The Last Wolf

Reviews Published August 23, 2017 in New Statesman

Is there anything more tiresome than debating the essence of “Englishness” – or any other national identity, come to that? Millions of words must have been spilt on this fruitless quest over the past century, generating gigatonnes of wind that could have been usefully harvested for energy. Each time, no “essence” is to be found, and everyone goes back to the beginning and starts again.

That’s how it used to be, anyway. More recently, in the wake of the Brexit vote and the divisions it has laid bare, the debate about who “we” are has become fraught and urgent. England, and Britain more widely, is hardly alone in its soul-searching. Arguments about belonging, culture, nationhood and identity are flooding across the Western world – and beyond – because people are increasingly unsure about who or where they are. The sweeping changes unleashed by hypercapitalism, technological change and unprecedented levels of migration are making rootlessness the norm, and the more people feel rootless the more they want to know where they belong and where they come from.

British politicians often respond to this by attempting to formulate some notion of our collective “values”. Here’s who we are, all 65 million of us, they say, and then proceed to read out a list of uniquely “British” things that only “British” people do, like valuing democracy, being tolerant with each other and standing in queues politely. These attempts at top-down unity are always failures, largely because, with the possible exception of the queuing, all the “values” asserted are pretty much universal. There’s nothing uniquely “British” about valuing the rule of law or freedom of speech (regularly clamping down on freedom of speech is a more reliably British virtue, if history is anything to go by). The failure of anyone to produce a list of “values” that are uniquely British – or English, or Welsh, or Scottish – suggests that they don’t exist. The island is just too teeming, diverse and disconnected now for much to be held in common at all.

So what, if anything, might define that elusive “Englishness”, the subject of Robert Winder’s new book, The Last Wolf: the hidden springs of Englishness? Cultural quirks, perhaps? I can confidently assert that the English know how to make a good cup of strong tea better than anyone else on earth (with the possible exception of the Irish), and we’re also world champions at dog shows, proper beer and indie guitar bands. But I’m not sure that these are things I would encourage my children to die patriotically in a trench for.

Winder offers a better answer, and it’s one that anyone brave or suicidal enough to pitch in to the contemporary European identity debate should consider. It offers a path through the horrible, thorny maze of arguments about race, ethnicity, migration and the like, towards something that, potentially, could unite people rather than divide them. What makes and forms a “people”, says Winder, in England as elsewhere, is the one thing they all share: the place itself. If there is an “Englishness” it is formed from the nature, literally, of England:

If we really wanted to search for the national identity, I thought, the real place to look was in the natural heritage of hills, valleys, rivers, stones and mists – the raw materials that had, over time, moulded the way we were. Landscape and history – the past and the elemental backdrop – were the only things we could truly claim as our own. Just as some plants thrive in sand and others in clay, so a national character is fed by nutrients it cannot alter.

Early on in the book, Winder quotes the novelist Lawrence Durrell, who makes the same case more provocatively:

I believe you could exterminate the French at a blow and resettle the land with Tartars, and within two generations discover… that the national characteristics were back at norm – the relentless metaphysical curiosity, the tenderness for good living and passionate individualism.

Durrell goes on to suggest that “a Cypriot who settled in London would in time become English, simply because human customs owe just as much to the local environment as to trees and flowers”. I’m in a position to test this hypothesis, because my grandmother was a Cypriot who settled in London. Did she become English? Well, she wore English clothes, lived in a bungalow, cooked roast dinners, won endless rosettes in endless dog shows and had her English friends call her Doris, because they had trouble pronouncing Demetra. On the other hand, she never lost her accent, her language or her connections to her homeland, and until the end of her life she made a mean baklava. I don’t know what any of that means, other than that labels can get confusing pretty quickly.

And that is Winder’s point: forget the labels, look at the land below your feet. That’s where your “identity” comes from. Take the last wolf in England, which gives the book its title. Allegedly killed in the 1290s by a Shropshire knight named Peter Corbet (the king had tasked this “mighty hunter” and other nobles with ridding the land of predators), the wolf’s end freed up the English to transform their landscape – in a way not available to many other European countries, whose wolf populations were too large and interlinked to kill off – into “the biggest sheep farm in the world”. This turned England, in the Middle Ages, into a wealthy wool economy. It was an agricultural revolution, shaping everything from land ownership to diet to class structures to the architecture of the Cotswolds, and it happened not just because the landscape was now wolfless, but because “the country was made for grass”.

