Our Island Stories

A new book by Harry Mount attributes the particular, phlegmatic character of the English to the nature of England itself

Books History Social Affairs
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. 

It is not only the towns and villages of England that owe their appeal to their unplanned neighbourliness. Mount suggests that the same is true of the English countryside, which emerged from an evolving consensus in which neighbourly friction and common law litigation were far more important than top-down plans. He recognises that the passion for the picturesque led to some radical attempts to plan the countryside, often with scant regard for its existing occupants. But, as he points out, the intention was to create another version of the spontaneous order that was being destroyed. As he puts it: “English beauty was traditionally an under-designed, accidental beauty — like the beauty of the classic English field gate, which happens to have the same aspect ratio…as 35mm film, old-fashioned televisions and human vision.” That observation is characteristic: at every juncture Mount is able to back up his observations with odd and interesting facts, so as to paint the portrait of a country that is as eccentric and individual as any character in Dickens. 

On the whole, when it comes to the question of how we should build, Mount sides with the traditionalists against the modernists. Respect for the past, he argues, is an indelible feature of Englishness, and the new kind of architecture, designed to stand out rather than to fit in to the existing fabric, expresses a kind of nihilism — by which he means a repudiation of the need for settlement.

I applaud the way in which Mount looks for deep explanations of what seem at first sight to be superficial facts, and I endorse his vision of the English peculiarity. If I have a reservation about his argument it concerns his somewhat selective approach to our national culture, with important components hardly mentioned despite their connection to the land. Religion puts in only a few appearances, and English music is dismissed in a single sentence, in which we learn that we have no Mozart or Beethoven to our credit. Nor do the great poets and painters occupy much space, even though it is they who gave rise to the collective effort to preserve our country from the ravages of the Industrial Revolution. As Mount sees things, “this blessed plot, this earth” shaped the character of those who settled here. But they in turn shaped the blessed plot into “this realm, this England”. They did it by imprinting the landscape with a distinctive personality. 

I agree with that.  But then it is necessary to say more about the personality of England, about its roots in the Christian religion, its embodiment in the common law, and its transformation by art and literature into the historically entitled occupant of an island home. From Shakespeare onwards the landscape of England has been represented in art, literature and music as enchanted. This is not a fiction, but a human achievement, and one that is now under threat from mass migration, from educational decline, and from a loss of the spiritual certainties that were relayed to the English by the Christian faith. It is good to remind his English readers, as Mount does, of their indebtedness to the soil and the wind. But they should also remember the hymn singing, prayer-book quoting subjects of the Crown who, in the wake of Wordsworth and Coleridge, began the great attempt to rescue their country from the modern world.