Today I am recommending a book that I am only halfway through – and am not even reading. I am listening to it on ‘Audible’ and it is compelling. It is the Cambridge historian Robert Tombs’s account of The English and their History.
I am still in the first Elizabethan era with four centuries and many more car journeys to go.
Robert Tombs, though a Professor of French history at Cambridge University, is the country’s leading living historian of the English. Even more importantly, he is one of a dying breed who write what I call proper history – chronology provides the fundamental structure of his narrative. His approach to history, mercifully, is entirely devoid of that selective modern social justice sentiment, feminist or liberation revisionism or any other sort Marxist-style deconstructionism. Which comes as a liberation in itself. Even the Guardian reviewer found himself praising Tombs for defying ‘the proprieties of our politically motivated national history curriculum to rethink and revise notions of national identity’ .
Published in 2014, this was the first full-length account of the history of the English to appear in one volume for many decades, from their prehistory through the Anglo-Saxons all the way to UKIP, as Alan Sked amusingly puts it in the frontispiece. It is not just those little-known gems that Tombs relates that fascinate – did you know, for example, that England’s living standards in the 14th century were higher than much of the world in the 20th? – but the questions he asks and seeks the answers for.
Was the Industrial Revolution a rapid transformation or not a revolution at all? Was it a result of Enlightenment ideas fostered by political liberty? Or just due to big coal deposits? Tombs explains why it happened in England and not in India or China. He traces the answer back as far as the Black Death to the gradual intensification of agriculture and diversifying of economic activity that followed.
He documents England’s step-by-step quest for literacy, liberty and self determination from early Anglo-Saxon liberties, the emergence of the common law and the significance of Magna Carta, giving emphasis to the role language, literature (particularly Shakespeare) as well as to religious and political institutions – all of which he describes as the important creators and carriers of memory. He is as concerned with that which we have collectively forgotten as much as with those stories and images that make up our collective memory. I cannot summarise it better than the Guardian’s Richard Davenport-Hines:
‘Tombs traces the history of England as a kingdom, as an international power, as a nationality and as a cultural force. As well as the rulers, institutions, alliances and conquests, he examines the ideas, emotions, words and images that constitute national memory. He begins with the Roman invasion of Britain, recounts the early history of multiple petty kingdoms on the archipelago, and describes the complex aftermath of the 11th-century Norman Conquest. He pursues some fascinating byways (notably his account of the 16th-century emergence of Latinised English, of invigorated vernacular English and of Tyndale’s English-language Bible), but inevitably many readers will fasten on to the topicality of his analysis of the past 450 years’.
I have yet to come to this, our more recent history, and look forward to many more intriguing listening hours.