Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Book Review: An Utterly Impartial History of Britain: Or, 2000 Years of Upper-Class Idiots in Charge - John O'Farrell

The past few weeks have been rather strange for my fiancé. To his knowledge, I'm quite clued up on a few subjects including writing, literature and progressive rock. Then, out of nowhere, history. Suddenly I'm telling him about the Beaker People who lived in Bronze Age Britain; giving him the lowdown on Richard the Third (conniving hunchback or poor victim of Tudor propagandists?); listing some of the many monarchs we've had who've either eaten themselves to death or had to be buried in square coffins (clue: it was Queen Anne).

Before, I'd have just about been able to tell you that a battle happened in Hastings in 1066. Now, thanks to a man called John O'Farrell, I can tell you that it actually happened in a place that would come to be known as Battle, on Senlac Hill. 

As history books go, 'An Utterly Impartial History of Britain (Or, 2000 Years of Upper-Class Idiots in Charge)' is accessible and readable, though you do sometimes get lost in all the Edwards, Georges, Williams etc. But if you were unfortunate enough to have a dullard for a history teacher, at least O'Farrell approaches the subject with wit (hit-and-miss in my opinion, but if you're a fan of his Guardian columns you may enjoy it) and energy.

Not only does O'Farrell cover the intrigues, scandals, lives and decisions of the upper classes, but also the middle and lower classes, plus the constantly shifting dynamics between them - suggesting that Labour's victory in 1945 was Britain's only revolution is rather thoughtless though considering Britain had pulled through several invasions and changes of leadership that shaped society, the first summoning of Parliament, and a pivotal civil war that completely changed the balance of power between Parliament and the monarch, paving the way for a more democratic leadership in the coming centuries. Mind you, O'Farrell doesn't dismiss these events as insignificant when he does deal with them – he certainly acknowledges the struggles of the working classes through periods of slavery, serfdom, poverty and powerlessness. 

Cramming 2000 years of history into 500 pages means that some areas seem rushed. However, I did finish the book feeling like I'd had my memory refreshed - and there were a few chapters here and there on eras that my high school syllabus hadn't even covered, such as the years between the World Wars, and the years between the downfall of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance. While many of the nitty-gritty details have been lost in, you could say, the 'compression' of history, O'Farrell definitely covers the big picture, which is a good springboard if you want to do further reading into a particular event - you'll already know the basics.

The book isn't as 'impartial' as the title ironically suggests (in fact, it seems like everyone is fair game to O'Farrell's teasing), but it is enjoyable, humorous, and deals with certain subjects such as the horrors of the First World War with appropriate sensitivity.

Did I enjoy it? Yes, but as with all history books, read with an open mind and don't just take it at face value. As O'Farrell himself points out, history is affected by the bias of whoever is writing it (e.g. the monks who wrote the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle), and should be treated as such. Plus, he sometimes falls into the trap of presenting his jokes as though they were fact - confusing if you don't already know otherwise.  

Still, the facts are (mostly) there, if a bit dubious in places, and even if you disagree with O'Farrell's opinions and musings on the various aspects of our nation's story, seeing things from another person's  perspective isn't necessarily a bad thing. I'd recommend the book as a decent starting point for someone who wants to brush up on their history but aren't looking for something too heavy and academic. Ultimately, though, if you're looking to become a history buff, I wouldn't use this as your primary source. By all means read this, but read even more.

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