I have just begun reading Henrietta Marshall’s Our Island Story to my 8-year-old son. The story begins in the mists of time and mythology, with Neptune giving his beloved son Albion a beautiful island set in a silver sea – an island that the heroic Brutus, prince of Troy, later renames Britannia. We have got as far as the coming of the Romans. The brave Britons – our ancestors – have fought bravely but finally succumbed. Caractacus has been paraded through the streets of Rome but so impresses the emperor with his noble words, his love of his homeland, that he wins his freedom.
Of course, history à la Marshall, the sort of history we learned as children as late as the 1970s and early 80s, has long been condemned as ‘drums and trumpets’ history, ‘Whig’ history, history ‘from above’ – as propagating ‘the great tradition’, a ‘grand narrative’ which ignores alternative narratives, marginalises minorities, and is ill-suited to our post-imperial multicultural society. It has been replaced in schools by source-based history in which children, enacting for themselves the role of historian and archaeologist, learn to ‘sift evidence’ and draw inferences; and in academia by the cult of the non-judgemental micro-specialist. There has been a spate of televised histories of Britain in recent years. But for all their dramatic interest and special effects, they ring hollow. Lacking a unifying theme or motivating spirit (patriotism, perhaps?), the national story is flattened into a dry chronicle of events.
If the Whig tradition is a romance, a myth, it is at least a myth we treasure, a storehouse of memories and collective experiences, a story that binds us, the English people, together. Our national story grounds our English imagination; it expresses our collective consciousness. Without it, we lose our soul as a nation. Nothing wrong with myths, then. Besides, isn’t today’s multicultural ‘black presence’ history a fiction, a grand narrative imposed with totalitarian zeal to serve a political agenda, namely the deconstruction of Western civilization?
Visiting the Houses of Parliament in the summer, I was struck by the magnificent Victorian murals that depict key moments in our island history. It is history in pictures, Whig history at its most theatrical, confident and magnificent, the story of the ascent of a Protestant people toward parliamentary democracy. The tableau ‘Queen Elizabeth commissions Raleigh to sail to America’ takes one’s breath away. Our collective past is there on the walls. Are our parliamentary representatives never stirred?
In reading Our Island Story, I have the sense that I am bestowing a precious gift on my child. Yet to be initiated into English history, the history of the English people, is now a mixed blessing. He will (I hope) forever have a sense of belonging, of being at home, even of destiny. Every ancient building, monument, landmark, hedgerow, landscape, even the climate, will be charged with significance. But he had better not open his mouth about it. He is condemned to be mute, a guilty heretic, a silent witness to a horrible drama unfolding.
Of course, such talk is now distinctly dangerous, and marks one out as a dangerous extremist. How long will it be before such books are banned or burned, and those who disseminate them punished? How long before little groups, driven to the farthest ends of these islands, like the Celtic monks of Dark Age Britain, meet in secret to share the stories of English history, the remembrance of their lost Christian civilization?