writing was so gripping you just had to read on. The guys that wrote clearly knew how to spin a yarn. (And if you don't believe me go to: and find out for yourselves).

The main thing apart from the joy of The TE of course, that struck me about L&L, was the self confidence of the writing. There was no sense here of craven apologies for evil empire building, for the English to be portrayed generally as being responsible for the ills of the world, but rather a general belief (not a crowing or arrogant one either) that actually there is rather a lot to celebrate in our nation's history, which I did find very refreshing.

As readers of this blog are probably aware, history is a bit of a passion of mine, and what struck me most about L&L was the dispassionate, fair and factual way history was presented. The Wallace piece for example, rather then branding him as a cheating rebel against the English (as one might expect from Mel Gibson's Braveheart approach of all the English were bastards type approach to history), extolled him as hero, while pointing out that the English would have thought him a cheating rebel etc. Most interestingly I think from our oh so superior Political Correctness standpoint was that L&L didn't just stick to English, or even European History. There was evidently one series devoted to African history, in the piece chosenyou can learn all about the great kingdom of Kush (I did, and it was fascinating), and one wincingly called When the Redman Rode (ok, that title doesn't stand up well), about the Cheyenne warriors. Granted there is a little of the Noble Savage take on their story but it is written with a great deal of sympathy for their plight and the actions of the white man in conquering America don't always hold up to scrutiny.

I mention all this because it struck me that we could perhaps learn a lot from going back to a more Look and Learn approach to the world, particularly in history.

As well as indulging in a nostalgia fest, Spouse (who'd taken a couple of days off work)and I also spent yesterday afternoon watching Elizabeth the Golden Reign. We'd been looking forward to this as we both enjoyed the first Cate Blanchett film. But oh deary me, were we disappointed. About half my lifetime ago I studied Elizabeth Tudor for A Level history. At the time I found it frustrating because all the historians I was studying had made the classic mistake of falling in love with her, and being bedazzled by her achievements, her beauty, her status in our history as Gloriana, the Virgin Queen (I blame that Sir Philip Sidney myself, who laughingly didn't even make it into Elizabeth, but then again there was no sign of Robert Dudley either.)
My very wise and brilliant history teacher encouraged me to look at Elizabeth from the opposite perspective - not as someone who alway succeeded, but someone who frequently failed, particularly when pitted against her chief rivals Catherine de Medici and Philip II of Spain. What she had, which they both lacked though, was considerable political acumen, and she was invariably able to make disaster seem like triumph, and wrongfooted them consistently - a Teflon Tone of her day perhaps (I was always amused when TB used to talk about a middle way - Elizabeth I's own strategy for dealing with the thorny religious problems of her day).

I fear that Shekhar Kapur, director of Elizabeth falls into the same trap, he clearly adores the character of Elizabeth and her rivals are totally belittled in this film. Cate Blanchett is brilliant in the role as she was in the first film, and visually it's stunning, but the rest of it. Well it just doesn't stand up at all. Clive Owen (who I do like, but is poorly served here) is brought in as a love interest in the shape of Sir Walter Raleigh, who later married Elizabeth's lady in waiting, Bess Throckmorton. Right so far, but oh so wrong about everything else. For starters, they got married in 1591, three years after the events of the film took place. Plus as far as I can remember it was Drake who sent in the fire ships to destroy the Armada - Raleigh was doing his duty defending the coast of Plymouth.
Mary Queen of Scots in the meantime is reduced to a viperish rival (who I rather think would have spoken with a French, not Scottis accent) and the Babington Plot, which sealed her fate but may very well have been trumped up by Walsingham, the original Spymaster was portrayed as being conceived by Philip II to force Elizabeth to commit regicide, thereby giving him reason to launch the Armada. I don't think somehow he needed much reason...
Philip II of Spain, himself was shown as a raving bigoted religous zealot which I felt was unfair. As much as anything else he was desperately trying to save the kingdom his father Charles V had left him from the same fate as that which befell the Holy Roman Empire. Charles V lost his northern German principalities to Protestant princes, and Philip was busy losing his Dutch lands to Calvinist rebels. Yes, yes, I do know that the Spanish invented the Inquisition and all that, but they weren't alone in their barbarity - the aforementioned Calvinists did a fine line in taking over city states from within and slaughtering everyone unprepared to convert - it strikes me this film set out to be a grand epic of warring religious ideologies and descended into rather crude caracaturing.
Maybe this doesn't matter, this is after all only a film. But I think it does actually. Because this is a film which purports to portray the truth about actual historical events, and as such it should at least get the basic facts right (in that I think it somewhat different from the forthcoming film of The Other Boleyn Girl or the books my writing friend Elizabeth Chadwick writes about mediaeval times, because it is made clear that fact and fiction are being blended together) - and also I think it is the job of anyone portraying historical events to show them without prejudice and favour - give us all the facts and both sides of the story, then we can make up our own minds.
Which is why I suggest that Look and Learn become compulsory reading for all school children aged eight years and above. They will learn much about their own history and that of others, and with any luck, they might actually learn to think for themselves.

Watching Elizabeth: The Golden Reign on the other hand, will ensure they won't...


Anonymous said...

Oh I'm jealous. The Grauniad did a release of L&L last year and I got all excited but the eldest rather sneered at it. Now she is in to Kids Geographic, she may be more interested...

Stop posting, I'm trying to finish a short story here.

Mad Twinx

Expatmum said...

Wow. Great post! I will be interested in your opinions on The Other Boleyn Girl. I have to see it at the weekend and review it for something over here in Chicago. Having studied that time as my history A level (ah memories) and read the book already, I have a feeling it might be a bit "Hollywood". The author has already written a few pieces in the Mail about how different the book is from the film. Reading between the lines, I don't think she thought they got her drift.

Dumdad said...

Look and Learn - that brings back memories! I used to get that when I was a kid. I also loved all the other comics like the Beano, Valiant, Dandy, Hotspur, Beezer et al).

Globus said...

globus used to love that look&learn. now your post has brought back fond memories, and made globus feel an old fart, in equal measure :-)