England: Seven Myths That Changed a Country and How to Set Them Straight by Tom Baldwin & Marc Stears - review by Richard Vinen

Richard Vinen

Two Spads on a Train

England: Seven Myths That Changed a Country and How to Set Them Straight

By

Bloomsbury 346pp £22
 

There is a tradition of authors setting out to ‘discover’ England and writing books about what they find. Such works were particularly common between the wars. H V Morton published In Search of England in 1927; J B Priestley’s English Journey came out in 1934. Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London (1933) and The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) belong to the same genre. Of course, such writing is always contrived. No author sets out with an open mind. They already know what they are going to find before they book their ticket – not least because they have explained it to their publisher over lunch in Soho. 

In their new book Tom Baldwin and Marc Stears write about visiting seven places: Runnymede in what used to be rural Surrey, Plymouth, Hull, Wolverhampton, Greenwich, Blackpool and Oxford. Each place is described in terms of its association with some individual or event, which, in turn, is treated as a starting point for the discussion of a ‘myth’. Thus Runnymede goes with Magna Carta and the myth that the British ‘invented liberty’. Plymouth goes with Sir Francis Drake and the myth of Britain as a buccaneering global power. Hull goes with William Wilberforce and the campaign against the slave trade – and also with the myth that Britain is qualified to give moral lessons to the rest of the world. 

It is not always clear how long the authors have spent in the various places that they dissect, though they have obviously spent a large part of their lives in Oxford. One sometimes suspects that they might have arrived at their chosen destinations on the early train from Euston and

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