Books Reading Reviews

‘A land as ferocious as its people’: ‘Under Another Sky’ — Charlotte Higgins, review

Title: Under Another Sky
Author: Charlotte Higgins
Publisher: Vintage (2014)

My Rating:      

Troubling questions crowded in. How do we relate to Roman Britain now? How did this great span of time – the equivalent of the interval between Shakespeare’s lifetime and our own – affect Britain’s later history? … Is ‘Roman Britain’ essentially a kind of historical throat-clearing, before the real substance of ‘our island story’ sets in with the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons? (p. xx-xxi)

As a walking tour guide you suddenly find a whole slew of books very interesting. It may be that you’ve always enjoyed reading books about history or travel; but the moment the effectiveness of your labour depends on your knowledge and your understanding of place and time, those books gain a new dimension of meaning. It becomes about finding new layers of interest to peel apart and lay open for your guests, about sharpening your senses as a prophet of the city. What people, long dead and buried, can you learn to conjure to life before the eyes of visitors? What impressions and feelings, locked away in the chambers of time, can you channel and release back into the present?

What’s odd about me reading Charlotte Higgins’ ‘Under Another Sky’ is that Roman Britain was not something that particularly occupied much of my time at university (despite doing a Classical Studies with English degree).  I was more captivated by language and literature, especially the ancient Greek poets and tragedians. I was – and still am – convinced that Greek was the original language of love. History was a necessary context to my work but not central, and in any case the Roman Britain modules in particular were said to be the most boring. Supposedly it was all about the crumbling stones and assorted bits and pieces (often literally) of finds washed up on the grimy foreshores of the Thames or uncovered by the most recent massive building project along the glitzy streets of the City. None of it, in any case, fell under the purview of my chosen speciality, nor were they close to anything as awe-inspiring, emotionally powerful, or immediately experiential as the words these people left behind, still studied and read and recited by generations and generations of students, still admired and venerated by two and a half millennia’s worth of writers and thinkers.

But then I became a walking tour guide. Suddenly you understand the sublime effect of experiencing an object for yourself, a physical object that doesn’t speak, that doesn’t yield meaning. An object that you must learn to read and then decode for other people.  I don’t just mean ‘object’ in the sense of a single thing or item, of course; it might also be a building, a place, a locale. It’s that moment of experiencing something unreadable suddenly gain meaning. It’s that moment when you find yourself getting to know something inanimate, almost as if it was a being with personality, with history. That’s the sort of dimension that, as a guide, you have the privilege and responsibility of accessing. Perhaps in that sense a tour guide isn’t unlike the classical psychopompos, a guide to the Other-world waiting just below the layer of the apparent, hidden in plain sight.

Charlotte Higgins’ book seems to fulfil just that kind of intermediary role. Under Another Sky, for me, goes over and beyond to bridge the gap between us and a period of British history that, despite its temporal remoteness, is often just right beneath our feet. The book plays that role of mediation in more than one way: it navigates brilliantly between travel-writing, history, and academia without being dull or dry, with a dash of bitter and sweet at just the right moments. It’s a book that’s populated by a slew of intriguing characters – the soldiers who once lived on the walls bordering the empire, the archaeologists who made the remnants of Roman Britain their life’s work, even the B&B owners and scholars that Higgins meets along the way. Her voice is always emphatically present throughout, struggling and grappling with the Romans as they present themselves on the wind-swept plains of Britain. There’s a sense that Higgins is sorely unwilling to let the book dwindle into a sheer listing of facts. Her material has clearly been well thought-out, carefully organised, and meticulously researched, but there’s an undeniable current of passion that naturally pushes its way to the surface of the text, suggesting a genuine, unaffected affinity for this surprisingly neglected era and the sparse physical remains it left behind.

In terms of scope, Under Another Sky is surprisingly broad despite its relatively moderate length at 250 pages, bibliography and index notwithstanding: it covers the most important finds in twelve broadly-labelled regions across Britain, including London itself, and Higgins helpfully compiles key sites of interest in each of these areas into an appendix simply titled, ‘Places to Visit’. I’d say that to describe Under Another Sky as a sort of spotter’s guide with an archaeological flair wouldn’t be too far off the mark, though undoubtedly it fulfils a much greater and higher purpose than that. There’s something to be said for the final chapter, which seemed a little hasty to wrap up, but it doesn’t detract from the overall substantiality of the book. Perhaps Higgins could address this in a later edition, hopefully with additional accounts of visits to more sites around the country; nonetheless, this book is highly, highly recommended for anyone who loves the Romans / British history, or who fancies having their understanding of the concept of ‘Britain’ and what it means to be ‘British’ challenged. The only caveat the reader must accept is the risk of no longer seeing the landscapes of these fair isles in the same way. You might find yourself seeing the streets or the fields or the woods of Britain through brand new eyes, a strangely different place under another sky.

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