Book of the week

The Week Middle East - - Arts -

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)

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