Covering up: Scarborough's South Bay beach, August 1952. The sea is both the cause of our insularity and the cure for it
Social history has sometimes been seen as an autonomous field of inquiry, a kind of biology of the social organism as it grows and develops in response to its own internal principles. I doubt that any historian would endorse that vision now. There is a growing awareness that law, religion and culture cannot be divorced from climate, from the surrounding flora and fauna or from the availability of elementary natural resources, such as water, forests and grass. Human beings survive by adapting, and the first thing to which they must adapt is their immediate physical environment. Hence, although the English made England, it is equally true that England made the English. Hence the title of Harry Mount's book, which is a learned and entertaining survey of the accumulated evidence that we English are what we are because we were made in England.
Of course, it is a commonplace that our temperate climate and uncertain weather are connected to our phlegmatic character, and are partly responsible for our habit of downplaying emergencies. But the influence of England, as Mount shows, goes far deeper than that. Just about everything about our island is unique. The extraordinary variety of soils, the rock formations, the abundance of estuaries and inlets, the surrounding ocean currents, the accessibility of each part of the country to every other — these and many other factors created a unique experience of the natural world, which expresses itself in our institutions and laws, in our attitude to the rest of the world and in the daily life of our people. To say as much is perhaps to state the obvious. But the appeal of Mount's book lies in the immense amount of detail that he accumulates around this central narrative. He lovingly describes the way in which local stones and soils become human in the buildings that are composed of them; the way in which prevailing winds and prevailing opinions flutter in unison; the way in which the surrounding sea is both the cause of our insularity and the cure for it, so that our language is now the language of the world.
Of course, the influence goes both ways, and Mount shows in detail how England has been shaped by its inhabitants, and not least by the bottom-up approach to law and property rights that has been the most conspicuous legacy of the Anglo-Saxon forms of government. Our countryside is criss-crossed by boundaries and rights of way. Hedges and dry-stone walls make the patchwork quilt that is so admired by those who don't have the problem of farming it. Although many of the enclosures were the result of Acts of Parliament, they reinforced the rule of private ownership. It is only in the 20th century, with the creation of the Forestry Commission and the expropriations required by the two world wars, that the state became the largest landowner. And all that the English love in their landscape depends still upon boundaries — boundaries which both affirm the rights of the landowner, and remain frequently permeable to the rest of us.
The bottom-up approach to law and property goes hand in hand with opposition to centralised plans. It is to this, Mount argues, that we owe the higgledy-piggledy contours of the English village and the market town, and it is the effort to preserve those contours that has led both to the resistance to modernist architecture and to the attempt to preserve patina at all costs — even the attempt to build patina, as at Poundbury, an attempt that Mount dismisses in a rare moment of dissent from what might be called Betjemanite orthodoxy.