England doesn’t even mean England, as author James Howes has already identified the country’s first north-south bay: more than 2,000 years ago, 55 BC, Julius Caesar set out for the island for the first time – at first not as a struggle, but as an explorer.
In the interior of the country, he encounters the ancient inhabitants, but on the southern coast he meets the still highly contested Belgian immigrants. 150 years later, the southeast dealt with the Roman conquerors. The area is a prosperous and peaceful colony. On the other hand, it is not easy for the West and the North for Rome – and perhaps themselves – to do so. This division is the common thread that runs since then through James Howes’ “Shortest History in England”.
“Three centuries before the Norman conquest, the border between England and its neighbors was essentially the same as it is today. Even then there was talk of a north-south split between the English.”
Geographical and cultural division
Soon the Vikings will invade. It reinforces the contradictions. And what about the Normans? With their campaign against the North and their cultural hegemony, they are tearing a hole that separates the now French-speaking elites, says Howes, from ordinary English to this day.
“The ordinary English—90 per cent of the population—were left without their own leadership. Adopting the language and culture of their conquerors, the remaining English elite became permanently distant from the rest of their population.”
In the Wars of the Roses, the language of the South became an example of education, while the North continues to decline.
This echo of inequality still resonates today, says James Howes: “The country has always been divided by geography, geology, and culture, and then – so easy to forget the English – that for 400 years it was ruled by an elite, speaking the French, who and who even follows that To this day the English elite and the English people speak almost different languages.”
“The world empire is long gone”
The German and writer Hauss drew attention to himself four years ago when he wrote “The Shortest History in Germany”. He argued that the division into West and East Germany was by no means artificial, but was actually placed within Germany’s historical borders along the Elbe River.
Now take a look at England and once again the historical dividing lines run along the river: according to Howes, what was the Elbe in Germany was the River Trent in England, which flows through the Midlands. The river draws not only geographical boundaries that cannot be crossed for a long time, but also linguistic, economic, political, religious and social boundaries.
In addition, there were class differences, which were exacerbated when in the sixteenth century agricultural land that had been used collectively until then was given to landowners alone.
Funds made landowners richer, helped the well-to-do peasants, and created the greatest destabilizing factor in any society: a class of the poor with no hope that anything would get better for them.
Industrialization also allowed the North to flourish for a brief period with its natural resources and employment. He couldn’t catch up with the elite south. The Empire and the United Kingdom are expanding their rule, but, in Howes’ interpretation, they can create national unity only temporarily, if at all.
James Howes: “The country, besides its deep historical divisions, has been hiding behind Great Britain, behind the United Kingdom and of course behind the global empire for 300 years, so to speak. But the global empire is now long gone. Ireland is long gone, it will be gone Scotland soon and then we English are alone in the world and we will finally have to ask ourselves the question of who we really are.”
What Howes describes is, of course, the outcome of Brexit – and here we move on to the subject of his novel. While those in favor of leaving the EU appear to be leading the UK to a new old size and unity, Howes is convinced of the exact opposite.
For him, Brexit is the ploy of a conservative clique around incumbent Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who has exploited the country’s long partition in order to pretend to be the savior of the English people.
“This is not the first time that the English have been asked to drive out an elite that is friendly to Europe, stealing freedom, grandeur, and foreign spokesmen by a full member of that elite. And it is not the first time they have done exactly that.”
History and controversy
Howes does not write it but it is the history of England. His view is particularly interesting at a time when the history of England and Great Britain has been highly controversial. Supporters of Brexit evoke England’s greatness on the one hand, while critical voices call into question the kingdom’s colonial past on the other.
From the beginning, the book was motivated by Howes’ thesis on division. It helps to monitor it. Otherwise, you could lose the thread as fast as Howes plows 2,000 years of history into 385 pages. Especially in the first part, the names of kings, dukes and counts just fly by.
But anyone who wishes to follow Howes’ thesis – or protest against it – and understand his book not only as a historical treatise, but also as an arguing, reads “England’s Shortest History” at great profit.
James Howes: ‘England’s shortest history’
Translated from the English by Stephen Pauli
Olstein Verlag, 400 pages, 10€