Michael Wood's The Story of England (review of the book and Swindon Festival of Literature talk)
Speaking at the Swindon Festival of Literature in May 2011, historian Michael Wood gave the audience an insight into his approach to the project that took up a year of his life and formed the subject of a BBC Television series and accompanying book. In The Story of England, Wood attempts to evoke the impact of the vast historical changes that England underwent -from the departure of the Romans to the world wars of the twentieth century—via the study of a single place throughout the entire period, namely Kibworth, Leicestershire.
One might imagine that after following in the footsteps of Alexander the Great, the prosaic surroundings of rural Leicestershire would seem a less than enthralling prospect to Wood, but to him this represented a welcome homecoming not only to England but to his Anglo-Saxon specialism. As an historian he knows that "every place has its drama, every place has its story," and that the local and regional intertwine with the national narrative that has more commonly been the subject of historical investigations of England's past.
Whilst the increasing popular interest in local and family history goes some way towards explaining the popularity of the television series and the book itself, this opportunity to examine history 'from the bottom up' enabled Wood to take what he stresses is a serious historiographical approach: to 'particularise' in order to generalise. In this endeavour he acknowledges the influence of William George Hoskins' approach to landscape and English local history, as developed in the seminal work The Making of the English Landscape.
Through a forensic study of the changing topography of Kibworth, Parish records, wills, journals, and records of Merton College (owners of most property in Kibworth since the thirteenth century), Wood traces developments in farming and agricultural organisation, from the open field system to the enclosures that presaged a new age of industrialised farming and urbanisation. We see the population and cultural identity of the area evolve from the Corieltauvi through the Roman, Saxon, and Viking invasions, and the Norman Conquest. From there, by tracing the histories of local families, he shows the searing impact of famine and plague in the Black Death. We see the divisions engendered by the Reformation and the Civil War, and the emergence of a strong and continuing tradition of dissent in non-conformist religious observance (such as the Lollards and the Quakers) along with the more explicitly political radicalism of the Peasants' Revolt, the early socialists, the suffragettes, and the conscientious objectors in the Great War. A yearning for unity is evidenced by wills that address the needs of the parish poor, yet that seemingly ever-present aspect of English cultural identity—class distinction—is expressed through the differing parishes of Harcourt, Beauchamp and Smeeton that go to make up the village of Kibworth.
Wood is a gifted communicator on television, in person and in writing. What leaps from the page, and is even more evident when he speaks about his subject, is his genuine interest in people, the small everyday stories in ordinary towns and villages that constitute the big stories that we call history, the 'givenness' of our past. Wood taps the micro-historical approach for rich insights that shed new light on old stories.
So can we derive the story of England from the history of one village? Can we say something valuable about the national character from a very particular study of one local group? Does such an approach show how a shared cultural identity is forged, and how it is ever evolving, shaped by the historical events that impact individuals, their families and livelihoods, and the towns and villages in which they live? To this reviewer the answer is an emphatic yes. Wood makes an impressive case for the importance of history from below in helping us to find meaning in the national narrative. What becomes clear in this story is that there is no settled 'state of England': there is this land that defines us as English by virtue of our inhabitation, a relationship that is reciprocal, because all those who live in this England shape it and are shaped by it. --Steve Cox
Gustav Temple's Am I A Chap? Beautiful Books, 2011
Am I A Chap? written by Gustav Temple, one of the co-founders of The Chap magazine, is a handy pocket-sized volume, the aim of which is (according to The Chap website) "to classify every species and sub-species of the English gentleman that one may observe throughout the seasons, from the flamboyant young fop to the crusty old duffer."The book examines the origins of the Chap genus, in proponents including Ian Carmichael and his caddish counterpart Terry-Thomas, and takes us up to the present day with contemporary types such as the Bohemian Chap and the Hip Chap.
