Thursday, September 01, 2016

Book review: Engel's England by Matthew Engel

Engel's England: Thirty-nine counties, one capital and one man
Matthew Engel
Profile Books, 2015, £9.99

When I was a small boy one of my favourite things was a wooden jigsaw of England and Wales, where each piece was an individual county and the pieces were decorated with little pictures showing the local industries.

It is very much that England that Matthew Engel sets off to look for in this book. Rarely does he find it, but he is an amiable companion and Engel's England is a likeable book.

I first came across Engel as the Guardian’s cricket correspondent. He reminds be particularly of the summer of 1985 when David Gower batted and batted and England won back the Ashes. He writes on a wider range of subjects these days and the travel book format certainly suits him.

Here he is in Norfolk:
Norwich is more than just a county town, more like a capital. It evens feels like a capital, of an agreeable and small Continental country: all those huddled, companionable streets with Dutch gables – plus repulsive modern additions that hint at a phase of joyless Communism. A bit like somewhere round the Baltic, maybe. 
There are many good things in the book and places Engel makes you want to visit. Farleigh, an unspoilt village four miles from the centre of Croydon. Barrow-in-Furness, where he seeks and finds the England of Coronation Street. Dungeness, which is “not everyone’s cup of tea,” as a resident tells him, but is mine.

Talking of places I know well, in Leicestershire Engel covers the obvious subjects of multicultural Leicester and fox hunting, but he gains bonus points for getting to Breedon on the Hill. He does better in Rutland, where he meets the indefatigable blogger Martin Brookes.

When he gets to Shropshire there is a lamentable failure to write about derelict lead mines, and his sociology of the south of the county is awry. Bishop’s Castle was a centre of the counter culture two decades before London foodies discovered Ludlow.

Few places are treated unfairly. I would suggest the east side of Derbyshire (the Derwent Valley is a marvel), Birmingham and Swindon, where has more to it – the Great Western Railway, Richard Jefferies, Don Rogers – than the Magic Roundabout.

And in Buckinghamshire, after being half seduced by Eton, he is damning of the county’s selective secondary education. Hell hath no fury like a privately educated Guardian journalist confronted by a grammar school.

Before he return to his adopted home of Herefordshire for the final chapter, Engel takes us to London. In his discussion of the way the capital dominates our national life, and the way it is being remade by foreign monies, he makes important points.

Local boundaries have been rubbed out or redrawn in a way that would be simply unthinkable in the more federal United States. My jigsaw, for instance, can be dated to between 1965, when Huntingdonshire absorbed the Soke of Peterborough, and 1974, when it was itself absorbed into Cambridgeshire.

Some counties have resisted their erasure from history, notably Yorkshire (the largest) and Rutland (the smallest). Elsewhere Berkshire is fading from memory and no one seems to have heard of Huntingdonshire at all.

Soon it will be as lost as the Cotswold county of Winchcombeshire from the 10th and 11th centuries.

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