The English and their history

Continuing his Night Shelf series with another book donation, Stephen Town discusses the history of a nation and the cultural impact on the definition of ‘being British’.


Tombs, R., The English and their history, in the University Library at Q42 TOM

Image courtesy of Tombs, R.
The English and their history (2014)
It is traditional in our family to give books at Christmas, and the first donation of the New Year is a copy of the title my son selected for me, The English and their History.

Hefty tomes encompassing the whole of this country’s history are said not to appear very often, but when they do they tend to be freighted with contemporary assumptions. My favourite is Norman Davies’ The Isles from fifteen years ago - arriving following a time when ‘Britannia’ was cool, this title delves into the history of the British Isles as a whole, and highlights the importance of each nation within it. Both being influenced by, and having an influence on future cultural ideals, five years ago our then Prime Minister encouraged a debate on what being ‘British’ meant.

Tombs’ book arrives however when we have a more local nationalism apparently on the rise; marked by the paradoxical response of ‘English votes for English laws’ to the decision by Scotland to remain part of the UK. Part of Tombs’ thesis is that the ‘English people’ was an idea developed by Bede before any such homogenous group really existed. Nevertheless, he has put together nearly a thousand pages that continue to service the myth of an English separateness.

Image courtesy of Davies, N.,
The Isles: a history (2000)
Logic and accuracy about who we are seems to worry neither politicians nor historians unduly, choosing their definitions to suit current inclinations and interpretations of ‘otherness’. In the early 90s, when the Web arrived, our government chose .gb as the domain name to represent this country initially, seemingly unaware that they were supposed to be running the United Kingdom.

Librarians are no better at cataloguing these works in a logical manner, and you'll find them sitting under various guises across different institutions. Note that in York we classify all books on the Isles as ‘British Isles – History’ irrespective of whether these cover the whole or only parts of this contested geographical framework.

However, as a result of our cataloguing this area of stock is a treasure trove for those interested in either our origins or the development of ideas of who ‘we’ are. I hope Tombs’ book will be a readable and interesting addition to this collection.

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