Francis Pryor’s The Birth of Modern Britain: A Journey into Britain’s Archaeological Past: 1550 to the Present

Birth of Modern BritainBack in 2003 Britain BC, the first volume of Francis Pryor‘s ‘archaeological history’ of Britain appeared, with Britain AD close on its heels; then a couple of years later Britain in the Middle Ages was published. I’ve eventually just got round to reading the fourth in the series, The Birth of Modern Britain, which was published, after a gap of five years, in February this year.

Unlike the first three volumes, which were arranged chronologically, the chapters in this book are thematic. This does make the book slightly less coherent that the others, but there is much to be said for this approach. As FP says in the Introduction, there are so many different fields which have such a variety of things going on in them simultaneously and all at such a pace, that keeping all the strings untangled in a linear narrative while maintaining a lucid flow was an unequal struggle which he abandoned.

I agree with him in having no truck with ‘Revolutions’ (as in Industrial or Agrarian), as revolutions should involve suddenness: these ‘revolutions’ were continuations of trends, occurring over hundreds of years, although there were events of moment, some of which must have been revolutionary to those living through them.

Another concept for which he has no time is that of the ‘Great Man’ of history, he who is the sole progenitor of some pivotal invention; one could write very long lists of those who previously developed the technologies that these ‘Great Men’ improved.

Telford is obviously one of Pryor’s heroes, deservedly so. His engineering of the Holyhead road, still followed over much of its length by the A5, is a marvel, particularly in the mountains of north Wales. It’s even more of an impressive (and interesting) drive if one has read Thomas Telford’s Holyhead Road: the A5 in north Wales (Council for British Archaeology Research Report 135). But even Telford, accomplished self-aggrandizer, as well as the suppressor of others’ contributions and achievements that he was, stood on the shoulders of giants (as well as many others of less great stature). [see Charles Hadfield’s Thomas Telford’s Temptation: Telford & William Jessop’s Reputation]

The book’s anecdotal style belies its erudition; it’s remarkably easy to read, managing to impart an awful lot of information in a most enjoyable fashion. I imagine that some might not like the personal anecdotes with which the book is littered, although I think it makes it more enjoyable.

Nor will some appreciate the author’s somewhat opinionated views (it so happens that I agree with most of his opinions, so I don’t mind at all), but his feelings are obviously passionate: he cares.

The book perhaps should have been called ‘A journey into Britain’s Archaeological Past 1550 almost to the Present’: I would have liked more treatment of the twentieth century, although it does get a fairer crack of the whip in his Making of the British Landscape.

It would be nice if I had several months free to work my way through the books referred to in the endnotes, I have read some of them but there are an awful lot referred to that I would like to read.

Francis presented two short television series based on Britain BC and Britain AD, and although it was nice to see his cameo appearance in the recent Neil Oliver remake on the BBC, I wish Channel 4 (or the BBC) would commission programmes based on the last two in the series, as well as something based on The Making of the British Landscape.

If you’re wanting to get an overview of life in Britain throughout history, and prehistory, without the king, queens and treaties, you could do much worse than read the four books in this set, particularly if you also read the excellent Landscape.

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