Crowded centuries

20th September 1996 at 01:00
THE STORY OF BRITAIN By Roy Strong Hutchinson, Pounds 35. A HISTORY OF THE BRITISH ISLES By Jeremy Black Macmillan, Pounds 16.99.

Do histories of Britain inevitably have to be histories of England? Ronald Hutton compares two new versions. At first sight the personalities of these two latest contributions to the debate over the nature and future of Britishness could hardly be more different. The cover of Sir Roy Strong's book bears the royal arms on the front, and on the back a photograph of the author in Napoleonic stance before Stonehenge. The legend above this heroic portrait promises "One man's quest to give to everyone the history of their country". Professor Black's front cover carries a homely painting of a South Downs shepherd driving his flock; the irony only becomes apparent on turning to the back and finding that this anodyne image is a symbol of conflict and official manipulation, for it is taken from a Second World War recruiting poster.

On further reading, both books turn out to be sounder and less provocative than their packaging would suggest. Indeed, they have much common ground. Both rely heavily upon a factual narrative, are stitched together from much the same recent historiography, and conclude that Britain has no single and coherent story, that contingency and accident were major forces in its history, and that its future remains an open question.

Neither is very happy when dealing with the centuries before 1100; Black's early chapters are a bare chronicle, while Strong informs his readers that Roman legions marched 19 miles twice a day, every day, that Anglo-Saxon women enjoyed equality with men, and that William the Conqueror imposed the feudal system.

Both get into their stride with the Middle Ages and early modern period, and although Black carefully lists his sources and advisers and Strong has decided not to name any, they are both well abreast of recent revisionist historiography; the only glaring exception is Sir Roy's dismissal of the reign of Mary Tudor. Both, likewise, characterise the years between 1945 and 1979 as a time of mistakes, false dreams, and lost opportunities.

The differences are mainly those of form and style. Strong's work is a massive tome, not easily transported from the bedside or coffee table on which it is designed to come to rest. Its print is bold and its illustrations lavish, carefully chosen, and (as one would expect from an art historian) shrewdly captioned.

Paintings and buildings feature as personalities in their own right, as revealing as the individual humans carefully described in these pages. Events are illuminated by a succession of sound-bite quotations, from Tacitus to Prime Minister Jim Callaghan. Repeatedly, heroic figures are picked out as exemplars of an age or tradition, as different in quality as Henry II, Caxton, Capability Brown and Charles Darwin. The forces which are glorified are those of traditional English historiography: the liberal constitutional state and high culture.

Also traditional is the unspoken assumption that Britain effectively consists of lowland England. The other parts (and Ireland) are usually only considered when they are making either trouble or money to an unusual degree.

This is exactly where Jeremy Black comes into his own, for he delivers the history of the archipelago which he promises. The coverage is not wholly even; sketchy for Ireland and pre-modern northern England, good for Scotland, and superlative for Wales. Neither are the national stories integrated, for there is no sustained attempt to show how they reacted upon each other.

This said, the perspective of the work is wider and fuller than that of any other recent history of these islands. It is the more significant, therefore, that the book is so portable, a handy close-written volume easily tucked into a bag.

Black's work is also remarkable for the sense which it conveys of the power of broad social and cultural change, to which individuals and specific works are kept firmly subordinate. Chaucer gets a chapter to himself from Strong, and four words from Black, but the total number of creative writers cited by the latter is far greater.

Black loves statistics as much as Strong loves quotations; only he could inform readers of the number of markets licensed in 13th-century Lincolnshire with the same relish as he enters the numbers of television sets manufactured by Sony at Bridgend in 1973-93.

In the last analysis, this makes his history more comforting to a reader in the 1990s, for his account of the 20th century is a crowded and exhilarating one, conveying the benefits and excitements, as well as the anxieties, of wholesale transformation.

By contrast, Sir Roy, like most self-professed conservatives, falls into the trap that the traditionally triumphalist history of Britain can only portray the late-20th century as a time of degeneration or failure. It is by no means clear what relevance the past achievements lauded by this history have for the present and future, and nor can Strong himself propose one.

In many ways, the two books are wholly compatible; an uninformed reader should start with Strong and then move on to Black. There is need for a more radical history than either, which gives real weight to all the achievements of the component parts of the British Isles, and challenges the worth of the emphases given to individuals and events in conventional treatments; and perhaps these works will help to provoke one.

Ronald Hutton is professor of history at the University of Bristol. u Sir

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