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Hodder History Expert Blog

No. 1
By Tony Fox
05 Jul

In my previous blog, I mentioned that, because of a bad experience I had not used historical fiction in the classroom for some time, but that I have been recently inspired by Tony Stowers’ No.1 to give it another try. In this blog I want to explain why I think it is so inspiring and what that tells me about the criteria we should apply in choosing historical fiction for classroom use.

What I look for in historical fiction for the History classroom

Students struggle to get a feel for the period. They can quote facts about it, but these don't seem to help them relate to the period, to portray the flavour of the time. This often leads to misunderstanding and misconceptions. But I think that historical fiction can help to 'capture the essence and spirit of the time.' This is a particular strength of Tony Stowers' book No.1.  The reader gets a fantastic feel for the time, and its geography and its aesthetics.  What makes it such a good book?

Research

It is clearly very well researched; it is admirable the detail he goes into on aspects that don't drive the narrative, for example: Isaac Pease's illness, or the description of the Stockton dockside at the end of the novel.

Local knowledge and period detail

He also clearly knows the regions of the North East of England thoroughly: little anecdotes remind you how distinct the regions within the North East were, and to some extent still are, especially the pit villages to the North of Shildon.

Powerful and moving prose

Without doubt it is also well written. There are some passages which I re-read just to appreciate the construction of the prose. For me, however, the highlight is the minute by minute description of Locomotion No.1's journey from Brusselton Bank to Stockton's quayside, which is the culmination of the novel. This is outstanding. This part might just be the finest piece of historical fiction I have read in over 36 years.

Human angles

When looking at a particular event I aim to humanise the event and to show its effects on groups and individuals. I aim to get pupils thinking about the attitudes, values and experiences of the people involved or affected. The focus of No.1 is firmly on the attitudes, values and experiences of the people of the North East in the post Napoleonic War period, but more than this, it is viewed from multiple perspectives.

The challenge authors usually face, when dealing with multiple characters is superficiality, the characters can lack depth and become stereotypes; as we saw in The Boy in the striped Pyjamas.

In No.1 the primary character, Lewis, meets a myriad of characters, some well known, some fictional and some less well known. The well known characters, Stephenson, Hackworth and the Peases for example are superbly fleshed out; the actions, speech and descriptions are highly credible, enriching understanding of these men. They are far from being the stereotypes we see in most literature.

It's not just the main and famous characters that have a deep richness, Tony's narrative style focuses on the individuality of the people, we get the firm impression that he is writing about complex human beings, people who have thoughts, desires, weaknesses and fears. His characters have a range of constantly altering emotions which influence their immediate actions. This can help students understand why people in the past took action.

The description of the Battle of Waterloo in No.1 impressed me particularly. His account contrasts positively with other fictional accounts of this well known battle. In Tony's novel a character participates in the battle, but is mostly a witness to the chaos around him, he doesn't win the battle single-handedly, as Cornwell's Richard Sharpe does. He is shown to be a complicated individual, caught up in a chaotic and confusing event. Despite demonstrating loyalty and bravery he is also portrayed as corrupt and cowardly. The decisions he makes are logical and understandable, but lead him to act despicably. After the battle, the ex-soldier is seen as a war hero by many he meets on his travels, he sometimes feels guilty about this label, although not enough for me to warm to him. This makes the book so useful. The emotions are real. I disliked and pitied him, but not enough to hate him, for we are also shown his frailties.

There was also a special bonus for me - a personal connection!

The novel opens with a description of The Tees Navigation Company's meeting in September 1810, a meeting held to celebrate the opening of the Mandale Cut, and where the idea, that would later be the Stockton and Darlington Railway, was first proposed. I have studied this event for a number of years, as I have a personal connection. My ancestor Benjamin Flounders was a director of the Tees Navigation Company. It was he who had proposed the Mandate Cut. When Leonard Raisbeck proposed, during these celebrations, that they enquire into the 'practicability' of building a canal or railway, it was Benjamin who seconded the motion.

The genius of Tony's writing is that although I felt I know these two men very well, and the event in question, this scene still maintains it's drama, whilst also conserving the historical accuracy.

This quality is maintained throughout the book, so much so that by the time we came to September 1825, I had abandoned any attempt to examine the historical aspects and had been fully drawn into the drama of Lewis' journey and the opening of the Stockton and Darlington Railway.

Multi-dimensional history

In the new national curriculum historical issues have been presented as flat, one-dimensional, single-sided and Anglo-centric. By contrast No.1, restores the landscape of history, dirt and all.

It combines depth of characterisation and detailed contextual narrative. Leaps of imagination and poetic licence are firmly anchored to  historical detail, without undermining the quality and flow of the narrative.

Firing my own research

Reading No.1 I am learning a great deal, but more than that, I am finding lesson planning an enjoyable experience. I first read the novel for pleasure with no history lessons in mind, and then found I was left a little empty when I reached the end.

Lesson planning then got me back inside the story which then further motivated me to research aspects of the story I had hardly considered before. It changed my views on the significance of a few individuals.

I know this enthusiasm will be reflected in my teaching and I sincerely hope that students who read this book will genuinely engage with the Teesside transport revolution.

Tony Fox

Tony Fox took his PGCE at Trinity and All Saints College (the home of  SHP) in 2000. He is a Humanities teacher based in the North East of England. He has Chaired the Durham Branch of the Historical Association since 2005, is the South Durham regional Officer for the Battlefields Trust, and is an advisor to various heritage bodies and groups in the region.

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