John O’Farrell – An Utterly Impartial History of Britain

Or 2000 Years of Upper Class Idiots in Charge, to add its subtitle.

This is one of those books that I noticed when it first came out, and mentally filed as one I might want to read, but it was only when the paperback came out, and Waterstone’s had it on their weekly half price promotion that I got round to getting it. This is a system that works quite well for me, as I’ve generally got plenty to read[1], so I’m not usually in any great rush to get hold of any particular book[2]. So by waiting, I save some money, and generally only get the ones that still seem interesting six months or a year after initial publication.

Anyway, this is a humorous take on British history, written by a popular columnist and generally funny writer, whose books I hadn’t previously got round to reading. And on the strength of this one, I’ll have to read some more.

Now if you’re writing a humorous history of Britain, it’s inevitable that comparisons will be made with the classic 1066 And All That[3], but this book is quite different from its illustrious predecessor. While 1066 was billed as “all the history you can remember”, most of the jokes relied on the reader having a certain familiarity with the subject. Admittedly I first read it at a very early age[4], and failed to understand a lot of the references at the time, but that’s the general idea. This book, on the other hand, is a 21st century take on history, where events are related through the filters of contemporary culture, and much is distorted and fiddled with in the process. There is a fair bit of proper history in here, but I wouldn’t entirely rely on it as a primary source for your History GCSE[5].

I could quote lots of bits, but this one should be enough to give you a taste of the style and attitude:

It seems incredible that the politicians of the day were not completely clear that Hitler and the Nazis were the bad guys; I mean, if ever you watch a film and a character appears wearing a Nazi armband, that’s always a sure sign he’ll turn out to be one of the baddies later on.

Not to mention the bit about the French-raised Bonnie Prince Charlie apparently believing that his Scots army consisted of ladyboys after seeing their kilts…

Very silly, very interesting, and possibly even informative. Good stuff all round, and well worth a read.

[1] Well, not so much at the moment, as most of my reading material is in storage
[2] Exceptions being made for some authors, of course

[4] Well, I was at an early age. The book was already quite old…
[5] In the unlikely even that any History GCSE students are reading this