A Social History of England by Asa Briggs

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‘Don’t you find this book a little bit boring?’

‘Umm…to be honest, yes I do a bit.’

My daughter put her finger on the problem. A Social History of England by Asa Briggs is indeed a touch dull in parts but till then I had not admitted this to myself. Much as I am fascinated by history, it is after all ‘just one fucking thing after another’, as Rudge eloquently puts it in The History Boys. Briggs’ tome was, I think, on the reading list for my politics subsidiary at university. Given that it starts before history was written down, my being 30 years late to read it is probably no biggie. It contains some fabulous nuggets. For example, Barbados was uninhabited before being settled by slavers. Also, one of 20 people found in a tomb at Wychwood in the Cotswolds was killed by an arrow which embedded itself in his backbone. I’ve played golf there, and could have done with this by about the fourth tee. And the word ‘cabal’ comes from the initials of five ministers during Charles II’s reign*. One odd thing: it’s a heavy book. I don’t mean in terms of its style – Briggs actually keeps things bowling along, quite light – but in terms of weight. It’s as though the bloody thing is made of Osmium. I looked for a secret compartment filled with rocks. Perhaps it sits outside the space/time continuum, the sort of puzzle that would open a Doctor Who episode. Actually, Briggs mentions Daleks, calling them ‘the best-known English robot of the 1970s’, as though there was a prize for this. But of course, the Daleks are cyborgs, not robots: basic research would have told Briggs that they are genetically-mutated Kaleds, from the planet Skaro, encased in a metal body. Schoolboy error. And if he’s wrong about this, then are we to trust him on Cromwell’s attitude to the new American colonies, or the effects of the plague on the 14th century economy? Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt.

*Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable says this is piffle: despite popular myth, the word ‘was acquired from French cabale in the 1610s’, cf. Briggs’ Dalek fiasco. Oh well.

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