The same soil and climate that made growing grass so easy did the same for wheat – which, mainly in the form of bread, has been the staple of the English diet from the rise of agriculture to the present day, when we eat more wheat than ever. Add in the later discovery of coal, which was found in rich seams across the country, and which gave rise to the Industrial Revolution and the British Empire, and Winder suggests, only slightly playfully, that the English national character can be summed up by way of an algebraic equation: e = cw4: “Englishness equals coal x wool, wheat and wet weather.”

The book’s central case – that “natural history might be a branch of political science” – is a necessary corrective to a public debate in which we are increasingly instructed to believe that virtually every aspect of our character is a “social construct”. Winder wants us to understand that much of it is actually a natural construct, which means in turn that our development is not entirely under our control. It’s not a message that many people want to hear in an age of selfies and consumer choice: “Just as each vineyard (or terroir) produces its own unique wine, so human beings are conditioned by their local landscape. We move around more now, so the lines are blurred, but the underlying skeleton of English culture – the bare bones of the national psyche – may have changed less than we think.”

I couldn’t help, as I read, wanting more detail on this “underlying skeleton”. Where are the folk songs, the rhymes and ballads? Where is the mythology? Where are the grainy details of the lives of the people who, throughout English history, were probably shaped by the landscape most of all, and who shaped it in turn – the peasantry? There are glimpses of all this, but there is also too much school-textbooky history of inventors and their inventions, of revolutions and wars. A book like this ought to start at the bottom – in the mud, in the mulch on the forest floor. I wanted an earthier, messier story.

Despite this, there is plenty to chew on here. The question that remained when it was over though, for this reviewer at least, was: is any of it true any more? It may once have been the case that human customs were formed by places, but is it now?

When people in England, or anywhere in the modern world, have more connection, via their handheld screens, with the mill race of global consumer “culture” than they do with the landscape around them, and when only a handful of us work on or really know that landscape, what chance does it have of forming the basis of our cultural life?

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could the reason simply be that there is no such thing any more; that the English, like other denizens of techno-post-modernity, are shaped not by their natural environment, but by the artificial one that is rising to enclose them like a silicon cocoon? When the heavy metals in your smartphone are mined in Indonesia, not Cornwall, what equation defines you – and do you even care?

9 Comments

  • Phil Harris

    By coincidence I read yesterday, a quote by American historian C. Van Woodward, writing in the 50s, in his essay ‘The Search for Southern Identity’ (1958). He cites Eudoria Welty of Missisipi: “place opens a door in the mind”. Your Review opened a door in my mind and I roamed Britain and my memories and found I shared them with others. ‘Place’ was the starting point along with posing a question that allowed my own couple of short stories. Incidentally I am reading Michael Northcott, Edinburgh, Professor of Ethics who thinks about ‘place’, ecology and history in a densely informative review https://www.academia.edu/21024681/Place_Ecology_and_the_Sacred_The_Moral_Geography_of_Sustainable_Community .
    best
    Phil

  • Jo Cartmell

    Dear Paul, As someone who never did a degree, please excuse if I am way off beam. For me, place definitely defines who we are, but it begins when we are a child and by being informed about the natural history of the place we live in by our parents? Or, it certainly was thus and so in those nature connected days of my 1950’s childhood. My grandmother had a wildflower meadow with abundant wildife, orchard, and large veg patch. My father grew most of our food in our modest garden and delighted in showing me a chrysalis, or toad which he had found underneath a hollow in the garden path. My mother knew the names of many of the wildflowers and butterflies. Nowadays, there is so much disconnection from the natural world and a further problem caused by baseline species syndrome, as biodiversity diminishes with each generation. Many people do not know what a Moon Daisy (Oxeye Daisy) or Tom’s Thumb (Birdsfoot Trefoil) is. Both are local endearing names which sparked my childhood interest in the natural world — thanks to my parent’s enthusiasm. Possibly many people would not be able to tell the difference between a frog and a toad nowadays. Maybe our disconnection began when we stopped celebrating the Solstices and the turning of the Seasons, which connected us to and made us feel spiritually connected to the land, community and its abundant biodiversity. When we stopped celebrating the seasons we lost our respect and reverence for Nature. We also lost our spirituality, leaving us bereft and placeless. We were no longer grounded. In contrast, the Haida nation of the Alaskan archipelago have never lost their connection to the land, reverence or deep spirituality. It is self evident here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p042tbmc With my best regards and all good wishes, Jo

    • In my experience, Jo, doing a degree just gets in the way of appreciating the natural world! I think you’re right about childhood. So much of this is about place and connection, and we are losing it now. Who knows the names of much that grows outside their house? It all comes down to the particular in the end.

