It is not only the towns and villages of England that owe their appeal to their unplanned neighbourliness. Mount suggests that the same is true of the English countryside, which emerged from an evolving consensus in which neighbourly friction and common law litigation were far more important than top-down plans. He recognises that the passion for the picturesque led to some radical attempts to plan the countryside, often with scant regard for its existing occupants. But, as he points out, the intention was to create another version of the spontaneous order that was being destroyed. As he puts it: "English beauty was traditionally an under-designed, accidental beauty — like the beauty of the classic English field gate, which happens to have the same aspect ratio...as 35mm film, old-fashioned televisions and human vision." That observation is characteristic: at every juncture Mount is able to back up his observations with odd and interesting facts, so as to paint the portrait of a country that is as eccentric and individual as any character in Dickens.
On the whole, when it comes to the question of how we should build, Mount sides with the traditionalists against the modernists. Respect for the past, he argues, is an indelible feature of Englishness, and the new kind of architecture, designed to stand out rather than to fit in to the existing fabric, expresses a kind of nihilism — by which he means a repudiation of the need for settlement.
I applaud the way in which Mount looks for deep explanations of what seem at first sight to be superficial facts, and I endorse his vision of the English peculiarity. If I have a reservation about his argument it concerns his somewhat selective approach to our national culture, with important components hardly mentioned despite their connection to the land. Religion puts in only a few appearances, and English music is dismissed in a single sentence, in which we learn that we have no Mozart or Beethoven to our credit. Nor do the great poets and painters occupy much space, even though it is they who gave rise to the collective effort to preserve our country from the ravages of the Industrial Revolution. As Mount sees things, "this blessed plot, this earth" shaped the character of those who settled here. But they in turn shaped the blessed plot into "this realm, this England". They did it by imprinting the landscape with a distinctive personality.
I agree with that. But then it is necessary to say more about the personality of England, about its roots in the Christian religion, its embodiment in the common law, and its transformation by art and literature into the historically entitled occupant of an island home. From Shakespeare onwards the landscape of England has been represented in art, literature and music as enchanted. This is not a fiction, but a human achievement, and one that is now under threat from mass migration, from educational decline, and from a loss of the spiritual certainties that were relayed to the English by the Christian faith. It is good to remind his English readers, as Mount does, of their indebtedness to the soil and the wind. But they should also remember the hymn singing, prayer-book quoting subjects of the Crown who, in the wake of Wordsworth and Coleridge, began the great attempt to rescue their country from the modern world.