In these Orwellian times, when a senior adviser to the office of President offers the notion of "alternative facts" to defend an absurdity issued from the big mouth of our new fuhrer, I came across a statement by the author of 1984 and Animal Farm. George Orwell was speaking about his own country, England, but I think the point applies to this country as well:
"Nothing ever stands still. We must add to our heritage or lose it, we must grow greater or we grow less, we must go forward or backward...."
Orwell's words were quoted by Robert Tombs near the end of his recent ambitious study of his country's evolution, titled "The English and Their History." Here is Tombs's own picturesque and concise description of his country:
"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."
This fine portrayal caused me to wonder how would we might describe the United States in real estate terms. How about:
"Big House USA is a McMansion built with low-paid immigrant labor on a vast, environmentally-degraded but world-renowned property, offering separate bedrooms for all the members of its blended soap-opera family who don't get along."
Various historians (to go back to "The English and Their History") contend that England is the prototype of the nation-state. If this is the case, Tombs asks, why has the English nation lasted so long while retaining a sense of its own peculiar "identity"? He then quotes a kind of minority report from 18th century philosopher and historian David Hume, who stated that England's long endurance and remarkable stability is the result of "a great measure of accident with a small ingredient of wisdom and foresight."
In the concluding chapter of his 900-page book, historian Robert Tomb returns to questions he has asked in examining his country's state of the nation through the centuries. What makes England different, enduring, itself? Tombs cites the nation's particular geographical situation -- not its island separation alone, but an island situated close by the influence of a large continent. He recalls Charles deGaulle's conclusion that England should not be part of the Common Market because it would never cling to Europe but continue to spread its greedy fingerprints all over the world.
The island nation's watery separation from the continent did not keep it safe from outside influences: the Romans, the Anglo-Saxons, the Vikings, and the Normans all successfully invaded. In an earlier millennium, the Celts arrived there from the continent. The island was Albion (or Alba) to the Greeks and Romans before it was Briton (in a variety of spellings and languages). It wasn't until the 800s that the name "Engelond" came into use. Norman conquest and expansion, Tombs writes, wrapped Wales, Ireland and (often) Scotland into union with the more populous and dominant Anglo-Saxon nation,but fear of invasion and the constant need for homeland defense was central to the resulting nation-state's development. Tombs notes this interesting consequence: "a prominent part of being English has been paying a lot of tax."
(Note: An incredible wealth of national statistical information underpins the conclusions of this book.)
Both the need for security and the desire for trade kept England interested in and involved with its neighbors. An obsession and rivalry with France is a millennium-long piece of its identity. England was slower than some of its seafaring neighbors to explore the world beyond its Atlantic neighbors. The Vikings sailed further abroad, visiting some parts of the globe centuries before the English did. Tombs contends that Great Britain's empire, its acquisition of colonies in far-flung regions was a result of its rivalry with and fear of the larger, impinging continental nation (and sometimes empire) of France. Trade, defense, and international insecurity turned the English into a seafaring nation that put is faith in a navy rather than an army.
The two-century long British Empire did some good, Tombs contends. Its global reach suppressed continental wars (Tombs calls them 'world wars,' given European rivalries in both the America and Asia in addition to Europe) from the end of Napoleonic era to World War I and achieved some social gains such as the eventual end of the African slave trade. This early era of globalization also exported the English language and some beneficial institutions such as trial by jury, parliament and "sport."
Imperial dominance and European peace allowed the industrial revolution to get rolling. But Tombs suggests the British Empire may have contributed to the two world wars because in some respects they were wars fought against the British empire.
He considers the complicated question of the ways in which the names England and Britain are used interchangeably and the ways they cannot be. 'England' has warmer connotations. You cannot say, "Oh to be in Britain/ Now that April's here" or "in the UK's green and pleasant land."
He also identifies the phenomenon of "Euroscepticism" in a book written before the Brexit vote.
And he quotes Orwell again when considering the real, personal significance a nation's history has for its members. Orwell: "that it is your civilization , it is you... the suet puddings and red pillar boxes have entered into your soul."
Other identifying English traits? Tombs cites "a pervasive social awkwardness alternatively displayed in politeness, rudeness and a characteristic time of humour." And how about that extra 'u'? -- borrowed centuries ago from the French.
Tombs' habit throughout his 900-page study is to discuss a negative critique of the country, and then measure the same negative comparatively with other countries. Here, at his book's end, he cites England's long history of domestic peace compared to the body counts in countries such as France, Russia and China. He does not even bring up the American Civil War. Over the centuries, he writes, England has been "among the richest, safest and best governed places on earth."
In an allusion to institutions such as trial by jury and local government he cites Edmund Burke's praise for "the wisdom of unlettered men."
The book's last argument is for the value of the study of history itself. History, like travel, "broadens the mind."
And in a return to the kind of architectural metaphors we began with, and a bow to his own study's heft, he calls his book "a brick for our common house."
However well built, or ill, you find that house, this brick is worth hefting.