  • kenny peers

    I think a lot of this has to do with the creation of the nation – state ; the state being a body defined by physical boundaries and institutions of governance whereas ‘ the nation’ is a myth created to unite differing parts of the state and leads to the whole nationalism agenda which allowed in the 1st WW English workers to fight german workers whom they had more in common with than their aristocratic leaders.

    • Certainly states have created versions of nations, post-facto – France and Ireland are two good examples. But the nation long predates the state. American indigenous people call themselves ‘first nations’ for a reason. And the notion that English ‘workers’ had ‘more in common’ with german workers than with their own generals is also a myth; one drawn up not by the creators of nation states but by the creators of Marxist theory. Story vs story, as usual.

  • GaryA

    I spent most on my childhood in a early seventies Tyneside terraced street of one bedroom flats, ‘slums’ they were called. To adult eyes the landscape may have seemed bleak but to us kids it was our glorious playground, with its scrapyards, railways lines, corner shops, rabbit-warren back lanes and decrepit bombsites. Wildlife was rare but precious when spotted, a ladybird, a birds foot trefoil next to forests of rose-bay willow herbs. We planted seeds on the bombsite and watched in awe as with careful watering *our* weeds grew seemingly from ground up broken bricks and industrial lava. The working class community was no myth, we lived carefree lives from friends house to house unhindered by locks or suspicion; when the old B/W telly went on the blink we woul;d go to grandma’s where the family would gather in the front room with its piano and various uncles and aunts playing instruments for a sing-song…I didnt know many songs but even as a nine year old I guessed this was something dying out as my parents- and none of my friends could play instruments or sing very well. Of course there was hardship and wife beatings and grinding day-to-day poverty in the background but us kids had no real insight or effects on our perpetual playtime, schooling a minor interruption.
    So in a way the industrial environment formed our culture and community and this was changing all over Britain. The Ealing film esq (is there anything more English than Ealing comedies?) landscape of terraced communities were disintegrating, the old slums cleared the old communites scattered into modern hi rise estates. We were moved out when I was 11, I hated everything about the new flat and its area, my friends and playground demolished; childhood felt like it was over, innocence lost.

  • Michael Aschenbach

    Thank you for an interesting review, Paul. As an American with a German name but mostly English ancestry, who grew up in New England and now lives in a rather English part of the Philadelphia suburbs, I can assure you that Englishness is far from defunct. My notions of human unity come, also, I believe, primarily from my Yankee and Quaker ancestors. Nevertheless, so does my love of the Earth and the “terroir” I know. I did grow up celebrating solstice and the natural world. My father did sing the old English folk songs and also taught me to recite Chaucer in Olde English, which I can still do.

    So, though I am wary of hyper-nationalism and its dangers and firmly committed to the well-being of all human beings, I also do love my Anglo-American roots. It took me a long time to recognize this, in my youthful zeal to a citizen of the world, but I do recognize it. Although I have lived most of my adult life in Pennsylvania and love my garden hermitage there, when I visit my childhood home in Vermont, I can recognize the fragrance of the air as unerringly as a homing salmon.

    So, yes, there is the nature of the soil and the terrain–but there is also the meanings in a thousand cultural signals and historical realities. I love much that is English … but my ancestors also fought ferociously against your crown to win our independence and that, too, is part of my cultural identity. The non-conformists who stayed in England have a different story than those who went to the colonies in America. And I don’t really understand the English, though I do love much of English cultural style, and that may be one more proof that your national identity prevails despite the internet and the passenger jet.

  • David Ramsay

    Thanks for the interesting review Paul. I am a Scotsman who has lived most of his working life in various parts of England and abroad. My “national” concept of Scotland, admittedly tinged with nostalgia, is about the people and the landscape – the latter forming the backbone to who, I think, I am. Similarly, my notion of England is built on landscape as well as acres of ugly housing and the ubiquitous “offices”. As I get older I get closer to the land and turn a blind eye to the ugliness. What else can I do? But I share the idea that generations from here on in will be formed by the screens they stare at for hours every day. Maybe it’s a way of ignoring the barren buildings.

  • Brian

    This is a very tangential and possibly irrelevant comment (and I should know better), but the issues you raise have stymied and bewildered me for a good long while now. We no longer know what we’re talking about when we speak of identity and belonging, having construed so many fictions to shore up and fortify our arrogance. We are not even present – most of us – in the places where our feet touch the ground; where the world flows in and out of us despite our blithe indifference. Ask not what your superorganism can do for you. Ask what you can do for your superorganism. And above all, remain magnetized and aligned correctly, compass-pointed toward true-north: the objective.

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