Book Review: Watling Street by John Higgs

My Rating: 5 stars 

Book Blurb from Goodreads:
Winding its way from the White Cliffs of Dover to the Druid groves of Anglesey, the ancient road of Watling Street has gone by many different names. It is a road of witches and ghosts, of queens and highwaymen, of history and myth, of Bletchley Park codebreakers, Chaucer, Boudicca, Dickens and James Bond. But Watling Street is not just the story of a route across our island. It is an acutely observed exploration of Britain and who we are today, told with wit and an unerring eye for the curious and surprising.

As the blurb says, this is not just a book about a road. Researched and written in the immediate period of the Brexit vote in 2016 this book looks at how those of us who are not in favour of the unpleasant brand of xenophobic and racist English Nationalism that seems to have swept the country can think about and understand the land we live in.

Early in the book, John proposes that, for many of us:

“We are seeking a better sense of national identity. Not one that is imposed on us by the state, monarchy or military, but one which bubbles naturally out of the land – an identity that is welcoming, not insular; magical rather than boorish; creative rather than triumphant. It is out there, waiting for us, and if we head out of the front door and follow the road, we will find it. It is an identity fit for those would live nowhere else in the world, but who wince at jingoism and flag-waving.”

I often read with a pencil in my hand, or in the case of e-books with my finger at the ready, so that I can highlight passages that resonate with me. In the case of this book, which I read in ebook form, goodreads has been kind enough to tell me that I found 110 passages I enjoyed enough to highlight. This should, I feel, explain the 5 star rating on its own.

Not only does John weave history of people, history of place, history of language, and social commentary, with a deftness that makes the words sing on the page, he also offers some extremely deep and hopeful thoughts on human nature and how we can move forward in this most uncertain of times. I feel that these few quotes will illustrate what I mean more eloquently that I can manage:

“When I started my travels, I was looking at history as something external. I thought of it as a block of events which I could wander round and peer at from different angles, like a critic in an art gallery. In truth, we are inside history, shaping and forming it, not outside and judging it. We are not separate. We have responsibilities.”

“Reading Middle English, like watching The Wire, helps us appreciate the extent to which our awareness of the world is shaped by language. The Greek, for example, define what English-speakers would think of as ‘blue’ as two separate colours, ghalazio and ble. These correspond to light blue and dark blue respectively. This might not seem significant but, neurologically, it changes the way Greek brains are wired. Brain scans of Greek and non-Greek speakers show that Greeks recognise light and dark blue faster than non-Greeks. Language physically shapes the way their brains comprehend the world.” 

Dragons may have had a bad press over the years, and they are often accused of kidnapping princesses and eating people. But we can say with certainty that the actual number of people hurt by dragons in all of history is precisely zero. You can’t say that about crusading Roman mercenaries like George. If it was somehow possible to restage the fight between George and the Dragon, I suspect I would not be alone in rooting for the dragon.”

“Back in Edgware Road, the idea that Britain voted to leave the European Union felt like economic madness. In places like Dunstable, it makes far more sense. The system that had been in place since the late 1970s only worked for a few. What other option did people have to change things? When you are watching television and the programme is terrible and you can’t watch it any longer, you change the channel. You don’t know what is on the other side, or whether it will be better or worse. All you know is that it will be something different, so that’s what you choose. It’s either that, or turn the TV off.”

“It is two days after my visit to Bosworth Field, and I stand in front of a different landscape. This is Weston Park, a 1,000-acre country estate in Shropshire, to the west of the M6 Toll road. The view is very English, but in a different way to Bosworth Field. Bosworth was working farmland. Where once armoured knights on horseback hacked at one another, now hay bales in black polythene dot the fields. But here, at Weston Park, the grass stretches away to the horizon in one unbroken vista while, behind me, the woods I’ve walked through contain a rich variety of trees, including oak, hornbeam, sweet chestnut and sycamore. The landscape could not be more perfect, which is in itself a clue that it is not entirely natural.”

“Land borders are arbitrary; they exist in order to make paperwork easier. While there is a certain logic to river and coastal borders, political land borders are the historic limits of some wealthy lord’s army. They are the nobility bragging about how much they own, the historic equivalent of a merchant banker’s stock portfolio.”

“Racism is a real problem in this island as it is elsewhere, both structurally and in individuals. But anyone who lives on this island, regardless of their geographic ancestry, can follow the example of the Buddha and place their hand on the ground and know that they are where they are supposed to be. The story of Britain is the story of the people on this island. It follows that if someone is on this island, then they are part of that story. That applies to everyone, from the lowly Winchester Geese who the church wouldn’t even bury, to those who are born to inherit large country estates”

I don’t think I could have picked a better book as the first one to read this year. Not only did I find it comforting on an existential level, it reminded me of bits of history I had forgotten, introduced me to people I only had a passing acquaintance with and expanded my understanding of others.

It made me feel hopeful, despite everything that is happening, and I hope it will make others feel the same, if they chose to read it. So I leave you with one last quote which contains some of that hope:

“Brexit, the ending of our political union with the European Union, is happening. I don’t know what the impact of that will be, but it’s possible we will think less about the outside world and become more of an inward-looking island. If so, what will we see when we look inside? If we just see what is imposed on us then our sense of division will not heal. But if we remember to lie back occasionally and look up at the full extent of the living Albion noosphere, with all our fiction and our history, our science and our magic, our crimes and our kindness, then I don’t think a period of introspection will do us any harm. We may see the past alive in the present. We may all touch the ground and know we are where we are supposed to be.”

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