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Thursday, May 29, 2014

“The Isles: A History”, by Norman Davies

1222 pages, Oxford University Press, ISBN-13: 978-0195134421

 The Isles: A History by Norman Davies isn’t a primer; you need a nodding acquaintance with the ins-and-outs of British history before you read it or you may come away with only a partial (in both senses) view. Unkind readers might say this is a 1200-page exercise in ax-grinding; I prefer to call it a very long polemic (nothing wrong with that, provided you understand what’s going on). The spectacle is impressive if a little alarming – like watching an expert woodsman enthusiastically chopping up an ancient oak tree for firewood.

It’s true that Britishness is a working arrangement, not an organic growth (you can be naturalized British, but to be Scots, Welsh or English you have to be born that way). The author thinks the arrangement isn’t working any more if it ever did; and he may be right. His book starts with the Stone Age and goes up to 1999, with the main thrust being how Britishness has been invented and reinvented over the centuries to serve the interests of elites (who typically boil down to rich and royal Anglos) who also wrote all of the histories. Revisionism along these lines has been attempted before but never so comprehensively or with such loving attention to detail. If you want to hear how Bad King Edward managed to beat William Wallace thanks to Welsh and Gascon mercenaries while the English (minus the Welsh and Gascons) got their comeuppance at Bannockburn (“the flower of English chivalry perished”) well then Prof. Davies is your man.
There’s a lot more where that came from, most of it as interesting as it is one-sided. Coming to modern times, he thinks (in the 1st edition, at least) that De Valera’s Republicans won the Irish Civil War of 1922-23, which has annoyed Irish purists and Michael Collins fans who thought the Free-Staters won. Some readers have detected a cavalier attitude to social and economic issues, but they miss the point: that isn’t part of the game plan. The really interesting question, though, is left hanging: why did the English, whose language and institutions spread ‘round the world, make such a botched job of cultural imperialism in their own backyard? Most of the Scots and Welsh (including Prof. Davies, in spades) are Anglophone, but they are not English. Why not?
It isn't a silly question. Consider France, that grand cultural monolith. Who ever heard a murmur from the Bretons, historically as distinct from the French as the Welsh are from the English; where is the Breton Prof. Davies inveighing against “Francocentric” history? Who but medievalists know or care about the Languedoc high culture destroyed by the North French invasion of the 13th Century, and when will Hollywood be making an Albigensian Braveheart? La Grande Nation even acquired a German province in the 17th Century, and when it was taken away in 1871 all France was outraged (fortunately, that little the injustice was put right later with a little help from the Anglo-Saxons).
Ultimately, this is an idiosyncratic book, one that should be read after considerable prior exposure to the history of Britain and the British sensibility. Then, one can enjoy Norman Davies’ book for what it is: a construction of how history ought to be approached as a living argument, lively argued.

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