Book of the week
The Last Wolf by Robert Winder Little, Brown 480pp £20
In 1281, Edward I commissioned a Shropshire knight named Peter Corbet to eradicate England’s wolves, said Dominic Sandbrook in The Sunday Times. “For nine years, Corbet and his pack of hounds roamed the forests of the English Midlands.” By 1290, “Corbet had done it”; from that year on, there were no more “firm sightings” of wolves. According to Robert Winder, this episode, more than any other, marks the birth of Englishness. The wolf’s disappearance made large scale sheep farming possible. “Sheep gave us wool; wool made us rich. No sheep, no rich merchants, no glorious perpendicular churches, no Lavenham, no Chipping Campden, no rural idyll, no nostalgic pastoral.” The Last Wolf is a “provocative and thoroughly entertaining” investigation of how England’s identity has been shaped by its climate and geography. Though some of its arguments are a “bit of a stretch”, the book is a “nicely understated rebuke” to the “fashionable idea” that nationhood owes more to ideology than geography. For Winder, the “key thing is not the people but the place”.
Though Winder is “clearly obsessed with the 13th century”, he “doesn’t only fixate on sheep”, said Johanna Thomas-Corr in the London Evening Standard. He considers wheat (which “provided bread, cakes and ale”); the sea (which “fostered” our trading and colonial habits); and the rain (responsible, apparently, not only for the world’s first canal network but also our fatalism and “flexible” temperament). Even our love of meat sandwiches, he says, owes much to the weather: because of our damp climate, we cannot dry-cure meat as the French and Italians do, and so have been forced to rely on salt and smoke.
The Last Wolf is “hugely ambitious,” and its arguments are certainly intriguing, said Richard Morrison in The Times. Some of Winder’s claims, though, are pretty far-fetched. Plumbing, he writes, has “never been an English skill”, which is plainly “nonsense”: Victorians such as Thomas Crapper and Henry Doulton invented modern plumbing. Equally bizarre is his characterisation of northern grittiness as a “geological fact”. But, as Winder concedes, trying to nail down the national character “is like trying to grab smoke”, said Robert McCrum in The Observer. And what he offers is not so much a definitive conclusion as a “fascinating transit through a maze of reflecting mirrors”. The Last Wolf is a “well crafted” and “deeply researched” exploration of our “sheepish past”.
Canterbury Meadows by Thomas S. Cooper (1862)