Best Foot Forward

Geoffrey Best, doyen of Victorian history, demonstrates that not all leading scholars start out as swots

Wherever my response to the call of history began, it certainly wasn’t at school. Preparation for the Common Entrance Exam (in those days before the Second World War, the Eleven-Plus of the aspiring middle class) included scraps of Roman history but they disappeared, leaving no more trace than the more systematic injections by classics masters at St Paul’s in 1942 and 1943.

Tudors and Stuarts, too, came and went; I recall the book we used (Reese) but none of the history and not even the master who took us through it. European history notes were desperately dictated to us by an incompetent master, who oddly enough moved on to an even more famous school.

It was only when he gave way to a gifted younger man whose only teaching to date had been as Lektor in English at Königsberg, ten years earlier, that I began to understand the subject as such and to take an intelligent interest in it; and by then I was fifteen. But some imaginative sense of history was already in my heart and mind. Working out where it came from and how it got into me has produced some surprises.

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