Jason Goodwin: ‘The legal and democratic system that flourishes across a third of the world was hammered together on these shores’

Jason Goodwin reflects on the present's increasing ability to reflect on the past, whether through radio programs, photograph albums or just a good book.

Many of us like to have a couple of books on the go: one for the sofa, one for the train, another for reading in bed. I might find myself tackling Anna Karenina, say, with a side helping of Tony Anderson’s Bread and Ashes, all about walking in Georgia, or diluting Henry James with a splash of Lee Child. P. G. Wodehouse goes well with Thomas Hardy.

Graham Greene went a step further and would actually write two books at once: his thrillers in the morning and his more solid, reflective novels in the afternoon, after a pair of lunchtime martinis.

The books I’m reading at the moment complement each other, too. The English and their History is a witty, brilliant, sweeping tale that doesn’t ignore the kings and queens and refreshingly acknowledges things that have been done right and gone well, as well as the failures and dead ends.

View over summer wheat fields from top of Beacon Hill, near Highclere, Hampshire, England, United Kingdom, Europe

Robert Tombs, a professor and expert in all things French, is concerned with the story of England and how the English have chosen to tell it, beginning with Brutus and the Trojan descent of the island kings at one end and the chronicle of England’s post-Second World War decline at the other – each, as it turns out, as mythical as the other.

Recommended videos for you

‘It’s a tonic to get back to the thing in full vigour, the green sprig of English history’

There has never been a better time for history lovers, from the helpful signage of the heritage industry to the outpouring of books and radio programmes about the past. It can all be a bit spotty, however, a dash of this and a pinch of that, and often gloomy and relativist, so it’s a tonic to get back to the thing in full vigour, the green sprig of English history with its liberties and restraint, so praised by Voltaire – and often so valuable to our neighbours on the Continent.

Netley Abbey, a ruined 13th century medieval monastery, near Southampton, Hampshire, England, UK

It’s amusing to think that the county of Hampshire is considerably older than any European country in existence today and the English, as a people living in a land called England, may be the oldest nation in Europe, even the world. With the exception of the Conquest, which inflicted a wound that healed like scarring on an old tree, England has been under one continuous, ever-developing system of government since the 8th century, or earlier, and that has brought the English an unrivalled stability.

England was centralised without becoming autocratic, porous without becoming spongy and, through muddle, brilliance, happy accident and geography – with endless reverses and narrow squeaks – the legal and democratic system that flourishes across a third of the world was hammered together on these shores.

In a bolder age, Prof Tombs’s massive book would have been issued in at least three volumes. For light relief and photographs, I’ve been dipping into At West Dean, which is about a 6,000-acre estate in the Sussex countryside. Our friends Jim Buckland and Sarah Wain, husband and wife, took on the running of the gardens a quarter of a century ago, when the greenhouses were shattered and decrepit and the arboretum had been smashed apart by the Great Storm.

Now, the splendour of the great house, where Mrs James once entertained Edward, Prince of Wales, is matched by its setting, from the walled gardens with their gleaming Victorian hot houses and the arboretum underplanted with wildflowers, to the extraordinary water gardens with grotesque bridges built of flint.

What has made it all possible is ‘continuity of custodianship’, the authors explain, as a garden goes through its cycles of ‘development, decline and renewal’.

There are moments when, if it wasn’t for the photographs of Jim spreading compost, I could believe I’d accidentally swapped books. The lesson from rebuilding West Dean gardens over the past 27 years might be summed up as Make Haste Slowly. It sounds decidedly English.