“The ages made her
that made us from the dust:
She is all we know and live by, and we trust
She is good and must endure, loving her so:
And as we love ourselves we hate her foe.”
Edward Thomas (1915)
Like Edward Thomas, who was writing from the Great War battlefield, I think the history of England begins from the present. What’s needed, to give a sense of order to the present situation, is a story, in terms of past events and people, centred on England. A justification for loyalty to living here and preferring not to seek asylum overseas. An explanation of the way things seem to us now that is consistent with an imagined ‘then’ in which we were not present: a context for ourselves.
Whether an absolute History exists, one that would look the same to everybody from anybody’s vantage point, I can’t decide and rather doubt. But I’m sure that none of us can know for certain this side of the grave. Instead the best that we can do is bricolage: confect a working structure from what we have to hand. And then subject this to continuous revision by using such evidence as our experience generates.
The story is told that an admirer of Michaelangelo’s statue of David, marvelling, asked the artist “How did you manage to see this wonderful image when presented with just a block of marble?”. To which Michaelangelo replied: “I didn’t, I just kept chipping away everything that was not David”.
This is the scientific approach: evidence is used to remove errors in an existing model; a process of continuous improvement.
This is the heuristic process. In principle it doesn’t matter what story, what model, what block of marble you start with: what matters is that you keep on improving it by removing errors, eliminating faults; the result is always something better than you started with, closer to perfection even if not perfect.
Accordingly it doesn’t really matter so much what version of history you first get offered (in school, for example): what matters is the way you go about modifying it using the evidence generated in the course of your lifetime’s experience.
That being the case, there should be no harm in putting forward a synoptic history of England that emerges from personal reflections rather than from an academic compilation.
And as Edward Thomas put it: “Little I know or care if, being dull, I shall miss something that historians can rake out of the ashes... But with the best and meanest Englishmen I am one in crying, God save England...” It is the concept that matters.