The History of England, Volume One: Foundation by Peter Ackroyd
An epic tale begins. Peter Ackroyd, renowned novelist and biographer of Dickens and London, now turns his attention to the story of England, and his narrative ability is to the fore in this first volume of a planned series that will take us up to twentieth century England. For once, here is a book on England that lives up to its title. Whilst there are the inevitable incursions into and from Scotland, Wales, France and Ireland, Ackroyd is at pains to maintain his focus on the English narrative.
Beginning with the "hymns in stone" of Stonehenge, Avebury and other Iron Age settlements, Ackroyd seeks to show how England evolved into a coherent nation state from a myriad of tribal settlements and ancient regional kingdoms, fought over for centuries, with invasion, conquest, and intrigue the constant backdrop to an everyday way of life that remained largely unchanged for most people over many centuries. This chaotic past shows that the establishment of a recognisable English national identity was anything but inevitable, arising out of a conflux of Roman, Anglo-Saxon, Norman influences and many others that preceded the development of the English polity.
Ackroyd is hampered, of course, by the fragmentary nature of historical sources available to the chronicler of early English history. Ironically, this limitation becomes even more apparent when the narrative moves into the mediaeval period, for which our growing knowledge of the various intrigues and successions surrounding the royal households far outweighs the scraps of evidence available to provide insight into the daily lives of the less exalted majority of English people. Hence, Ackroyd can tell us much about the characters and stories involved in the progression from the Normans to the establishment of the Plantagenet and subsequent Tudor dynasties (via the Wars of the Roses), but less about the quotidian level. Despite this, he does frequently interrupt the larger narrative flow to give us insights into the social history of the period whenever he can. Between the chapters on the 'turbulent priest' Thomas à Becket and the developments that led to the Magna Carta, there is a brief digression into the continuity of day-to-day village life, as evidenced by the unusually well-documented deserted village of Wharram Percy in Yorkshire. Ackroyd repeats this pattern throughout the book, interspersing political history with sections on the development of education, law, pastimes, and diet. While this does highlight the slow evolution of English custom and practice over many hundreds of years, it sometimes sits uneasily within the more voluminous stories of Kings and Queens with which so many of us grew up.
As Ackroyd notes, our understanding of the mediaeval period is refracted through the prism of Shakespeare; Richard III, the caricatured hunchback, in reality suffered from nothing more than a slight muscular imbalance due to excessive martial training. This is a small point in the grand scheme of things, but a warning, perhaps, of the power of myths and legends to confuse our attempts to gain a proper knowledge of our past. Ackroyd himself manages to weave a coherent thread through this chaos of England's early history in order to give us powerful insight into how and why England developed as it did. His themes are not overplayed, but rather become self-evident as the reader progresses through the book, which supports his concluding comments that many of the most far-reaching advances were the least noted or remarked upon at the time - none more so, for instance, than the gradual growth in importance of Parliament and legal precedent. At the same time, he points to the overarching continuity throughout much of England's history: not only the unchanging agricultural methods over many centuries and the "sameness" of everyday life for most people most of the time, but the way that succeeding generations would build on ancient templates that had defined earlier settlements, sacred locations within them, and the roads and pathways that linked them together. Furthermore, as far back as we can discern, England was a hierarchical society organised and administered in a more consistent way than was the case in many other European countries.
Ackroyd has an unmatched ability to evoke people and places within a structure that attempts (largely with success) to make sense of a confusion of events, characters and developments from pre-history through to the mediaeval period. Though he often quotes from some of the earliest chroniclers of England, there are none of the copious footnotes characteristic of purely academic histories. Thus the general reader is more readily immersed in, and swept along by, the tide of historical change that Ackroyd brilliantly illustrates in this first stage of his grand tour of English history.--Steve Cox
Music in the Landscape: How the British Countryside Inspired Our Greatest Composers by Em Marshall-Luck
Robert Hale 2011
To begin, a declaration of a personal interest that will be obvious to regular readers of Albion, since the author of this book is our classical music critic. Despite a long association which might call this reviewer's objectivity into doubt, it would be unjustifiable to omit reviewing a volume on a too-often neglected subject, and one of this magazine's long-standing preoccupations: English music. This is the major focus of the book, despite the reference to 'British' in the title and a short section entitled 'The Scottish Composers.' However, the overall impression is how closely intertwined English music has been with inspiration--both musical and scenic-- from other parts of the British Isles. Unexpectedly, it provokes a meditation on English composers' relationships with the rest of the British Isles and their occasionally tortured attitudes to their own Englishness.
