on 31 December 2011
This really is an extraordinary record of Defoe's travels around the whole island: how he managed to cover the distances on horseback is beyond imagination. The blizzard he encountered in August (!!) between Rochdale and Halifax is well described. His record of places is very detailed and full of interest. It is not an 'easy' read, being quite dense, but well worthwhile. I now know where the phrase "on tenterhooks" originated. His description of London in those days is fascinating to anyone who knows it now.
on 7 September 2010
Daniel Defoe surveys Britain with the eye of a range of experts, whose callings, in the early 18th century, were yet to be labelled. He was an economist, a sociologist, an agronomist and a geographer.
Unlike any other account I have read of a tour through our land as either horseman or pedestrian, Defoe is not lamenting some lost past. He has an eye on development. William Cobbett in 'Rural Rides' sighs for an imaginary England of independent, contented farmers and labourers whose prospects have been lately ruined by idiot politicians. George Borrow, in 'Lavengro' and 'Romany Rye' records only the remains of a once intact Romany language or, in 'Wild Wales' a disappearing Wales of bards and contented 'gwerin'. Laurie Lee, in 'As I Walked out One Midsummer Morning' remembers fondly an England whose peace was only just beginning to be disturbed by the emergence of the motor car.
For Defoe there is no stasis in even the sleepiest of villages. Indeed, he views tranquillity as a sign of stagnation. Everywhere there is dynamism; communities are rising or decaying according to the condition of their industry.
Wool and its by products seem to rule. I had heard of 'broadcloth' before, but 'narrowcloth', 'bays', 'kerseys' and 'shalloons' were all new terms to me, but not, I imagine, to his contemporaries.
Factories are few. Production, be it carding, spinning, weaving, knitting or cheese making, is mostly home based. Defoe was a trader himself for much of his life, so we read of the export markets, and, when he visits the ports, we get a full rundown of which products go where. It seems we were still importing substantial quantities of grain from Poland, though, with the late draining of the fens, this was declining and we were developing an export trade in wheat.
Today we wax lyrical about the few remaining wild areas in our crowded land. Defoe regards these, from Bagshot Heath, to the mountains of Scotland and Wales, with something approaching horror. Would he have understood the romantic poets who were writing barely 60 years after his death?
There is some architectural description and afew fragments of historical events associated with some sites, but trade is Defoe's central focus. Canals are yet to appear, but rivers are becoming ever more navigable. The contents page may look like a dreary catalogue of place names, but Defoe's style brings early 18th century Britain to life.
on 27 June 2014
The original work is a masterpiece, a gem of a historical document that is lucid in its description and witty in its delivery. My complaint here is with the Kindle edition's text, which is riddled with errors and typos (e.g random punctuation marks inserted; the splitting of words in two etc...). I understand this is a common problem with some eBooks, but in the age of the computer spell-checker it really is inexcusable. I shall continue to buy paper copies until the technology develops to eradicate these problems.
on 1 September 2013
A really interesting and fascinating read as Defoe wanders through country I know and love. It's good to be able to imagine our country the way it was 300+ years ago and to realise how little some things have changed. It's a pity, though, that Defoe is so uncritical and full of praise for the landed gentry! However, I guess they were the only people who could afford to buy his book and may have been sponsoring him!