Friday, 15 August 2008

An Utterly Impartial History of Britain: (or 2000 Years of Upper Class Idiots in Charge) by John O’Farrell

You have a spare summer and fancy writing a book but can’t be bothered with all that creative muse malarky. It’s a bit too soon for the autobiography( still working on doing the X-factor and the Big Brother application and frankly not so hot on the sports front) so what do you do? Well you pop along to the local reference library and sort out a stack of What the Roman’s did for us, Great Kings and Queens of England, Prime Minsters I have known, and write a comic History of Britain for History refusniks. This is what John O’Farrell attempts to do in An Utterly Impartial History of Britain: (or 2000 Years of Upper Class Idiots in Charge). As you failed English know ( for Americans and other ex colonial types, local joke so ignore) when we mention Britain we really mean England except if one of you win an Olympic medal so you still have time to fit in one for Scotland, Wales or Ireland.

The question is, does it work as comedy, history or even comedic hist
ory? The gold standard is 1066 and All That and frankly, the book struggles in comparison. Both draw on popular memories of what is history and make it the raw material for humour. The historical factoids of the O’Farrell book do make it ideal for a bathroom read as you can dip in and out as nature calls. But the John O’Farrell humour of Blackadderish quips and asides* can grate unlike1066 and All That.**

Well does it work as History? Er…not really. If you had more interesting things to do at school, it does give you a simple overview of English History. If you paid attention then the lack of accuracy (Read the Terry Deary Horrid History series to see how its done properly) or the one-dimensional nature of the account soon irritates. One particular annoying clanger is the myth that the Anglo-Saxons wiped out the Romano-Celtic language and culture. The 0rigins of the British by Stephen Oppenheimer based on genetic evidence show that the SW and Wales, Southern England and the North had separate and long-standing separate waves of settlement. Meaning that the natives that the Romans met in the south were of Germanic origin and hence why so little Celtic influence in place names and English. I could go about his slighting reference to the King James Bible (an attempt to head off the radical puritans translations), his failure to address the social-religious movements of the English Civil War and their impact and don’t get me started on his nonsense of the first World War. Yes, I did pay attention in History and so what if you were more popular in school.

So any redeeming features? It does have several serious asides about the lack of social justice; we the working people rarely get a look in on political and social power until perhaps the English Civil war and then struggled to get universal franchise until 1948(when students having two votes was abolished). But, this was done much better by the classic Making of the English Working Class by E.P. Thompson.

If you do get hold of a copy, pass it on to your teenagers who might at last get a sense what Sir was droning on about. As for you, its raining so get down and write the history that John O’Farrell didn’t write. As for you few Americans still here, read about your own forgotten past in A People's History of the United States: 1492 to Present by Howard Zinn.

Remembering that humour is subjective here are other viewpoints:

* Well researched, very funny book, which was a joy as holiday reading. Frequently laugh-out-loud. Highly enjoyable.

** a book full of silly upper-class-twit jokes. (Haw-haw! What will Master think!) .Anyway, for us who are more prosaically born and raised, this book offers no reward other than insight into the childhood of a frivolous (if Oxonian) class of recently and soon to be dead English aristocracy.

1 comment:

  1. Oh, it looked like it would be a good one, too. I bookmarked this to read your review. I guess, not every book is a winner.


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