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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