A short but sweeping narrative of England

  • The Shortest History of England, by James Hawes. Black Inc, $27.99.

James Hawes has written the history of England in just over 270 pages. Such an endeavour is arguably more ambitious than taking thousands of pages.

What to leave out? How to capture what is essential? The resulting book is both educational and entertaining.

Starting with the Romans and ending with Brexit, Hawes presents the history of England in a sweeping narrative, emphasising the continuing division between the various elites based in the South and the general population.

The fact that Britain was ruled in French for so long after the Norman Conquest, and that "your life-chances in your own land [came] down to whether you could learn and speak the language of your conquerors" is an extreme example of this division. The emphasis placed on "received pronunciation" provides an example of how language continues to be politicised.

The book is particularly useful in outlining, in as simple terms as possible, the hideous complexity of the War of the Roses. The 19th century saw a brief period where Northern England, which has geologically poorer soils, came into a more prominent position in English politics, due to minerals underground. The division between North and South England is central in nearly all the history outlined in Hawes's book.

It is no accident that the term "England" is used rather than "Britain"; the drift towards independence in Scotland (where the Scottish National Party now wins most Scottish seats in the House of Commons) means that it has become less likely that anyone but "the Party of the South" can rule England.

The first-past-the-post electoral system in England is relevant here. The move to Brexit and the development of UKIP show the development of a more extravagant (or toxic) English nationalism, which has made headway in both North and South.

Occasionally the shadow of some absences in Hawes's book may be sensed (gender, for example, is rarely touched on) but the flow of the narrative carries the reader along, rather as in a well-written novel.

The text is interlaced with many illustrations, maps and highlighted quotations, which adds greatly to the experience of reading. However, I did find some of the maps where voting patterns are represented by small circles hard to decipher, due to the limitations of greyscale.

In producing an energetic and uncluttered history of England, readable in a few hours, Hawes deserves our admiration. Questions of nationalism, populism and elites are relevant beyond that country's borders, and will resonate with readers 16,000 kilometres away.

  • Penelope Cottier writes poetry as PS Cottier.
This story A short but sweeping narrative of England first appeared on The Canberra Times.