Engel's England: Thirty-nine counties, one capital
and one man
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THIS is a timely book. As the debate over Scottish independence
ramifies into arguments about devolution and "English votes for
English laws", Matthew Engel provides a much needed examination of
what this "England" actually is.
This engaging tome - cheerfully illustrated with maps by
Susannah English - takes us around the country in all its variety,
from the well-dressers of northern Derbyshire to the skimpily
dressed of the Chester races.
The title Engel's England - and its rather grandiose
subtitle - might imply that this is a guidebook, in the manner of
Pevsner (a writer of whom Engel is clearly fond). This book is not
a Companion or Compendium, although it is both companionable and
compendious; even the staunchest Anglophile will finish it more
knowledgable about (for instance) the Chorleywood Bread Process,
the Panacea Society, or Herdwick sheep. It is, instead, the record
of three years' travelling through the 40 historic counties of
England, attempting "to grasp the essence" of each.
For Engel, this is partly a personal journey (he attends
evensong in all of the country's Anglican cathedrals, lighting a
candle in each for his late son), but it is also a quest in search
of local identities that are all too often in grave danger of
disappearing; throughout, Tesco looms. He is rightly scathing about
the short-sightedness of the 1960s and '70s, when town centres were
disfigured and ancient boundaries carved up for the sake of
Engel gives a fascinating and, at times, forthright account of
the counties: his reactions range from delight (Worcestershire is
"stunning") to modified rapture ("Leicestershire is not that
unattractive") and robust dislike (neither Stoke-on-Trent nor
Stonehenge comes off well).
Nevertheless, his prose is always warm and good-humoured,
whether sensing the numinous at Little Gidding, sympathising with
the plight of veteran Gurkhas in Aldershot, or enjoying a cup of
tea and slice of cake in the Sugar Hut, Brentwood, the spiritual
home of The Only Way is Essex.
Engel's England genially celebrates the best that the
country has to offer, while offering a salutary warning of how much
there is to lose.
Dr Philip Sidney is a research assistant at the University
of Cambridge, working with Landmarks, a project that explores the
ways in which landscape and language inter-animate each