The insights that James Hawes offered in his The Shortest History of Germany were so perceptive and accessible that his new work was one of my most anticipated of 2020. Of course that wait stretched and stretched, but eventually the book was published early in December.
Condensing nigh on 2100 years of history into 270 pages requires a model, and Hawes uses the same model as his previous work. The history is divided into five sections: From Caesar to the Conqueror, The England of the Two Tongues, The English and Empire, Industrial Revolution, Farewell the Eagles and Trumpets. Each chapter is written in short digestible sections with a multitude of illustrations, infographics and maps. All of which are extremely useful, especially the maps which I found essential for keeping track of who invaded from which direction and who defended whom, etc.
I was in places revisiting history not contemplated since I was at school and there were a few surprises. For instance, how come I never realised the dividing line between North and South England was the River Trent? Hawes makes a great play on this issue. In fact once we (i.e the English) have somehow emerged from the mix of invading hordes, the defining issue of England is the division between North and South. How geographically and geologically the South had competitive advantage for wealth and governance. And once William the Conqueror had finished with his harrying of the North(so severe, that even he regretted it) the region took a good while to get up off its knees. In the meantime the South capitalised on its gains.
Then the C13th brought the first enclosures – the closing off of common land resulting in the peasants becoming poorer. Over the next 3 centuries most land was closed off and England became the land of haves (elites) and have-nots with very little opportunity for upward mobility.
Bygones? A lot has happened since those days (Empire, Industrial Revolution, 2 World Wars, Thatcherism, Blairism, Austerity) and the wealth divide continues to exist and expand. Are Northern accents still the butt of jokes? I don’t honestly know the answer to that – I haven’t lived in England for 40 years. But I do know that in 1977 my headmistress suggested that I take elocution lessons if I wanted to apply to Oxbridge. I didn’t, so I didn’t, but with Hawes’s insights on received pronunciation and the doors it opens, I now understand why she advised as she did. (As it turned out, living in Germany and Scotland, those doors were irrelevant to me.)
Moving into contemporary times and the North-South divide was finally bridged, at least electorally. It took Nigel Farage to understand how to do it. Then Boris capitalised by … speaking pre-conquest English! I’m not seeking political argument here, just summarising Hawes’s theory. Which might be a bit simplistic, but Boris’s Anglo-Saxon speech and talk of levelling-up certainly contributed to the destruction of the Red Wall in 2019.
(While we on the subject of vocabulary, it really surprised me how long the derogatory term “Little Englanders” has been part of the lexicon.)
End of 2020, and we are where we are due to what Hawes calls “the 1000-year-old gulf which separates the ordinary English from their cultural elites”, the filter through which most of Hawes’s broad-stroke history is written. Interesting, thought-provoking and persuasive in parts, but certainly not an unbiased account, if that’s what you’re seeking.