“Storm over channel; continent isolated.” Thus a famous London headline of decades past, which finds a modern rejoinder in this watery but pleasant study.
Nazi Germany overran France in a trice back in 1940. That it did not overrun England, writes UK diplomat and historian Unwin, “is a measure . . . of the Channel’s ability to frustrate those who do not approach it with sufficient seriousness.” Unwin’s book is full of such portentous assertions—the Germans weren’t known for their frivolity, of course; nor were the Romans, who crossed the channel to make Pictish Britain an outlier of their empire; nor were the sailors of the Spanish Armada and a few odd generations of French privateers—but when he sets down to storytelling, as with, for instance, his spirited and sanguinary reconstruction of the Battle of Agincourt, he does a fine job. England and France, naturally, figure as the chief actors in Unwin’s centuries-long drama of the English Channel/La Manche’s role in world affairs; but readers without much knowledge of regional history may be surprised to learn that England waged a much costlier contest with the Dutch, whose seizure of state power in 1688 was recast by embarrassed historians into the Glorious Revolution, which, Unwin gamely writes, “perpetuates the myth that no one has successfully invaded England since 1066.” Unwin stocks up on good moments (as with his interesting contrast of Mont St Michel, near the meeting point of Normandy and Brittany, with its cousin, St Michael’s Mount, near Penzance) and unfortunate ones (“The Isles of Scilly are by a large measure more diminutive”) alike. Of particular interest are Unwin’s closing remarks, which posit that the Channel will be a much less important barrier in the future—not strictly as a matter of pure geography, but because “a solipsistic and increasingly dangerous United States” will drive England and France into each other’s arms.
An earnest effort, though readers will be better served by turning to the old masters: Simon Schama, Fernand Braudel, and Jacquetta Hawkes.