A somewhat scary realisation – this week marks the fortieth anniversary of starting my first teaching job! I’m not entirely sure where that time has gone; for one thing, I can still remember my first staff meeting (probably one of the few I stayed awake in over the years, including the ones later in my career that I was actually chairing), and I can also recall quite a few of the pupils I was teaching back then. I wonder what became of them all…worryingly, even the youngest of them would be in their fifties now, while the oldest student I taught in my first year was only three years younger than me… Still, I owe a huge thank you to all the students I taught and colleagues I worked with during those years, both during my first post in Newquay, Cornwall (not a bad place for a maritime nut to be) and above all in the school where I spent most of my career, in Bedford (a pretty terrible place for a maritime nut to be).
The anniversary isn’t the only reason why my thoughts have focused a lot on schools during the last few days. I’ve also been reading a superb new book, Sailing School: Navigating Science and Skill, 1550-1800, by Margaret Schotte, assistant professor of History at York University, Toronto. The author was kind enough to send me a complimentary copy because of my ‘important work in the field’ (much blushing) and with a request to spread about the word about it, which I’m more than happy to do. The book tackles one of the most fundamental questions about seamanship in the age of sail – how, exactly, did sailors learn to navigate? This is one of those issues that most authors and historians, myself included, have largely taken for granted, but it raises all sorts of interesting questions, not the least being the balance between theoretical and practical learning, a debate common to so many other disciplines over many centuries. (One of those, indeed, is teaching itself, where no amount of rose-tinted theory about child-centred learning during the training course can prepare one for the reality of trying to teach bored and hormonal 15 year olds on a wet Friday afternoon.) Schotte’s approach is innovative, breaking away from conventional chronological narrative to focus instead on a specific place at a specific time, using this as the ‘hook’ on which to hang her broader analysis of the subject. Thus her chapters are set in Seville in c.1552, Amsterdam in c.1600, Dieppe in 1675, London in 1683, the Netherlands in c.1710, and aboard HMS Guardian in 1789, where Lieutenant Edward Riou faces the challenges of navigating the southern Indian Ocean.
I’m not going to attempt a full book review here (partly because I’m still a fair way off finishing it, partly because it’s not officially published in the UK for another three weeks!) Suffice to say that Schotte’s book is beautifully written and highly readable, especially in light of the fact that she’s often dealing with some quite complex scientific and mathematical issues. The book has also been superbly produced by Johns Hopkins University Press; there are nine colour plates and many black and white illustrations. Moreover, her research has been remarkably broad, covering original sources in English, French and Dutch, and calling on archives from Quebec to Sydney by way of Plymouth, Kew, Rouen, Vincennes, Amsterdam and others besides. In short, this is a hugely important book about a hugely important topic, and it’s a pleasure and a privilege to have received a copy of it!
Meanwhile, back in the land of make-believe – in other words, my fiction – I’m delighted to announce that I’ve recently finished the first draft of the second novel in ‘Jack Stannard of the Navy Royal’, my trilogy set in the Tudor period. I’m currently waiting for feedback from my publisher et al, but in the very near future – maybe even in next week’s post – I hope to be able to announce the title, provide a ‘cover reveal’, announce the publication date, and perhaps even provide a ‘teaser trailer’ of the story!
In the shorter term, though, I’ll be in Bristol at the end of the week to take part in the ‘Connecting the Oceans’ conference, which I’ve blogged about here. It’s still not too late to get a ticket, which you can obtain here!