I’m Reading: The English and Their History by Robert Tombs

Do you know your history?

I thought I knew something about British and English history having previous read a couple of books on the subject, but there’s always more to learn.

The English and Their History is an epic, the paperback has 1024 pages, and not something I would normally get the chance to read, so I employed the technology and listened instead. Stephen Thorne’s rendition is 45 hours and 31 minutes long! That must have been quite a reading session.

The book is described as the “first full-length account to appear in one volume for many decades” which pretty much sums up a book that starts in the 5th and 6th century AD and finishes quite close to the current day. It’s amazing to think that the name England – or, rather Englalond – is over 1000 years old.

The English are an interesting breed, regarding themselves as a nation that occupies a land, neither of which are easily described and rarely universally agreed upon. I regard myself as English, but my ancestry is more complicated than that which is evident in a surname that derives from Flanders, but I’m quite typical of many English people. We are surrounded by nations with a much more definable heritage and identity, but we are mostly comfortable with our variety.

The land around me is littered with battle locations, each of which could have significantly changed the nation that we call England today. Not far away is a river where the Romans created a strategic fortification near a crossing, surrounding it today is a small town that was mostly built from the rocks used to build those fortifications. Those Romans are long gone, but their impact is still visible. Within walking distance the buildings of the industrial revolution have been redeployed to new uses that disguise their former significance; a call-centre now occupies the space where weavers would work the cotton from America. Around those building is a community that is only their become of the British Empire and the cross-continental connections that it created.

I say these things to highlight the effects that English history is still having today. As I listened to The English and Their History I was struck by how many times I could relate attitudes and biases today to things that happened hundreds of years earlier. The Brexit debate has so many parallels in our history that it’s amazing that anyone was surprised by the outcome of the vote.

I was also struck by the impact that my own history had on my own thinking processes. Pick any of the labels that I give myself and the history behind it impacts upon what that label means. As a northerner I have a certain perspective on a north-south divide that has existed for hundreds of years. As a protestant I am impacted by the shift that this nation took under the rule of Henry VIII. As an office worker I know the impact of the industrial revolution and the creation of companies.

That, for me, is the power of studying history, understanding myself and understanding others. The 45 hours I spent getting a better understanding of myself and others is already yielding a high return.

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