Friday, August 15, 2008

A History of Britain: At the Edge of the World? by Simon Schama

A book published in 2000 would not seem to qualify as "an old volume shaking its vellum head, and tantalizing just so," but then, time does march on. The book is already eight years old, and ended up recently in my library's book sale, Withdrawn stamped on its title page. Having only been checked out nine times in seven years, and not at all for the most recent three years running, is grounds for dismissal here.

The book tells an old-fashioned history, the kind that used to be so pleasant, full of famous people, events, and stories. The Roman occupation -- Boadicea -- Christianity, St. Patrick, Lindisfarne -- possibly Arthur -- the Normans, King John, Magna Carta -- the Black Death, the Black Prince -- Henry V, Agincourt, the Tudors, Good Queen Bess. It stops there. 1603.

It is, Schama writes in his preface, the kind of history that drew "hoots of derision" from him and his youthful university friends in the 1950s and '60s, when the enlightened young understood that true history was the study of the worldwide masses, oppressed and rebellious, while the didoes of individual kings and churches made only for a silly patriotic opium to lull the suffering to sleep. So what made him write this hoary -- whore-y -- kind of history in the year 2000? Memories of being impressed by the "gorgeous rhetoric" and good sense of Macaulay and Churchill, even though they wrote mostly about kings; memories of his parents' generation, who stood firmly against Hitler because they did see themselves as English, therefore different, yes therefore better, possessing better laws and government and a history that taught them how to keep them, than their fellow struggling plebs in Germany.

He wrote it, also, as a way of putting a finger in the dike holding back the tides of "self-inflicted, collective memory loss" otherwise apparently threatening to sweep over Britain. If Britons don't learn what was ever special, good, or heroic in British history, he says, then they will have no way of knowing what it means to be British. They will just be citizens of of a "globalized world," eternal children (as he says Cicero warned) not knowing where they have been or where they are going. And unable to argue with people who aren't just globalized themselves, but also loathe Britishness. He doesn't say this outright. You must infer it from other clues later on.

In fact if will be helpful if you have already done some homework before you try to make head or tail of Schama's preface, which is the most interesting chapter in the book despite its timidity. He is an apostate struggling to get free of progressive, academic, history-less orthodoxy for one thing, and for another he is a modern observer looking at modern Britain, seeing a place that Macaulay and Churchill would not have recognized -- and trying to say it's all right because the aim of being globalized and almost identity-less really is right and good. One just don't want total national amnesia. He excuses his new retelling of stories of kings and battles on the grounds that, after all, history can include many records, not just the proper records of the poor and oppressed. And he writes (a groat for those who can decipher these two sentences):

"The colonised, promised by Westminster that the British legacy would be parliamentary democracy and the rule of law, took the promise at face value and decided to move to the source to enjoy those blessings, which was not exactly what the proconculs had meant. Omdurman Gardens all over the country are now populated by precisely the people whose subjugation the street names commemorate, and for them, the imperial triumphalism of the saga of what Churchill repeatedly called 'the island race' is understandably at best incomprehensible and at worst egregiously offensive."

I'll try to earn the groat. Sentence one: people from the former British colonies have moved there en masse. Sentence two: having moved there, they find British culture and British pride "egregiously offensive," and that's okay. Unspoken fact: by the way, they're Muslim. A pair of exquisitely written sentences, but psychologically and morally, what a mess they make.

From this preface, Schama goes on to retrace the great familiar stories that appeared in American schoolchildren's McGuffey's Readers, and probably in magazines like Boy's Life, and to this day in a thousand women's romance novels as well. But those two sentences about the egregiously offended in Omdurman Gardens stuck in my head as I read the book, and so I ended up seeing this British history as a history of vulnerability, invasion, and cultural defeat. Romans displace Celtic British tribesmen -- who themselves displaced God knows whom -- Angles, Picts, Saxons, and Jutes displace Romans. Vikings next. Normans next. Britain as a medieval Darfur: long centuries when ambitious men know that the whole point of life is to own more land, and the way to conquer a piece of land is to go there and kill all the people and animals. Then it becomes yours. In time conquered Britain becomes the conqueror, and English kings bring Darfur to Wales, Scotland, and Ireland. Then comes the Plague, and then Protestantism. (Schama seems to be one of those historians who laments the disappearance from history of colorful, Catholic England, Robin Hood's England of fluttering pennons and grey stone church towers under the Pope's blue sky, and who believes that this, too, was a change imposed from above. More cultural defeat.)

The book closes with England's survival of the Spanish Armada and then the death of Queen Elizabeth I. This brings the tale to the eve of the era whose imperial English excitements and English progress in law and personal liberties future, chest-thumping historians would celebrate, and Schama's generation would later loftily deride. It brings us, finally, to the era of the egregiously offended in Omdurman Gardens, and to an Archbishop of Canterbury opining that the imposition of sharia, Islamic law, in Britain will eventually prove unavoidable.

Macaulay and Churchill would spin in their graves. But Schama's history, from preface to close, makes the possibility seem normal. In his telling, the Island Race, whoever they were, have been drowned by outside forces so many times that a new inundation really seems long overdue. Is this the lesson he intended to teach?