Rather than a travelogue “through Britain” it is what he terms a “rummage through history” during his travels along the ancient route of Watling Street that runs between Dover and Anglesey.
The pre-Celtic trackway was turned into a paved road by the Romans and much of it survives as modern motorways, including parts of the A2 and A5. As a basis for examining national identity at the start of the 21st century, it is solid and fertile ground.
Higgs embarked upon the journey as an excuse to explore our island history, “hoping that this might shed light on our current divisions”. Since he wrote the book immediately before and after the EU referendum, Brexit is a subject that recurs to him throughout as he frets about “our seemingly divided country” and sets out in search of a “better sense of national identity.
Not one that is imposed on us by the state, monarchy or military but one which bubbles naturally out of the land – an identity that is welcoming, not insular, magical rather than boorish, creative rather than triumphant”.
Higgs is keen to underline the constancy of change and chose his subject of an ancient trackway that remains in use today by arguing that “it is doubtful that any area of the country can claim to have experienced such constant change”.
After a brief prologue in Milton Keynes the book opens with a chapter on Dover then moves on to Anglesey with stop-offs in Canterbury, London, Bletchley Park and Snowdonia among others.
He intersperses historical storytelling with his views on contemporary society, tackling subjects as diverse as public schooling, the media, the collapse of the British high street and the historical injustices of aristocratic land ownership.
Throughout, his concern is to interrogate the “distinct personality” of the British, often with an eye to the particularly British sense of “bawdy humour”.
He is a chatty and entertaining writer, often drawing unexpected links between disparate subjects, taking in Shakespeare, Blake and Dickens but also Doctor Who, Philip K Dick and James Bond creator Ian Fleming.
Certainly you’ll be hard pressed to find another writer who flits so easily between discussions of Harry Potter, Tom Brown’s Schooldays and the lyrics of Kanye West.
Highlights of the book include chapters that take in crossdressing highwaymen, a meeting with “England’s greatest living writer”, Northampton-based comic book legend Alan Moore, and a tour through Southwark’s Cross Bones Graveyard with visionary poet John Constable.
His digressions include the relative merits of the Celtic calendar, the unsung codebreaking heroes of the Second World War and his dislike of St George who never set foot in Britain so Higgs nominates St Alban as an alternative.
By unearthing alternative stories and forgotten narratives he believes there is much we can learn about not only the past but the present, based on the belief that British history is “infinitely rich and you always find new nuggets when you dig”.
Watling Street is a humorous and thoughtful guide as to how we all might wield the spade.
Watling Street: Travels Through Britain And Its EverPresent Past by John Higgs W&N, £18.99
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