Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Book Review: An Utterly Impartial History of Britain or 2000 Years of Upper Class Idiots In Charge by John O'Farrell

Anyone who tries to tackle the history of an entire nation is up for a humongous challenge. As Norman Davies pointed out in the introduction of his mammoth student staple book, Europe, often historians who try to take on elaborate histories and make them more concise find themselves unbalancing the history or producing a piece of work so laden with facts and statistics that it can hardly be read page to page without provoking a migraine. Bravely, John O’Farrell has not only decided to write a monograph about the main themes and events in British history but he’s also managed to do so with consistent humour and brings a bountiful energy to each section.
For a casual reader, 600 pages of history might seem quite daunting but just a glimpse at Farrell’s timeline will give you an indication as to whether his humour will have you giggling or grimacing through the book.

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"An Utterly Impartial History of Britain or 2000 Years of Upper Class Idiots In Charge is exactly as the title says. It’s a satirical and humorous look at the interesting themes that have happened throughout the 2,000 year period of history that leads up to modern day. Often a little over the line when it comes to offensive jokes, this isn’t something to go for if you’re particularly sensitive and can’t overlook that for the sake of a giggle.  More geared towards entertainment than education, this book is one to avoid taking too seriously but through some of the satire, a great amount of thought-provoking points are made that swing you from one topic to another as you adventure through Britain’s past.

What’s good about it?
One reviewer on Goodreads has given this book a negative review because it doesn’t have an audience, they claim that it’s too silly for students and serious history buffs or it’s too history based for fans of John O’Farrell’s newspaper column to really get into.
While I respect the opinion of a fellow reviewer, this review couldn’t be further from the truth. There is a wide audience for this book – both history lovers and satire lovers alike will revel in its pages while gaining from them at the same time. In fact, the first thought that came to mind after reading the introduction was, ‘I need to tell my dad about this!’ and sure enough, he’s enjoying reading it right now. It takes supreme skill to find the balance between knowledge and humour, too much of one and the whole thing falls apart yet O’Farrell handled this perfectly. 

Additionally, the jokes were consistent all the way through, each topic, period and theme was treated with the same energy and interest as the last as O’Farrell powered through them.

Whatever your reading style, this An Utterly Impartial History (…) will work for you. Whether you’re a cover to cover reader like myself, a dip-in and dip-out reader who is always halfway through at least a dozen books and takes six months to finish a single one or whether you’re the occasional reader who will pick up a book if your wi-fi has went down and you’ve already tired of resetting the router for the hundredth time. It’s difficult to find a book that can be both enjoyed in chunks or read to completion in one single hearty reading session but this fills both roles quite adequately.

There is a clear political perspective embedded throughout An Utterly Impartial (…), which isn’t everyone’s cup of tea but I did appreciate the fact that O’Farrell made no attempt whatsoever to pretend he was impartial. His political standing was obvious throughout which was refreshing to see so brazenly entangled in his risqué humour without the limits of political correctness we usually bind ourselves in.

Whether you’re a history expert or you’ve never managed to stay awake through a history lesson in your life, you will still get something out of reading this. O’Farrell’s writing is highly accessible to all yet it doesn’t lower itself to being patronising or oversimplified either which again, is an accomplished skill. It’s always a pleasure to see people who previously hated a discipline find something that they enjoy about it and are prepared to talk about and thankfully, this book allows history-virgins to do exactly that. That being said, the more knowledgeable you are about history, the more you will enjoy the humour but I suspect, if you don’t know a single thing about the history, then you’ll get a lot more out of that aspect of the book as O’Farrell does a decent job of covering complex topics in a funny yet concise way.

What isn't so great?
My little reading buddy
It isn’t accurate. This shouldn’t be much of an issue if you’re reading this for an overview of history but as a student of history, it’s a pain to see inaccuracies snowball into facts when someone takes what they’ve read as gospel so it just has to be mentioned. That isn’t to say the entire book is based on myth, it does give very good coverage but the way some things are presented gives off a skewed view compared with the opinion you would have of them if you undertook more well-rounded research. It’s disappointing but since O’Farrell took on 2,000 years of history in 600 pages, I suppose we can let him off on the odd mistake in detail for the sake of entertainment.

The humour can be quite offensive and quite select. At some point, one of O’Farrell’s jokes will most likely rub you up the wrong way. In fact, he manages to offend most groups of people in his writing and sometimes the tongue-in-cheek humour is more cringe-worthy than anything. 

A few previous reviewers of this book on Goodreads have mentioned that they would be embarrassed to be seen with this or have it on their bookcase and I can see why. It isn’t that the cartoon cover and the non-serious title is particularly shameful (though I guess for some people, it is!), it’s more that the jokes are occasionally uncomfortable which can be a little off-putting. It does depend heavily on your sense of humour as well as your tolerance for political incorrectness but this is probably not the book to read while waiting in line for a job interview, save it for the coffee table and perhaps put it away when the posh distant relatives come over for cream tea and scones.

To summarise, you should read this book only if you count yourself as having a good sense of humour. If you giggle in the first five pages then by all means, you should definitely continue but if it doesn’t even muster up a faint smile then An Utterly Impartial (…) is just not for you and you should try some of the more serious suggestions below. It’s a great book for making history more accessible and more enjoyable to different circles of people but is it ground-breaking? No. It’s a laugh, a bloody good laugh, and while you’ll enjoy it, you probably won’t remember much from it in a year’s time either. "
(Read 15th January  - 5th February, 2015)

If you enjoyed this book and want to read more seriously about British history (or if you hated this book and want to read something that you can show off about in front of those posh relatives you’ve got coming over) have a look at some of the suggestions below:

  • The Isles: A History by Norman Davies
    Totalling at a mammoth 1,296 pages, this is a hefty book that holds a wealth of information. Reading this is a bit of a commitment but the author is easily one of my favourite historians (I have quite a list…). So far I’m battling my way through Davies’ Europe which I’d thoroughly recommend.
  • Great Tales From English History by Robert Lacey
    This is more along the lines of O’Farrell’s book. It’s funny, the sections are bitesize and while a lot of it is myth (which the author points out unreservedly), you’re guaranteed to learn something from it. It’s easily read in a few hours and rests nicely in the ‘entertaining but informative’ category.
  • The Oxford History of Britain by Kenneth O Morgan
    This is much easier to read in chunks than Davies’ The Isles: A History and it’s something I regularly dip into if I’m struggling to grasp a particular theme/topic/period of British history. If you see it around for a decent price in a bookshop or a sale and you consider yourself a history buff, you should buy it without hesitation for those times when you just can’t pinpoint what happened in the timeline of Britain’s past.

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