“It’s not a book about being proud to be British, it’s a book about being delighted to be British.” This is how John Higgs cheerfully describes his Watling Street: Travels Though Britain and Its Ever-Present Past (W&N, July) when we meet at his publisher’s office. It blends travel writing, history and memoir with a hint of politics and lashings of humour, in a macrocosmic, state-of-the-nation look at our country with all its contradictions. Higgs would qualify as a sort of countercultural Bill Bryson were it not for the fact that where Bryson looks at us from the outside, Higgs does so from the inside. It’s patriotism, but not as we know it.
Higgs’s mechanism for taking the pulse of the nation is a journey from Dover to Anglesey along Watling Street. This ancient route, named for a Dark Ages warlord, was first trodden by prehistoric feet, and is now made up of the A2, A5 and, for a stretch - one reputedly haunted by the ghosts of Roman soldiers - the M6 Toll. Higgs, who is a native Watling Street wayfarer, having been born in Rugby and grown up in North Wales, travels via Canterbury, London, St Albans, Dunstable, Milton Keynes, Northampton, Rugby, Shropshire and Snowdonia, as he searches the route for places, people and stories that will give us a better sense of national identity: from Druids, dragons and Rod Hull; to the London Stone; Watford Gap and the Atherstone Ball Game. While Higgs readily admits that his route is only one possible slice through our nation, entirely bypassing the north-east and south-west, not to mention the whole of Scotland, he asks us to consider Watling Street as a device by which to turn our rich patchwork of British life stories into a narrative. “It’s trying to be more than a journey down one road. It’s a more ambitious book than it may first appear.”
On the road
It is a happy accident that publication of Watling Street is now set to fall just after a general election, as well as a year and a bit on from the EU referendum, because Higgs actually started work on the book a decade ago. “I knew I wanted to write about Britain, and I knew our deep past would have to be part of it.” He hit upon Watling Street, initially because he liked the name. “It somehow sums up Britain for me: it’s gently appealing rather than grand or showy.” He also liked the fact that Watling Street is both a very ordinary road and one punctuated by a series of extraordinary events: the fall of Boudicca, the Battle of Bosworth Field, and the vital code-breaking operations at Bletchley Park all happened along its route.
“This seemed also to represent Britain quite wonderfully: an island which is just a bog-standard rock in the North Atlantic, but also marvellous. Then, of course, the rise of populist nationalism happened, and the EU referendum took place, and every day I was working on the book, it became more and more prescient. And I became more and more grateful that I was doing it, because I could feel a little lost in this country at the moment without a new perspective to transcend the division and include everyone again”.
The Watling Street perspective is that, post-Brexit, we need to understand who we are; not in terms of characteristics like religious or political persuasion, but who we are geographically. “I feel a great connection to this country, and no political party seems to understand that. The Left seems to deny the extent to which the environment that formed us is part of our identity, while the Right seems to weaponise it, and turn it into flags and anthems. So I started to avoid the term: ‘national identity’, in favour of ‘geographic identity’. Because the things that have shaped me are the people, and the landscape, and the culture, and the rivers and the mountains, and the music and the jokes.”
The jokes? “I read Chaucer’s ‘The Miller’s Tale’ and thought, ‘This is exactly the same sense of humour as in the Carry On films.’ In between the two are 600 years, and yet we’re still laughing at a naked bum.” Higgs is persuasive in explaining why literature is one of the things Britain excels at. “Once Chaucer first decided, ‘I won’t write “The Canterbury Tales” in French, I won’t write them in Latin, I’ll write them in English’, we’ve been overachieving like crazy: Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Agatha Christie, Tolkien, J K Rowling.
Moore to love
“It’s something about English,” he says. “It’s a Swiss Army knife of a language. It’s not an elegant, beautiful thing, but you can do what you want with it: you can rap in it, you can write sonnets in it, and you can also write a manual for an internet server in it.” Watling Street also contains a paen to Northampton’s own Alan Moore, author of Watchmen and Jerusalem, whom Higgs considers to be Britain’s greatest living writer for his “rare combination of ambition, compassion, imagination and dazzling technical brilliance.”
All Higgs’ previous books, he tells me, including Stranger Than We Can Imagine: Making Sense of the Twentieth Century and The KLF: Chaos, Magic and the Band who Burned a Million Pounds (described in 2013 by Ben Goldacre as “by far the best book this year”), have aimed to leave the reader with a different perspective on something from the one they started the book with.
And now Watling Street argues that, with a shift in the way we think about ourselves, greater post-Brexit harmony is within reach. “We don’t have to believe something impossible. We don’t have to come up with the equivalent of the American Dream. We just have to recognise that we’re kin on a rock - a rock which is also a fun place to be. The culture’s so rich, the humour’s so good, the music’s world-beating. And then there’s the fact that you can go anywhere in this country and find a nice pub. That really is wonderful.”