Forty years ago this Tuesday, I pulled a sickie. I was five years old and I was determined that I was definitely not going to spend that particular day in school. In my defence, it was a special day as it was the day that the operation to raise the Tudor warship, ‘The Mary Rose’ finally got underway. I remember watching the archaeologist Dr Margaret Rule (1928-2015) convey the sense of risk involved in the operation. Her breathless excitement was infectious. Years in the planning, the complex operation was finally underway. I imagined the ship would emerge from the waves looking almost new. After all, it was claimed that she was very well preserved.
I remember the very disappointment that I felt upon being driven to School. How could I be made to go to school when something so interesting was happening elsewhere? There was no television in our classroom and, unsurprisingly, none of my Year One friends shared my interest in what was going on. My first real sense of the world beyond our corner of Surrey had been provided by the visceral televisual coverage of the Falklands War some months earlier. Of course, this was a much happier event and the raising of the Mary Rose seemed to provide a wonderful antidote to the loss and misery caused by conflict. Running out of options, I decided to feign a stomach ache. With tears rolling down my cheek, I clutched my tummy and implored Mrs Graham to let me go home. ‘Oh dear, you poor little thing, I think Mummy better come and collect you’. Delighted with the success of my scheme, my imaginary symptoms vanished as soon as I had conjured them up. Nevertheless, I had to keep up appearances until we had arrived home. Forgetting myself, I leapt out of the car, rushed into the house and asked my mother to turn on the television. By this point, she realised that I had escaped school under false pretences. I was sent upstairs to ‘recover’ in the silence of my bedroom. After all, if I was too ill to be at school then I was clearly too ill to cope with the excitement of marine archaeology. Bitterly disappointed that I had been rumbled, I remember lying on my bed desperately trying to hear the radio in the kitchen. Even that was turned off, for my mother was tutoring.
On Tuesday morning, my mother sent me a message to remind me of this precocious foray into skiving. Morally, it was not my finest hour but I can trace my fascination with history back to that single event. The excitement that I felt as a five year old has only deepened with age. I still feel the enormous thrill that accompanies our attempts to uncover or reconnect with the past. Inquisitiveness, a desire to understand the human condition and a preoccupation with the notion of change and continuity over time all feed the historian within. I was never destined to make great discoveries within the realms of science or mathematics, but historical research has provided me with many opportunities to experience the adrenaline rush that accompanies making connections for the first time.
Headmaster of Rossall School