Thursday 18 October 2018

Enjoying Albion

For a good many weeks now, I have been reading Peter Ackroyd's Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination – reading it off and on, a chapter here, a chapter there, then putting it aside for a while (it's a damn'd thick square book, not one to carry with you on your travels). Now I have finally reached the last page, I feel mildly bereft, as if a journey with a particularly agreeable and informative companion has come to an end. 
 A 'journey' – that overused word – is appropriate, I think, for Albion, but it's a journey of wanderings around a vast subject, most definitely not a systematic itinerary, leading from A to B. That vast subject is what it says on the tin – the origins of the English imagination – and Ackroyd traces them from their Anglo-Saxon beginnings through their expression in such various fields as art, architecture, music, history writing, translation, gardening, scholarship, portraiture, biography, decorative arts, antiquarianism, etc, etc, etc. Along the way he convincingly identifies a range of distinctively English traits: a gift for absorbing and transforming outside influences, a deep distrust of theories and systems, a particular strain of melancholy, a readiness to conflate history and fiction, a certain diffidence, a love of private space, a taste for decorated surfaces, again etc, etc, etc. This is a compendious book, if ever there was one, yet it opens out in all directions into other, endless possibilities and fields of inquiry – and no wonder, with such a vast subject. Reading it, I felt more than ever the absurdity of our official modern identity as 'British'. English identity is far stronger, far older, far deeper-rooted, far more real. Albion (though it doesn't have any such programme) leaves no doubt of that.
 It is not only a book about Englishness, it is an embodiment and demonstration of the very nature of Englishness, with all its (to some critical eyes) faults. As Ackroyd puts it in his introduction: 'If this book is diverse and various, digressive and heterogeneous, accumulative and eclectic, anecdotal and sensational, then the alert reader will come to realise that the author may not be entirely responsible.' No, Albion is.

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