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How England Made the English: From Hedgerows to Heathrow by Harry Mount - review

How England Made the English: From Hedgerows to Heathrow

Harry Mount

Viking, 368 pp, £20

Something is stirring in the breasts of what we used to call One Nation or wet Tories. Perhaps it is another of those springs (like “the shareholder spring”) that everybody keeps talking about. A few weeks ago, Sir Ferdinand Mount, a hereditary baronet and cousin of David Cam­eron’s who led the Downing Street Policy Unit during Margaret Thatcher’s first term of government – for which he doesn’t exactly apologise but murmurs, in his patrician way, mea minima culpa – brought out The New Few . . . Or a Very British Oligarchy, lamenting how neoliberalism and centralisation have allowed the “1 per cent” to hold disproportionate wealth and power. Now, his son Harry Mount, writing from a similar political position – high-born young men tend not to rebel against their parents – betrays much of the same unease.

In many respects, this is a deeply conservative book. Mount, Jr celebrates the English preference for privacy, equability of temperament, tolerance of eccentricity, reverence for the past, affection for the local and resistance to an overmighty state. He attributes these merits to variable weather; variety of soil and geology; plentiful estuaries and inlets; and a large population packed into a smallish island. Nature (or, if you prefer, God’s will) determined that we should be ruled for centuries by benign, upper-class landowners, and, it is implied, we would have done better to leave them in charge. According to Mount, England looks like England, with its crooked hedges, its winding roads and small villages – in contrast to the right angles and straight lines of France – because landowners were allowed to do as they pleased, “free from overarching, central planning from on high”.

Yet Mount is compelled to accept that, if we have anything of old England left, we should thank the Town and Country Planning Act 1947, introduced by the most left-wing government Britain ever had. The act, imposing green belts and bans on ribbon development, did a decent job of preserving the countryside. Yet, Mount argues, “while we have ring-fenced the beauties of the country, much of the best of urban England has gone”. He mourns the fate of the shabby but architecturally handsome quarters, close to town centres, that were once home to “the harmless, the talented, the mildly alcoholic, the intelligent yet unemployable eccentrics”. London once had many such areas (Bloomsbury, Notting Hill, Camden), while Bath, Oxford, Brighton, St Ives (Cornwall) and many other provincial towns had at least one. Now the bohemian habitat has been annexed by the rich and fashionable. Our high streets, meanwhile, have become “clone towns”, as demonstrated by Cambridge where, in 2010, 56 of the 57 retail outlets on the main street were chains. Towns (though Mount doesn’t put it in these terms) have been abandoned to big capital. Our cities are still rich in green spaces – Birmingham, surprisingly, has more parkland than any other city in Europe – but that is largely thanks to a parliamentary committee, created in 1833 to promote public parks.

As you would expect from a patrician Tory, Mount is harsh on the nouveau riche. “If you visit a rich, fashionable British household these days, you’ll see something that has never existed before in the civilised world – an active dislike of any objects that belonged to a human civilisation previous to their own . . . The stripping of the altars in the Reformation had nothing on this.” The rich have brought the dreaded Continental straight lines to British hotels, kitchens, gardens and even Cotswold rectories.

It would be wrong, however, to suggest that this book is the work of a ranter. The tone is discursive, understated and oddly flat; at times, as the author details soils and the genesis of place names, one has the sense of reading a GCSE textbook. But it contains many interesting facts that I didn’t know and was glad to learn: say, that the warmest place in Britain in January is Llandudno; that Essex has more moats (770) than any other county and that the standard British railway gauge mirrors the specification for a Roman war chariot. At the end, I wasn’t sure that, beyond banalities about the weather, I was much clearer about how England made the English – How the English Made England might have been just as good a title – but I was wiser and better informed on a range of other topics, not least the mood of One Nation Tories.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2012 issue of the New Statesman, A-Z of Iran

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis