The English and Their History

 

As I have kept up with my 2017 resolution of reading and writing about one book a week, choosing a book for the last week of the year has been painfully challenging. There are a large number of books about many fascinating topics that I would love to read and so few I possibly can. I spent this Christmas and New Year holidays torn by further reminders through reading how miniscule I am and how little I know. 

Knowing the book The English and Their History is a giant volume, I have been reading it throughout the year and listening to its audio format occasionally. My intention is to have that as my last book of the year, as it was a precious Christmas gift  to me in 2016. It would make a very nice ending for 2017. So I spent a good amount of time during the holiday season on re-reading this book. The trouble is that I am not particularly good at remembering historic details. In fact I do not make an effort to do that. Robert Tombs writes extraordinarily well with lots of details. How much can I recall? Not much specifics. Was it useful to even bother to read it then? Yes, it is, for the joy of reading while I was in the middle of it, for the epiphany such as “oh, I see, how the English language has been developed over the centuries” or “I see the history of social welfare benefit system and how some come to exploit it”, for the links I make out of disjointed dots that were vague in my history knowledge before and so on.

England is the home that I will return to one day. I wish my ash to be scattered in Hyde Park when the time comes. Robert Tombs’ book The English and Their History helped me to know more about the long history of my second motherland and the long way she has travelled to come to her current form. No doubt great challenges ahead.

As I said, this is a vast volume. I can only share very few snippets here, that my attention is presently drawn to.

Why is it that an Irishman’s, or Frenchman’s hatred of England does not excite in me an answering hatred? I imagine that my national pride prevents it. England is so great that an Englishman cares little what others think of her, or, how they talk of her.  – Thomas Babington Macaulay, diary, 1849.

Nothing ever stands still. We must add to our heritage or lose it, we must grow greater or grow less, we must go forward or backward. I believe in England, and I believe that we shall go forward. – George Orwell

Ingratitude still gets to me, the unfairness and waste of survival; a nation with so many memorials but no memory. – Geoffrey Hill

Nations resemble each other like a street of houses: of different sizes, with different occupants, and different furnishings, but sharing many basic characteristics. England is a rambling old property with ancient foundations, a large Victorian extension, a 1960s garage, and some annoying leaks and draughts balancing its period charm. Some historians believe England to be the prototype of the nation-state: “The birth of the English nation was not the birth of a nation; it was the birth of the nations.” Some English institutions are unusual not because nothing similar existed elsewhere – for example trial by jury, parliament, monarchy – but because they survived here while disappearing elsewhere.

English hegemony sowed the seeds of its own downfall: internally, by provoking nationalist resistance from Ireland to India, and externally, by provoking challenges from rivals – France, Russia, Germany, Japan and the United States. The two world wars were in part wars against the British Empire. The most dangerous of these challenges, from an alliance of German, Japanese and Italian fascists, threatened to create a new and deadly form of imperialism across Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East. The role of England, Britain and the empire in defeating this danger was certainly one of their most important historic actions.

Yet empire had, as General de Gaulle observed, left England with a level of global connectedness which distinguished it from Continental nations. Its people had more intimate family and cultural connections with North America, Australasia or the Indian subcontinent than with Belgium, Luxembourg or Bavaria.

Few things have been as important in our history as a few miles of sea.

George Orwell’s view was typically trenchant: “What can the England of 1940 have in common with the England of 1840? But then, what have you in common with the child of five whose photograph your mother keeps on the mantelpiece? Nothing, except that you happen to be the same person.” The connection, he said, was that “it is your civilisation, it is you… the suet puddings and the red pillar boxes have entered into your soul.” England’s history, thought Orwell, to some extent determined how things developed: “certain alternatives are possible and others not. A seed may grow or not grow, but at any rate a turnip seed never grows into a parsnip.” Striking metaphors are impermeable to analysis, but we would probably agree with the general point. As long as its present civilisation lasts, England will not have a violent revolution, or a military coup, or a religious civil war. We often assume that other nations will behave in the same way as we do, and are sometimes surprised when they do not, or cannot. In both cases, history makes it so.

Over the generations, a whole range of different and even contradictory characteristics have been recognised and caricatured as “typical English”: both conformity and eccentricity, bluntness and reticence, deference and assertiveness, honesty and hypocrisy, community spirit and privacy, and so on. If we agree with Hume’s view about liberty creating individuality, perhaps these different characteristics are indeed all “typical English”.

Englishness therefore was not based on notions of ethnic purity or cultural uniqueness, which meant that nationhood was shaped not by “exclusion and opposition” but by “inclusion and expansion”.

We owe respect to the past, as we do to other societies today, not for the sake of our predecessors, who are beyond caring, but for our own sake. Treating the past as grotesque and inferior is the attitude of the tourist who can see nothing “abroad” but dirt and bad plumbing. Recognising the qualities of past societies with resources a fraction of ours may at least deflate our own complacency, and remind us that we have little excuse for our present social and political failings. Some people debate whether we should feel pride or shame in England’s history. Logically, one is impossible without the other. Neither makes much sense unless we feel that something of our predecessors’ culture is still alive in us, whether to be cherished or eradicated. Better than either pride or shame, it seems to me, would be to accept responsibility: both for repairing and compensating for the failings of past generations, and for preserving and handing on their achievements. No country and people have had their history more thoroughly explored, debated and retold both by themselves and by others. This is one of the principal ways in which a culture perpetuates and renews itself. It forms our ideas of who and what we once were, now are, and wish some day to become. I hope that a knowledge of history can help us to respect the past, understand the present, and be sensitive to the future.

Re-read the last paragraph again. How sobering. Writing this on New Year Eve, as 2017 is drawing its curtain, what lessons do each of us learn from this new addition to history?  

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