Thursday, October 12, 2006

Book Review: Identity Of England by Robert Colls

Identity Of England By Robert Colls

It is apparent from the Acknowledgements section of his book that Colls found this a difficult book to write. The title suggests that the book will attempt to address the question of English identity. In the end it doesn't really do this - except in a haphazard and disjointed way - but instead concentrates on a social history of Britain rather than making any serious attempt to put into words what makes the English, English.

Throughout the book, Colls frequently interchanges English with British - he attempts to excuse this by insisting, often, that the English themselves believed British and English to be interchangeable. Something I would disagree with. I agree that you can be English AND British, but not that English means British or vice versa.

Remarkably, Colls manages to avoid mentioning, except in occasional oblique and passing references, England's own peculiar brand of religion as having any influence on the identity of the English. For Colls, the usual suspects of class, gender and race as well as the less obvious factors of Scotland, Ireland, Wales and even India had a bigger impact on English identity than Anglicanism - an oversight that I find too extraordinary not to have been deliberate.

Overall, the book is a difficult and challenging read. Colls splits the book into sections which are obviously intended to fit in with his perception of "Identity of England" rather than any historically structured time line. It jumps from issue to issue and era to era making it difficult to follow and impossible to understand the processes that may have been involved in shaping the English identity.

As a social history of Britain it's a worthy, if somewhat dull effort which I believe reflects Colls personal world view more than it really should and I suspect it was this that made the book such a challenge for Colls to complete. As an attempt to define English identity - either now or in an historical context - it's a complete miss.

Rating 2/5

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