As an example of the problems that can arise in trying to separate out national musics in the British Isles, one might note the combined influence of Wales and England on Elgar, Bantock's awareness of his Scottish ancestry and use of Marjorie Kennedy-Fraser's collection Songs of the Hebrides in his Hebridean Symphony, the Welsh antecedents that led Holbrooke to set stories from the Mabinogion to music, and Vaughan Williams' discovery of commonalities between English and Scottish folk music. He was himself introduced at a function by Sir Henry Walford Davies thus: "I am to present Dr Vaughan Williams, by birth Welsh and English, a veritable British Composer, who speaks his own language to the enrichment of the world's music." Then, of course, there is the Celtic twilight of Surrey-born Arnold Bax, who attempted "to drown out his Englishness in a sea of Irishness." The reader cannot help feeling that Bax must have been a strain on his relations, with his peat bog- and ghost-hunting expeditions, and subscription to the then-voguish notion of 'race memory,' with "savage dreams" rejoicing in his brain. Bax found in Ireland an escape from the loneliness of the London crowd--and also fairy bells, during a search for an Other World beyond the doors of perception. His story raises the issue of how to classify an English composer whose music largely reflects an intense and exclusive Hibernophilia. The deep influence of Gloucestershire on the close friends Herbert Howells and Ivor Gurney is particularly poignant: while studying in London, Howells could not afford to travel home, so he would occasionally buy a platform ticket to watch the trains leave for Gloucester. (Incidentally, it is somewhat startling to discover just how small the world of English music was. Everyone seems to have known everyone else. Holst and Vaughan Williams had a touchingly close friendship, while Vaughan Williams and Elgar engaged in implicit artistic rivalry--Marshall-Luck notes that The Lark Ascending "came just a few years after Elgar's Violin Concerto of 1910.")
At the same time, the creative exchanges between British and Continental composers are documented --for example, Bantock's friendship with Sibelius, Vaughan Williams' studies with Ravel (and the surprising fact that his Pastoral Symphony was inspired, not by England, but by a French countryside ravaged by World War I) and Bruch, and his affinity for Wagner, all of which contrast with his rebellion against the Teutonic mood in English music. Indeed, the self-conscious focus on English and British inspiration for classical music is an intriguing theme of the book. Marshall-Luck notes that the Continental attitude to composers who integrated folk tunes into their music was the opposite of the opprobrium faced by Vaughan Williams et al when they did the same for English melodies. (Perhaps there is a connection with the traditional English distrust of nationalism.) One interesting aspect is the relationship between the composers and the singers from whom the tunes were collected, and the ethics involved (long a burning issue in the folk music world). For example, Vaughan Williams made choral and piano arrangements "despite the disapproval of the singers themselves at the notion of a further line complicating the tune." Some composers who drew on English folk music were inclined to overdo a condescendingly 'quaint' angle--for example, Bantock wrote a work entitled English Country Scenes with "a duet for inebriated piper and fiddler who cannot keep together." It is also worth pointing out that the frequent severing of tunes from words for composition purposes can short-change the maturity, subtlety and rich symbolic vocabulary of many English folksongs, particularly the genre of women's songs.
Marshall-Luck recreates in detail the home lives and routines of the various composers. Indeed, the entire book is in part a celebration of (mostly endearing) eccentricity, as well as wonderful music. There is a lot of humour: for example the elderly Bantock, when approached by a gardener "complaining about the birds eating all the raspberries....calmly replied, 'Never mind. Let them enjoy themselves. I enjoy their singing.'" Holbrooke elected to move his young family to "a corrugated iron bungalow in a disused zinc mine near the Ffestiniog Railway at Tan-y-Bwlch, which was reached by climbing up an old trolley shaft." The bungalow may have been "very basic and rustic," but boasted a huge Augustus John mural of angels on the sitting-room wall. There is Rutland Boughton's adventurous back-to-the-landing near the Forest of Dean: the book supplies photographic evidence of Aphrodite the goat. In his spare time, Finzi was a pioneer in the fight to save English apple varieties, and was unable to feel peace of mind unless he knew that all nineteen of his cats were safe. Vaughan Williams emerges as one of the most delightful personalities, providing assistance to refugees during the Second World War, and composing while dogged (as it were) by kittens who left muddy paw prints on his scores and nested in his waistcoat. (In fact, English classical music and cats seem to have an intrinsic connection--Ireland was devoted to a Siamese.)
English music often has a valedictory quality, consistent with a widespread cultural nostalgia that is not always necessarily political. Throughout the book, there is a sense of trying to preserve something just slipping out of sight. Most arresting, in this context, is Vaughan Williams' desolate quoting of Tono-Bungay: "Light after light goes down. England and the Kingdom, Britain and the Empire, the old prides and the old devotions, glide abeam, astern, sink down upon the horizon, pass--pass. The river passes--London passes, England passes...." Marshall-Luck touches on a related theme in her remarks about the inspiring impermanence of English weather and landscape: "A summer morning's rippling haze; the occlusion that a hailstorm or heavy rain can bring; the partially obscuring veil of light snowfall or the impenetrable curling mists of autumn--all these re-draw the landscape in new moods and vision." Throughout, Marshall-Luck's tone and style bring to mind the pastoralist turn of the inter-war period, but transcend cliché in the acuteness of the descriptions.
The book leaves the reader with an intriguing paradox. On the one hand, composers such as Butterworth produced music that is ineffably 'English' (representing a certain type of Englishness, of course --pastoral, gentle, wistful, and slightly melancholy). On the other hand, English composers were so profoundly inspired by other parts of Britain that it complicates the task of trying to distinguish, at a fundamental level, English from British music. The only substantial criticism that can be made of this book--apart from the omission of the expatriate Delius from the main section-- is the occasional muddling of 'English' with 'British,' but against this background, it is probably unavoidable.
Marshall-Luck makes no attempt at a detached approach to this topic, but instead allows her love for the music to shine through, and the book is all the better for it. She carefully tailors her descriptions of the music for the interested layperson, rather than the specialist in musicology. Lavishly illustrated with exquisite landscape photographs taken by the author, and archival portraits of the composers themselves, the book is an invitation to the discovery of many delightful but obscure pieces which are rarely broadcast.--Isabel Taylor