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Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Thursday, 9 May 2019

"Watling Street" by John Higgs

Higgs travels from Dover to Anglesey along one of the old roads of England (and Wales, and he does refer to Britain, but most of this book is conserned with England and Englishness). As he goes he muses on the current state of England during the fall-out from the Brexit referendum. He also meets a selection of people including a postman who leaked inside information about the denationalisation of the Post Office,  the internationally renowned Graphic novelist Alan Moore (author of From Hell and V for Vendetta), and a performance poet John Constable. This is a view of England from the post-punk hippy underground gone middle class; there are unashamed socialist, even communist overtones and a heavy undercurrent of psychedelic magical mysticism.

He spends a lot of time in some places and seems to rapidly skip over others. There seems to be a disproportionate number of places further south, as if he had to hurry up towards the end. After Dover comes Canterbury and then London which seems fair enough. He spends a long time in London at a shamanic performance event in memory of the prostitutes buried outside Southwark Cathedral. He then watches a parade in St Albans, discusses highwaymen and shopping centres in Dunstable, visits Bletchley Park and arrives at Northampton where he spends considerable time in the company of Alan Moore, whose presence has already been foreshadowed. He sounds off about public schools in Rugby before sprinting through Wales to Anglesey.

He has some brilliant descriptions (“The seven white turbines of a wind farm stand in a row to the north. Their blades turn out of sync with each other, like infant school children trying to perform a dance.”; Introduction) and he can be very funny at times:

  • Damaging graffiti with graffiti might be something of a legal grey area.” (C 6)
  • The English are supposed to be animal lovers, so representing them with a man who killed an endangered species is an uneasy fit, especially when that animal was as brilliant as a dragon. ... We can say with certainty that the actual number of people hurt by dragons all of history is precisely zero. You can't say that about crusading Roman mercenaries like George.” (C 7)
  • Saints who are depicted carrying their heads ... have been something of a problem for religious artists over the years because of the tricky question of where to paint the halo. They can place the halo either around the bloodied stump of neck or over the head carried in the saint’s armpit, but in both instances it looks like they are being sarcastic.” (C 7)
  • It is often remarked upon that houses in North Wales are frequently squat and ugly, but when the landscape looks like this there is no point in competing on appearance. It is better to give up on visual aesthetics and concentrate on becoming a land of song instead.” (C 13)

He also makes a number of political points:

  • National identity can be manipulative. It can be a mirage used against you, a spell like that of the Pied Piper of Hamlyn [sic] which seduces you into getting in line and marching behind the patriotic tune.” (C 1)
  • If history teaches us anything it is that nationalism never ends well.” (C 1)
  • The idea that the privileged are superior is the central tenet of the public-school reality tunnel. An elaborate, but entirely arbitrary, system of social rules and signifiers is employed in an attempt to support it and make it appear believable.” (C 11)
  • If our history tells us anything it is that Britishness is cultural, not genetic. Aliens from far-off galaxies, if they settled in Ipswich, would be down the pub moaning about the weather in a generation or two.” (C 13)

There are many fine points and things of interest in this book but I admit to finding his selection of what to write about individual.

Some quotes:

  • Milton Keynes looks like a Canadian airport which has started a new life in the Buckinghamshire countryside.” (Introduction)
  • A tree’s past is not lost with passing years but remains visibly present in its shape. It expands as shoots bud and branches grow, but it always physically contains the younger tree it used to be.” (Introduction)
  • “Men and women in the UK are on average 4.3 inches taller than they were a hundred years ago, due to changes in our understanding of health and nutrition.” (C 1)
  • “Betteridge’s Law ... states that for any headline that asks a question, the answer is always ‘no’.” (C 1)
  • In Gothic literature, the weight of the past presses down on the present and offers only the certainty of death.” (C 1)
  • “It can be hard to imagine this island without the English language, but the actual native tongue of this country was Common Brittanic.” (C 2)
  • London stone is mentioned in mediaeval documents going back to around the year 1100 ... London stone was thought to have the ability to grant political or royal authority in a similar way to the Stone of Scone in Perth, or the Anglo-Saxon coronation stone that gave Kingston upon Thames its name.” (C 6)
  • The rope, shroud and prisoner’s clothes could be sold by the hangman ... In 1447, a reprieve arrived for five men being prepared for hanging and dismemberment after the hangman had already taken their clothes. They attempted to reclaim their clothes from the hangman, but he insisted that they were rightfully his. After much arguing, the reprieved men went home naked” (C 6)
  • When I lived in the north there was a constant, unquestioned level of anti-London sentiment ... the population of this one city is more than the populations of Scotland and Wales combined.” (C 6)
  • Increasing population densities increase the number of connections between people, which in turn increases economic activity. Businesses can find customers, and artists can find audiences. There are more ideas in circulation, and more options.” (C 6)
  • A great deal of the most treasured things in our culture, including weddings, the Olympic torch and the monarchy, are products of magical thinking rather than rationality.” (C 7)
  • What other option did people have to change things? When you're watching television and the program is terrible and you can't watch any longer, you change the channel. You don't know what is on the other side, or whether it will be better or worse. All you know is that it will be something different, so that's what you choose. It’s either that, or turn the TV off.” (C 8)
  • Latin and Greek were viewed as subjects of greater value than science or engineering, because practical subjects like those were associated with work and trade.” (C 9)
  • He was not a man who would bend or compromise for expediency’s sake. He had the mind of a true artist and a terrible politician.” (C 10)
  • Time is not the fourth dimension, but our perception of time is almost like the shadow of the fourth dimension.” (C 10)
  • Titles ... are like human versions of vanity registration plates.” (C 11)
  • Land is occupied when a foreign army takes it, but a person is occupied when they work.” (C 12)
  • It is easy to think of the Celts of a single group of people. They spoke the Celtic group of languages. They had a very distinctive style of ornamental art ... They had a distinctive style of fashion and wore a rigid metal ring around their necks, usually open at the front, called a torc. ... In the biosphere, there was no single type of Celtic people. ... Being Celtic was not the result of blood. It was the result of ideas."(C 13)
An enjoyable, though unusual, travel book. I particularly liked the idea that “Everywhere is special - if you know where to look.” (C 5)

May 2019; 344 pages

This review was written by
the author of Motherdarling

Other great travel books in this blog:
Travelling in Britain:
And others:

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