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The Optimistic Capitalist,
This review is from: A Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain (Hardcover)
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.
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Initial post: 3 Mar 2011 21:41:08 GMT
Last edited by the author on 3 Mar 2011 21:42:08 GMT
A Nobody says:
His comment on 'The Plague' is another window on his world as a Londoner 'I went and walked with him mesmerised at place-names I am so familiar'. His 'Tour' is priced too high for my liking at present. But, thanks for your useful review...I'll keep looking out for it (the 'tour' book you reviewed) to buy when it's much cheaper.
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