This story begins twelve thousand years ago with the retreat of the glaciers, when humans following migrating herds of reindeer began to permanently populate the land we now call Britain. In what is both a homage to this land and a superb geography lesson, Crane documents the processes and events that have shaped it with affection, clarity, and wit. With recurring themes of climate, refugees, defence, migrants and economics, he also gives us a useful perspective through which to judge current events.
But to me his most remarkable skill is his ability to make history alive and relevant. He writes of the Romans:
There are few more thought-provoking spots to chew a flapjack than the edge of a ditch dug two thousand years ago by dolabra-wielding soldiers with salt on their sandals. Whether we like it or not, they gave us a good duffing.
Time and again he uses simple, familiar words and phrases to describe ancient events, be they tsunamis, battles, or technical achievements. 'Tracks flooded. Crops failed. Animals died. Kids went hungry,' he says, describing farming conditions almost five thousand years ago. His skill in making history current makes the reader feel connected to the subject.
And with connection comes empathy. This concisely written book not only provides a context in which to understand current events, it encourages us to view them through a sympathetic lens. As he so rightly says, 'Migrants need a very good reason to leave a homeland and embark on a long and hazardous sea voyage... War plague and famine were perpetual stimuli.'
The only part of the book I found less than convincing, having been so well-informed throughout about the past, is the speculative glimpse of the author's own imagined future. But on the whole the book is so vividly, grippingly rich, I am more than ready to grant him this minor indulgence.
Pantperthog-based Julie Brominicks writes about the Welsh landscape, usually for BBC Countryfile Magazine. See www.juliebrominicks.wordpress.com