Book Review: The Story of the British Isles in 100 Places

Neil Oliver’s recent history is one of those works of non-fiction which does exactly what it says on the tin.

Born out of people coming up to him and asking about the places they should visit, this is Neil Oliver’s attempt to crystallise the history of these islands into a series of short essays about the most remarkable finds, events and structures which tell the story of the people who have lived here. Starting with footprints uncovered briefly in the mud at Happisburgh in East Anglia, which may have been up to 950,000 years old and at a time when this ‘long island’ was joined to the rest of Europe and there was no sea Channel, Oliver pursues his narration chronologically, proceeding up to the Millennium Dome and the Scottish Parliament building before back tracking slightly to relate in the final two essays to structures which highlight the main two aspects of his theme.

The first of these is that these islands have a history of bloody conflict and that:

We have arrived where we are in these islands at the end of a long and bloody road… The path back to that chaos is quick and straight and easily taken. Like it or not, believe it or not, we live protected by a shelter made only of our old mistakes. (p. 403)

And, we might add, for as long as we continue to recognise those mistakes as such.

Secondly, standing on the shingle beach at Dungeness ‘under the weight of the biggest, bluest sky… pebbles slipping and sliding beneath my feet while the sea rolls’, is that these islands are fragile, at ‘nature’s mercy most of all.’ (p. 406)

Published in 2018, amidst a risingly intemperate political discourse about our post-Brexit future and against a background of increasing concern about climate change, manifest to island nations most evidently in rising sea levels and plastic pollution, it is easy to identify the prompts for the centrality of such themes.

Oliver is not a trained historian and this is not a work of scholarship – he studied and worked firstly as an archaeologist before re-training as a journalist and finding his niche in broadcasting – and the language of the writing, as the above quotes testify, is poetic, often spiritual in nature and even romantic (as, perhaps, befits what is a self-confessed ‘love letter to the British Isles’ and p. 410). The essays – from two up to (rarely) eight pages – start with some contextual, frequently contemporary, analysis as well as descriptive detail about the selected location before Oliver seeks to use his undoubted empathy to put himself not only in that place but in that time, to use his imagination to project what it would have been like there, at that particular point, and then to provide some observations about the significance and continuing resonance of the site. Nevertheless, this is never an over-romanticised piece of work.

Oliver is careful with his choices, ensuring that the nations and regions which make up the British Isles are fairly represented (Ireland and Wales each have eight selections and Scotland 22, while the islands in our archipelago are represented by Orkney, Isle of Man, Skye and Iona, the Channel Islands and the Aran Islands), and that London and its immediately surrounding area (with ten) do not dominate. Frequently, the choices are coastal – for evident reasons of maritime history and the invasion, raiding and incursions, and plantations to which these islands have been subject – thus ensuring that the ‘peripheries’ occupy the central locations they deserve.  He is also careful with his language, often referring – as he acknowledges – to ‘these islands’, partly as a result of the evident political challenges of naming and labelling conventions and border issues; but also because he has come to the view, as a result of his travels, that the shared histories of the people of the ‘long island’, the flow of the population movements which have resulted during that history and the sheer longevity of the land in the face of the brevity of such human concepts as borders across a topography, nations and national identities, are such that:

Instead of any sense of different countries, I see only one place. (p. 409)

A view that will, no doubt, continue to prove as controversial as Oliver himself has been in recent years. Clearly, a perspective of someone who is, first and foremost, an archaeologist. He is, nevertheless, also absolutely correct to recognise that ‘The flow of new arrivals has never stopped’ (p. 407); we are all migrants, and we always have been. At a time when the far right is seeking to ‘claim’ sites such as Avebury and Wayland’s Smithy (the latter not covered by Oliver here) simply because they are representative of the melting pot of cultures and traditions that migration represents, this is an important assertion.

The collection is evidently an entirely personal one – the final selection mostly self-selecting as a result of some places registering with him more than others during his almost constant travelling around these islands. As such, there is almost zero point in personal quibbles with Oliver’s choice of locations to tell the story that he himself wants to tell. (I can claim to have visited no more than one-third of the hundred sites selected.)

Nevertheless, there is a heavy focus on politics and power struggles, and military might, somewhat to the exclusion of social and economic history and the selection is therefore a little conservative. The history of people is clearly there – it underpins many of the essays – and, while there are entries for the great famine in Ireland (Abbeystrewry Cemetery, Skibbereen), the highland (and island) clearances (Bettyhill), on the struggle for workers’ rights (Tolpuddle) and on the birth of the industrial revolution (Ironbridge), entries on the creative and literary tradition outnumber these. To tell a more rounded tale, I would have liked to see something on Peterloo (and see other references passim on Keith’s site), the 200th anniversary of which only just post-dated the publication of this work, or the Chartist Movement or on suffragettes, in which Emmeline Pankhurst’s youth at the outset of her involvement (she was just 14 when she attended her first meeting of the Manchester Society for Women’s Suffrage) also bears a striking resonance with some of today’s environmental activists, not least in reactions to them.

This is not just a personal preference, however: protest – and reactions to it – to achieve social change is also part of our bloody history, and a major one at that. Furthermore, it’s also a part of the mistakes that we’ve made which help to shape the shelter under which we live today, while the accommodations that we have reached as a result of such actions amount to one of the reasons why the social peace that we enjoy in general is both hard-won and often fractured as a result of the mistakes that societies like ours, still ridden with class and other hierarchical structures, continue to make.

There remains plenty of room for protest action as we continue to shape the social aspects of our shared destiny, and anywhere that it is absent from the pages of history books represents an unfortunate omission, whatever the qualities of the surrounding work.

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