Unusually, there is no formal introduction or preface. Instead the reader is plunged into a series of chapters entitled The Country; Formality; Dandyism; Caddery; Darkness; Maturity; Foreign Climes;Demi Monde; Fighting Spirit; and New Horizons—Chappism is a very broad church indeed. At the end of the book is to be found a Sartorial Directory, which lists current suppliers of Chappist items such as cufflinks, gloves, walking canes and moustache wax. Each chapter follows a fixed format of sub-headings: Type of Chap; Am I Chap?; Living Dandies; Sartorial History; and Dead Dandy (Chapter 6 omits the last sub-section for reasons which are no doubt eccentric). At the beginning of each chapter there is a witty or insightful quotation, such as GK Chesterton's "A dead thing can go with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it," and Alan Bennett's "He only went into the Army to put his moustache to good purpose." There are bons mots throughout the text, which confirms the view that Chaps need to have an education (even if inferior, as in the case of cads), or at least the ability to generate quips of one sort or another. It appears that the well-honed riposte is still the stock-in-trade of any Englishman worth his salt.
The usual famous Chaps are covered, not all English by birth, among them John Ruskin, Cary Grant (originally from Bristol), the Comte de Montesquiou, and Fred Astaire. Clearly, being an English gentleman is more about a state of mind than one's birthplace or era. However, the pages are not dominated by rehashed micro-biographies of the well known, for there are also short but informative profiles of tailors and soldiers, performers and motorists, old and young men, both living and dead. The volume is very well illustrated with colour and black-and-white photographs of many of these Chaps.
Today's readers might think that this book is a museum piece, full of nostalgic retrospective musing. However, its pages show that not only are there real Chaps alive and well today, but an increasing number are currently seeking recognition as such, or simply being Chaps in comfortable obscurity; the English Chap is certainly not an extinct species. The language is a little old-world at times, which is generally not a mere affectation, but an affectionate homage to the beauty of words which are well-chosen and fit for their purpose. The English gentleman constantly reinvents himself, generating refinements for the times in which he lives without losing the golden thread of individuality, which some call eccentricity.
No doubt the renewed fashion for tweed (partly due to the new Doctor Who's adoption of a conservatively-cut tweed jacket) accounts in part for the revival of traditional men's apparel, until recently only to be found in an ever-dwindling number of retail establishments. However, it is clear that the English gentleman never died out as a species.Instead he possibly went through a period of metamorphosis, to re-emerge like a butterfly from a chrysalis. To a degree, the book is a field manual with which the intrepid spotter of English gentlemen could venture forth into the countryside or cityscape. (Chap-spotting is not as simple as judging a book by its cover, however, for character is a vital element in true Chappishness.) On the whole, the book does concentrate on appearance, regarding the ritual of elaborate dressing as an essential- specifying the type of razor to be used -with commentaries on the accoutrements necessary to equip a gentleman's wardrobe, including brogues, bowler hats, spats and, of course, Harris Tweed. However, new Englishmen are embracing the old ways and reinvigorating them with contemporary ideas, for like the English language itself, unless the Chap lives, he ossifies and is consigned to the dustiness and desiccation of the attic.
Included are selections of the photographs submitted to the magazine's Am I Chap? competition, accompanied by judgments on the submissions that are often honest to the point of acerbity. The competitors crash and burn for wearing clip-on braces (rather than leather-ended buttoned-on ones). The most heinous crime is to sport a false moustache.Twee or tweed?—that is the question.
This book could represent Gustav Temple's unique view of the English gentleman, but it is far more likely that he has tapped into what we all knew subconsciously to be the case: that the English gentleman is an indestructible creature both of the imagination and of the real world. The book does not conclude with any authoritative pronouncement on what does or does not constitute such a gentleman; rather, it offers examples of men who can be accommodated within a rather imprecise definition.In the end, it is intuition that informs us whether or not a particular subject is a Chap, for this is no rulebook, but a guide.Slip a copy into your left jacket pocket as you slip your hipflask into the right one. --Alexander J. Betts