‘Watling Street is a palimpsest. It is always being rewritten.’ And it’s the route John Higgs takes in this delightful and inventive contemplation of the way history has shaped Britain, and vice versa.
By way of prologue, Higgs visits Milton Keynes on the summer solstice. Though often derided as a town without history, Milton Keynes was in fact designed so the rising sun would shine directly down its main road on midsummer morning – we’re often unaware, he writes, of the way the present is illuminated by the past. That being so, it’s apt that he begins his walk the day of the Brexit referendum.
Higgs’ starting point is the recently rediscovered Fann Bay Deep Shelter, a tunnel system carved within Dover’s White Cliffs, and his subject is our national identity; the contradictory elements that construct it – chalk and flint; education and gunpowder – and the way it only exists at a distance, like a rainbow. In pursuit of this topic he reveals a talent for the startling connection: that Rod Hull, of Emu fame, saved Restoration House (Dickens’ model for Miss Havisham’s house in Great Expectations) for the nation, that the original Star Wars movies were shot alongside the road that Chaucer’s pilgrims travelled, or that the ordinances licensing Southwark’s prostitutes were signed into law by Thomas Becket – ‘the sex workers of Southwark were licensed by a saint.’
It’s a heady brew, which explores the idea of location rather than simply visiting places. A digression on Banksy’s Kissing Coppers – once on an alley wall in Brighton and currently assumed to be in an American collection – concludes that the graffiti only had artistic value in its original setting. Similarly, the London Stone, which by repute marks the exact centre of London, feels inert in its present home at the Museum of London. It was more in tune with its surroundings in its traditional lodging at 111 Cannon Street, even when hidden behind a magazine rack at WHSmith.
“Throughout, Higgs demonstrates a wide frame of reference, allowing him to shift in a sentence from Pertwee-era Doctor Who to Edgar’s speech in King Lear”
Language, too, is interrogated throughout: ‘money for old rope’ comes from the practice of Tyburn hangmen selling strands of the rope used on celebrity victims, while ‘the Tube’, now applied to London’s entire underground network, originally referred to just the Central Line that cuts through its middle.
But all of this is a sideshow to Higgs’ main theme, in pursuit of which he identifies an emptiness at the heart of society. In part this can be traced back, he thinks, to the way in which the majority of the population are no longer identified as ‘workers’ but ‘consumers’. Work has always been one of the narratives around which our lives are constructed; the framework on which we assess our progress, or lack of it. Consumerism, particularly during an age of austerity, offers nothing to replace this. This exacerbates the division between society’s haves and have-nots, one of our many current fault lines, but Higgs’ theory is that rather than fracturing us, these lines provide different perspectives from which to view the whole. Drawing on the story of St Alban, he concludes that ‘we are not helpless consumers of identity. We are not trapped by history. We can choose the stories we tell.’
Throughout, Higgs demonstrates a wide frame of reference, allowing him to shift in a sentence from Pertwee-era Doctor Who to Edgar’s speech in King Lear. There’s an astonishing account of a Hallowe’en vigil at Cross Bones (the prostitutes’ graveyard), an encounter with Alan Moore – for whom the description ‘comic book artist’ falls far short – at the centre of the country (an MOT garage in Northampton), and three different explanations as to why Fleming chose ‘007’ as James Bond’s code name.
I was still congratulating myself for noticing this last contradiction when Higgs explained why all three were included – plausible explanations are often assumed to be the truth, where more than one plausible explanation exists, things get messy. The borders between history and myth are porous. This is a wonderful guidebook to those misty areas.