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TCW’s holiday reads: Tombs, bringing history alive

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The English and their History, by Robert Tombs (Penguin)

EVERY century reveals its exceptional historians who not only enjoy a vast knowledge of history but have that rare gift of being able to share it with the rest of us. Why is this so important for our daily lives? Robert Tombs puts it very well: History, like travel, broadens the mind. There is another writer who puts the message more bluntly, the Spanish-born American sage, George Santayana: ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’

As a schoolboy I was lucky enough to have an absolute character as my A-Level history teacher. Harry Hulston was a big man who would stand facing the wall, hands shoved into his trouser pockets, thinking, nose squashed to the blackboard, revealing the past through those masterpieces written by H A L Fisher, G M Trevelyan and a very few others. Harry and his chosen textbooks vaccinated me with the love and respect for history. I was driven to become a detective of our history and anyone else’s I came across. As a young officer, when I read books on military history or theory, I sought out the authors. As a diplomat the first thing I did on arrival, if not before, was read the history of the country and where possible seek out the authors. That vaccination lasts to this day and has given me a wonderful compass that works all over the planet – and endless pleasure.

Robert Tombs’s The English and their History is up there with Fisher, Trevelyan and indeed Winston Churchill. The latter’s greatest work is Marlborough, his Life and Times. This is a wonderful history, not just a biography of his great ancestor. Churchill’s gift was that you are present in the naughty court of Charles the Second, you can hear the rustle of silk in the beauties’ bedrooms, you feel the shock of young John Churchill’s feet landing in the courtyard of Whitehall Palace after jumping from the bedroom window of the King’s mistress. You are on the battlefields of France, Belgium and Germany. You hear the cannon and smell the smoke, hear the thunder of the horses’ hooves, you feel the heat and breathe the dust. Yet it’s his four-volume History of the English Speaking Peoples that’s his best-known work.

Well, I bear tidings of great joy to all those who seek a contemporary work that also covers our history since February 10, 1957, when Winston Churchill signed the introduction to the last volume of his History of the English Speaking Peoples. As Kathy Gyngell told us last year, Robert Tombs, Emeritus Professor of French History at the University of Cambridge, has written a single volume about the people of England and their history from prehistoric times to the present day with the same gift for bringing alive places, characters and events from hundreds of years ago while always keeping a very shrewd and disciplined sense of perspective. He gets in close for the details but stands back far enough for the reader to see and understand the mingling tides of history. Sometimes the tides are conflicting but mostly they add to each other. You feel that you know more about what made Mary Tudor tick and why her half-sister Elizabeth, perhaps the most well-educated sovereign we ever had, became one of our greatest monarchs and the first power woman in modern times, two hundred years before Maria Theresa and Catherine the Great. This trick, perhaps feat is a better word, he pulls off as well with the Romans as with the actors of recent decades. And the angles from which he asks the reader to view history are so original yet when one thinks, they are blindingly obvious. Every bit of folklore, some modern and political, is challenged and placed on the autopsy table. Believe me, you’ll be surprised by many of the results.

As I read further and came to events and times I had lived through myself, I found the same golden thread running through and coming across beautifully. I won’t spoil the surprises for readers. I will say that his way of placing our history alongside that of our neighbours across the Channel matches Churchill’s for placing America’s and Britain’s stories alongside each other as two branches of the same family tree. He draws generously from his treasure trove of French and continental history. This becomes a gem as he describes how Norman French gradually gave way to the old English of the ordinary people as the language of the law and literature and then kings. One begins to see how recent political earthquakes are mere inevitable tremors along a voyage through time and space which modern politicians, rather inexperienced in life, do not grasp that they cannot alter.

As one of those ignorant and insular people who should not be allowed to vote – the FCO and indeed the Secret Service do not regard passing out from the Royal School of Military Engineering as a formal qualification – my own view always has been that people who live on islands take a much more independent approach to life than those born on countries with land frontiers. The latter inevitably end up with powerful central governments or else they are over-run by the next door neighbours. This book traces the gradual emergence of a single England and our constitution against a kaleidoscope of backgrounds. Union with Scotlandcame seven hundred years later because England bailed out its northern neighbour after a financial crash brought about by a huge though badly managed and extremely dodgy investment on the coast of Latin America. Most of the Act of Union is the list of taxes and import duties which the Scots are not meant to cheat or undercut the English. Three hundred years later, what on earth makes the Scots Nats think the EU won’t do the same, only far tougher? George Santayana told them the answer years ago.

Our constitution owes much to the geography of late Saxon London. The king lived on the island of Westminster. There were fields before one reached the newly re-inhabited city with its bridge across the Thames where the money and commerce were run largely independent of the court. The sovereign still seeks permission to enter the City. The church kept its seat in Canterbury after Saint Augustine failed to convert the Middle Saxons as easily as he had the King of Kent. France developed a much more centralised structure where royal permission was required for business activity and licences or patents had to be purchased. All this long before Napoleon and his code.

Robert Tombs says he was inspired to write the book after talking to a friend, an engineer, who looked blank when he mentioned the Glorious Revolution. Our son went to one of the best schools in this country yet in a very similar way, he too looked blank at the mention of the same event. It seems that even the best schools cannot escape the damage done by John Major and Tony Blair with their so-called National Curriculum. My advice to Boris is to leave the teaching of history to people like Harry Hulston – and Robert Tombs. Indeed, this book has not only an index but a marvellous catalogue of footnote references listing all the sources. Surely, if the author is content, the publisher could produce an electronic version as well as a standard text book for our schools?

Meanwhile why not make a loved one’s Christmas with a gift of this book – or indeed your own? An enjoyable history book is a companion for life. I know. My bookshelves are packed with hundreds of these faithful friends.

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Adrian Hill
Adrian Hill
Adrian Hill. Former soldier and diplomat, afterwards member of CBI Council and author.

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