January 5, 2016


'The English and Their History,' by Robert Tombs (PETER HITCHENS, DEC. 31, 2015, NY Times Book Review)

[Robert Tombs] pauses frequently to examine the curious way in which the English have idealized and sometimes blackened their own past. He often seeks to rescue that past from those who try to make their own eras look good by slandering their forebears as worse and more wretched than they actually were. "Treating the past as grotesque and inferior is the attitude of the tourist who can see nothing 'Abroad' but dirt and bad plumbing," he says. The English, he argues, were almost always prosperous, well fed, well housed and lightly governed, once the Norman Conquest had settled the fundamental question of who controlled the central state and ensured the coasts were safe from invasion.

Even in times of revolt, religious strife and civil war, the English held back from the merciless ferocity of Continental Europe. And separation from that continent allowed England to benefit fully from repeated strokes of good luck: a language of wonderful flexibility and subtlety; a legal system that held the state in check and nurtured an astonishing combination of order and liberty; a political system that preserved ancient safeguards against despotism, long after these had been plowed under by French, Spanish and German autocrats.

The longevity of English institutions and customs is not merely picturesque, but also a living record of safety, prosperity, strength, civil peace, and political and economic stability. Laws grew thick and strong, like a great forest, and men sheltered contentedly beneath them.

And from the earliest years of this lucky millennium, a picturesque legend of England and its history began to influence the way its people and rulers behaved. The real Alfred the Great and the legendary King Arthur both stood in Englishmen's minds for an ancient liberty to which all men constantly sought to return.

Posted by at January 5, 2016 11:20 AM