England: The Autobiography edited by John Lewis-Stempel Viking, $270 There can be few books in which Julius Caesar figures alongside Johnny Rotten. 'All the Britons dye their bodies with woad, which produces a blue colour, and shave the whole of their bodies except the head and the lip,' the Roman emperor wrote of the people he found on the damp island he sailed to in 55BC. He failed to conquer England (it was left to Claudius almost a decade later to complete the task). But he provided the first direct written record of events in the country, two extracts of which open this collection. At the other end of the book, punk rocker Johnny Rotten (aka John Lydon), another Briton outsiders might have found oddly attired, holds forth on why his musically challenged band the Sex Pistols provoked such outrage in the uptight England of the mid-1970s. In between we have, as the book's sub-title puts it, '2,000 years of English history by those who saw it happen'. John Lewis-Stempel has previously gathered first-hand accounts for insider views of the D-Day landings in northern France and fatherhood. Here, he turns his attention to the history of England as seen by those who made it and those who saw it. As national histories go, England's is a crowded one. Its democracy has been copied across the globe, it was the engine of the industrial revolution, the centre of one of the greatest empires the world has ever seen, and a plucky defender of liberty against a Nazi Germany that had usurped most of Europe. The great events that marked England's last two millennia are here: the Norman Conquest, the Magna Carta, Henry VIII's serial matrimony and his break with the Catholic Church, the Great Fire of London, Nelson's victory at Trafalgar, and two world wars. Throughout are scattered texts on those things that have shaped the quirkiness of 'Englishness' - among them the royal family, fox-hunting, the spirit of adventure that drove the likes of Robert Scott to the south pole, football, and the Beatles. As with all good history, England not only illuminates past eras but provides insights into our own. The Black Death, a form of bubonic plague carried by the fleas of the black rat that cut the four-million strong, 14th-century population of England by half, has us pondering the bird flu that has spread from Asia to Europe and that threatens to become a pandemic. A text by Friedrich Engels on the slum conditions of the working classes of 19th- century Manchester calls to mind the current influx of migrants into Chinese cities. A textile factory worker's evidence to a parliamentary commission in 1815 reveals appalling exploitation by employers that is frequently echoed in newspaper accounts of practices in Asian factories today. And an engineer's description of what industry was doing to the English environment in 1830 can't fail to resonate for those watching China's economic growth: 'The grass had been parched and killed by the vapours of sulphureous acid thrown out by the chimneys; and every herbaceous object was of a ghastly grey - the emblem of vegetable death.' Lewis-Stempel presents the accounts chronologically, providing the option of dipping in or reading straight through. Either way, the reader is presented with an intimate and lively portrait of that often infuriating but rarely dull race, the English.