book-reviews

Watling Street

by John Higgs

Rating: ★★

This was a gift given on the basis that I live near Watling Street and appreciate history, and so logically might enjoy a book on the history of Watling Street. Firstly, to correct this misapprehension, the book is not really about Watling Street. Higgs is writing a book about British identity following the EU referendum result, and Watling Street is a handy metaphor for him to base his exploration on. While there is some history in the book, this is largely because history is important to Higgs' concept of British identity, and it certainly should not be considered to be about the history of Watling Street in any scholarly sense. What it is is a series of reflections on British characteristics, myths and legends from various points along Watling Street, anecdotes from Higgs' friends and family, and arguments for Higgs' spiritual, cultural and political views. The tension between what the book actually is and what I thought it was meant to be is at least part of why it left me with a poor taste, which isn't exactly fair, but there you are.

Despite Higgs insisting he will stray no further than 5 miles from Watling Street, this is a wide-ranging book, with no rigid limits. It could easily have been a directionless catastrophe, but Higgs is evidently a talented writer, and he keeps everything on track and vaguely entertaining throughout, carefully orchestrating his chapters so that the underlying moral he wants to discuss emerges without struggle from the snippet of myth he is retelling or inventing. He grounds the remote and grandiose with modern detail, mixes history with stories of family days out, and sings the praises of living saints like Alan Moore as much as he muses on St. Alban.

Lots of the content I had no trouble with, but I think that only serves to make the troublesome bits stand out. Higgs talks a lot about class struggle, in a way that makes far more of it than I have ever observed -- and in the particular middle-class way that seems to express solidarity for the irreproachable ordinary working class, whilst (apparently) wandering the country looking for interesting colour to write about, without ever having to worry about getting someone to cover your shift at Gregg's. He also drops a lot of 'spirituality' references, implying that he half-believes in everything from moon goddesses to prophetic dreams to legionnaire ghosts on the M6 Toll Road. Towards the end, he solidifies this aspect of his personality in one line about various origin myths for the codename '007': "A foggy uncertainty is better than an empty void". Higgs would prefer that we make up something, rather than accept what we can actually know.

Not genuinely enlightening on the subject of Watling Street, or indeed on many other subjects -- Higgs corrects a couple of inaccuracies he is aware of in the things he retells, but I doubt he caught them all. As entertainment, it has a bit of value. So far as British identity, I'm not really sold. Higgs' vision seems a shade too pacifistic to square with our history (or indeed modern culture), and a bit too left-wing to sit with a lot of actual public opinion on topics like the EU or the Royals, or to square with the consistent Conservative victories in England. There is a little too much wishing in his description, I think.