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Bloody-minded and unbowed

13 December 2003

12:00 AM

13 December 2003

12:00 AM

A People’s History of Britain Rebecca Fraser

Chatto, pp.829, 25

The head of history at a well-known English girls’ school was wont to say that she had learned nothing at Cambridge and all her history had been set in place at the age of ten by The Children’s Encyclopaedia.

Rebecca Fraser will know exactly what she meant. Massively informed, she is as unstuffy as the rest of the Fraser historians. On page one of her introduction she mentions ‘the immortal words of 1066 and All That’.

She has written this splendid history of Britain — 800-odd pages from the arrival of the Romans to Queen Elizabeth II’s Golden Jubilee — because she could find nothing like it for her own children. She believes that while today’s children have the opportunity to handle esoteric historical documents they have no chronological sense; no idea, for example, how the Victorians link up with the Stuarts. Their history has been taught them in inter-continental chunks and some of them could be forgiven for believing that the Aztecs and the Ancient Egyptians once lived in Britain, too. There is now no notion of the old rules of ‘who, when, what, how’.

Though children will enjoy this book and be very grateful for it, so will everybody else. Nobody is going to get my copy. It is packed with fact but rattles along at a gallop and wherever you open it you want to read on. She doesn’t despise the old yarns, ‘dubious’ though most of them are. She feels that to have lasted so long there must be something to them. Thus we have Alfred burning the cakes (‘probably scones’) and Cnut (‘a diminutive man’) with his feet in the tide, and Boudicca the red-haired queen lying dead with her dead daughters in her arms.

It is not an entirely objective narrative. As in all the best histories we can sense the great loves and hates. Alfred is her big hero, the lawless Vikings very much A Bad Thing. Just as I had begun to think of them as maligned, bee-keeping Dalesmen, she reminded me of their killing fields, the century when Christianity hung by a thread, the dreadful rugger songs: ‘Where we tread the ravens follow, to drink our victims’ blood.’

Is this book simplistic? With such a field to cover it must be unless the author is 100 years old and has spent an entire life in libraries. Academics will pronounce. She has had first-class scholars and historians to check the manuscript. The bibliography is enticing and humbling.

Another reason for writing it, says the author, is to show the development of the British character — again to show how things connect from the moment when the Romans looked unenthusiastically up at the apparently naked tribesmen above Deal beach (not knowing that they wore fine woollen robes and gold jewellery when not fighting) to ‘the triumph of the Eurotunnel’; to show how the people of Mrs Thatcher’s England reacted to her poll tax in exactly the same way they had done in the reign of Richard II.

Despite the cruelty of the Normans and the Tudors, one of the glories of Britain’s history is the essentially free-spirited not to say bloody-minded nature of her natives. From Boudicca onwards a heady something in the air makes Britons resist their rulers if they go too far. The tradition of defending the rule of law and the rights of ordinary people against despots gave the world Parliamentary democracy.

‘Who are Britain’s heroes?’ she asks at the end, having given us all the top reformers, artists, scientists, religious leaders. ‘Anti-heroes, that’s who. From Robin Hood to Rob Roy.’A book to put new heart in us.

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