A stroll in the woods

The Forest by Edward Rutherfurd (Century, £17.99, 601pp)
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The Independent Culture

As literature, Edward Rutherfurd's historical novels are not successful. They judder slowly along ill-made roads, like carts with square wheels, and the beauty of the scenery through which they pass does not entirely distract the passenger's mind from his aching bottom and tired eyes. As vehicles for delivering the fruits of research, however, they are not only efficient, but might truly be called works of art.

Rutherfurd passes the test which so many historical novelists fail: would you feel confident quoting his fiction as fact, without fearing you were making a fool of yourself? When this author tells me something, I believe him. He also has the knack of telling me things that, without realising it, I've always wanted to know.

Thus, I'm now in a position to inform you that the concept of "forest" was unknown in Britain until William the Conqueror established the New Forest as a royal hunting ground and gigantic deer farm. Other industries and pastimes traditional to the area include witchcraft, salt-panning, shipbuilding, pony-breeding, charcoal-burning, smuggling, and, from the 19th century, tourism.

Rutherfurd's saga starts by debunking some of the myths surrounding the death of King William Rufus. It almost ends with the Victorians who, in pursuit of modernisation and rationalisation, decided to kill all the deer and chop down the trees. The Forest was saved then by a coalition of smallholders, landowners, environmentalists and celebrity artists, which successfully lobbied a Select Committee chaired by the stationer WH Smith, securing the favourable New Forest Act 1877. Today, the main threat to the forest is house-building.

You see? I could go on like this for hours, without even mentioning "Boolee", originally a Cistercian abbey, then a stately home, and currently a motor museum.

There is not much worth saying about Rutherfurd's style, except that, while stiff and irritatingly pedagogic, it is not ruinous. The Forest is a markedly smoother read than its predecessor, London; it is also considerably shorter. These two facts are not, I suspect, unrelated.

Rutherfurd is no novelist, and this is no novel: more a collection of novellas, somewhat clumsily linked by genealogy. But the history is the meat, and that is fresh, exciting and insightful. Rutherfurd does not view human history as a hopeless tragi-comedy, which makes a nice change these days. He is very good at giving a sense of the ancient continuity of Britain's intrinsically multicultural civilisation - an unfashionable talent in New Blairyland, where history is despised and we are supposed to be embarrassed by our gorgeous, extraordinarily varied country, while envying the barbarian mutability of Fortress Europe.

This book depicts the Forest folk as instinctively proud and independent, sabotaging the Establishment's daftest and cruellest schemes throughout the generations. It's a romantic view, in which native libertarianism acts as a corrective against unsustainable change imposed from above.

Not that the author is a sentimentalist (though he does tend to come over all mystical about oak trees), or a Tolkien-like hater of progress. "Ecology is history," says a character at the end of the book, in April 2000, dismissing the idea that "unspoilt nature" is either possible or desirable.

Rather, Rutherfurd argues for heritage against Heritage; history is principally important because our understanding of it determines our future. Besides which, it's where all the best yarns come from.

On finishing a Rutherfurd book, I feel relief at having completed such a taxing journey - but simultaneously, an eager anticipation of his next outing. I suppose, therefore, that despite not being a very good writer he must, in fact, be a very good writer indeed.