Review: Watling Street

Watling Street Sign

On my first overseas holiday, in 1998, I was amazed by the depth of human history in the locations I visited. In England I boggled at pubs that were centuries old; then in Turkey sites were a couple of millennia old; and finally in Egypt I was looking at monuments constructed close to 5000 years ago.

The reason this made such an impact on me was that, coming from Australia, I was not used to such visible evidence of long-time human habitation. Which is ironic, as Aboriginal Australians have been walking this land for likely more than 50,000 years. But given the vastness of Australia compared to the population, and the partly nomadic Aboriginal culture, it is not often that you are visibly reminded of this fact - such as when you are lucky enough to view some of the amazing indigenous rock art found in locations around the country. And European settlement of Australia didn't occur until the late 18th century, so there are few older 'western' buildings with centuries-deep history attached to them.

So I was fascinated by the new book from one of my favourite authors (full disclosure: and someone I also count as a friend), John Higgs. The 350 or so pages of Watling Street (Amazon US and Amazon UK) are devoted to the eponymous roadway alone; a historic thoroughfare that has remained a staple of the British landscape for thousands of years, a road "older than history". As such, even a book-length treatment of the history of Watling Street - which runs from the English south-east coast near Dover to Anglesey on the north-west coast of Wales - can only be a curated grab-bag of fascinating 'moments'. For instance, as John points out while surveying the south-east coastline...

A thousand years ago, along the coast to our right, the conquering army of the Normans landed at Pevensey. Two thousand years ago, along the coast to our left, the invading Roman army are thought to have landed at Richborough. Across the water in front of us, from right to left, Sir Francis Drake chased the burning and scattered remains of the Spanish Armada. Above us, Spitfire pilots risked everything in the skies during the Battle of Britain, when freedom hung in the balance and Britain, in the words of Winston Churchill, faced its 'darkest hour'.

From just a small number of selected 'moments' that inhabit the vicinity of Watling Street, however, the author is able to tease out stories; not just of the place and the people that inhabited it, but also stories about how that moment is part of the larger jig-saw of British culture, giving us a glimpse of the overall picture. (Though as John himself would caution, I'm sure, that picture - or map - of British culture 'is not the territory', but simply his own rendering of it.)

The book begins - after an introduction in which we learn that well-known author Alan Moore helped build a modern solar-aligned monument, known to its residents as the town of Milton Keynes - with the author invoking the teenage character of Watling Street Book CoverTyler from Douglas Coupland's Shampoo Planet. Exploring a World War II tunnel beneath the cliffs of Dover, John asks his daughter if she ever worries if "there's too much history?", explaining that Coupland's character was from Washington State and grew up in a location where there was very little Western history - and upon visiting Europe is freaked out by "the sheer weight of the past", finding it oppressive. Right from the beginning, John tapped into a concept that I was familiar with (as mentioned above) - although my own response to being confronted by an unfamiliar depth of history has always been almost completely the opposite: one of wonderment, rather than oppression.

John also establishes early - with his usual Douglas Adams-ish humour - that this literary road-trip is also about exploring how 21st century Britain has arrived at is current identity, from the first moments that humans arrived on the (now) British Isles:

When the first man or woman arrived in this landscape and looked out, the idea of Britain sparked into being. Britain now had qualities and character. Those qualities were probably 'damp' and 'unpromising', but it was a start. The immaterial aspect of Britain, that slippery notion of national character or identity, had been born in the noosphere. And, having been born, it started to grow.

...A place like the White Cliffs of Dover illustrates how powerful the British noosphere [now] is. It is almost impossible to see this landscape as simply a nondescript line of cliffs. The history and fiction that wash around this place have as great an impact on the visitor, if not more, than the physical cliffs themselves.

During the following literary road-trip of Watling Street we glimpse the ghosts of British soldiers burrowing beneath the White Cliffs of Dover while Jesus and Shakespeare pass by above; King Henry II and Thomas Becket at Canterbury; Dickens' Miss Havisham and King Charles II at Rochester; the 'Winchester Geese' haunting London; the World War II code-breakers of Bletchley Parkcomics legends Steve Moore and Alan Moore (no relation) at Shooter's Hill and Northampton respectively; and even Robin Hood and 007, James Bond, turn up - the latter more regularly than you might expect.

We are also enlightened as to how 'British' culture is actually an outgrowth of a melting-pot of 'invading cultures' including the French, Vikings, and Anglo-Saxons. As such, John notes, the idea of 'national identity' is a rather difficult notion to nail down"

National identity is like a rainbow; it only exists at a distance. We've all glimpsed it, out there on the horizon, so we think it is something real and concrete when it used to push our buttons. Yet when we approach it to nail down the details of what it really is, it becomes vague and uncertain, then evaporates.

For instance, John points out that a 5th century map of Britain labels Ireland as containing 'Scots', and the majority of England as 'Welsh'. Even more perversely, "to the immigrant Anglo-Saxons, with no hint of irony, the native population were wealhas, or 'foreigners'. It is from this word that we get the English word 'Welsh'."

John's riffing on this topic of 'national identity' is worth quoting at length:

National identity can be manipulative. It can be a mirage used against you, a spell like that of the Pied Piper of Hamlyn which seduces you into getting in line and marching behind the patriotic tune. It is a spell woven out of the more seductive strands of our history. We have a lot of history to work with in Britain, so this gives us the raw materials to create a powerful enchantment indeed.

The danger, of course, is that national identity can lead to the drug of nationalism. With nationalism, the country of your own kin is viewed as self-evidently superior while the homelands of others are automatically inferior, and the result of this is the endorphin rush of pride. Like other addictive drugs, the user of nationalism gradually requires greater and greater doses to achieve the same hit of pride. A sense of pride is valuable, of course, but the whole point of pride and self-worth is that they need to come from our own actions and relationships.

[And yet] A part of what I think of as 'me' is this mysterious illusion of national identity, which bolts onto my own identity like a bionic limb. To deny national identity, in these circumstance, is to deny a part of myself. Part of my own identity is an ungraspable, undefined mirage, and that's just something I'll have to make the best of.

John Higgs

It's worth noting that Watling Street was written during the lead-up to the Brexit vote, and its aftermath, which no doubt influenced some of these thoughts. (e.g. "The English words that daily damn migrants on the front of newspapers have their origins here in Kent, and they developed because of invasive migration...[by the Anglo-Saxons].") While the book is hardly political, the author doesn't shy away from sharing his thoughts. You may or may not agree with them all, but they are certainly all thought-provoking and worthy of your time.

But there's certainly much more to Watling Street than thoughts on national identity. Regular readers of John's previous work will know his fondness for the weird, and this roadtrip takes in plenty of that, from tulpamancy to 'received writing', and includes a never-ending stream of little-known historical 'factoids' that you probably weren't taught in school.

Another regular theme is of how stories take our place in inhabiting the landscape, lasting well beyond our material traces - and it is these stories that become the 'spirit of place', rather than our concrete selves. "The memory of an average person typically lasts for the duration of the lives of their grandchildren," John notes. "After that we are gone, existing only as an unread random name in a forgotten ledger, our true selves lost forever." And yet, he points out as an example, while Steve Moore has now left us, Alan Moore's biographical essay about him will last on through history. A side effect of this, though, is that "the boundary between fact and fiction", when we try and understand history from the stories people wrote about it, "is woozy and shifting."

Perhaps this should be fair warning to us that, even in enjoying the insights of Watling Street, we should recognise that it is, itself, a collection of stories about people and places told from one man's perspective. But with that warning in mind, I think any reader who appreciates contemplation of history, literature, landscape, and the eternal question of who we are - regardless of where you live on the planet - will greatly enjoy the insights and stories that John Higgs shares - with his usual fantastic humour and off-centre perspectives - in this wonderful book.

John Higgs' Watling Street is available from Amazon US and Amazon UK.