An Utterly Impartial History of Britain

Tuesday, May 27, 2008 0:19 | Filed in Books, Reviews

I’ve been reading John O’Farrell’s book An Utterly Impartial History Of Britain, and I’m quite some way through it. Basically, it covers the period from 43 A.D. (or thereabouts) to 1945, and I’ve reached the end of the First World War, so I think I should in a reasonable position to make some judgements of the book.

The trouble is, I’m not really sure I am. I’m still not entirely sure what to make of it.

As a history of Britain, it’s largely superficial, covering great swathes of history quite simplistically, and without any more than a smattering of the politics and machinations behind the reasons that history unfolded as it did. On the other hand, it does provide a lot of information that isn’t found in the history books — or at least wasn’t found in the history books when I was at school. And it’s written in an entertaining, conversational style, peppered with jokes ranging from the quite good to the atrocious (comments such as people should have been suspicious when they started a war called ‘The Hundred Years War’ wear thin after a while).

It also pokes quite a lot of fun at the various rulers, but when the subtitle of the book is “(or 2000 years of upper class idiots in charge)” you could probably guess that was likely to happen…

And I think the key is in knowing what you want from the book. If you want to read a light-hearted romp through the history of Britain, cracking a smile from time to time as you go, and finding out and genuinely learning a number of facts about the Kings, Queens, Cromwells and the rest of it, then you’ll be entertained and you’ll learn. Whether I would have learned much had I studied history beyond the age of 13 is open to debate, as my knowledge of the monarchy prior to reading the book went something like this…

  • Harold
  • William the Conqueror
  • William II
  • um… miss a bit
  • King Henry VIII
  • Queen Elizabeth
  • …miss a bit more…
  • Charles I
  • Oliver Cromwell
  • Charles II
  • …and a bit more…
  • Queen Victoria
  • mumble mumble
  • The Q.E. II

…except obviously I’m aware there are Edwards, Richards, and seven more Henrys to fit in there somewhere (yes, before Henry VIII), and a few Georges to make up the numbers. Basically, prior to reading this book, my entire knowledge of history was accumulated from Blackadder and pub quizzes.

And I’ve certainly learnt quite a bit more than that, and I’ve had fun reading the book too. But for someone who actually wants to learn about history, it’s probably not the book for them. But then again, the sort of book that would have suited the serious historian wouldn’t have suited me, and this one did.

So if you think you fit into my category, read the book. Indeed, buy it right now through my amazon affiliate link at the top of this page. If you don’t, don’t.

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3 Comments to An Utterly Impartial History of Britain

  1. Julia Wright says:

    January 13th, 2009 at 9:04 am

    I thought your review was excellent and completely summed up my opinion of the book. I do know the history but even so discovered a lot of new facts and was interested in the slant John Farrell put on it. I did get very irritated with the constant punning which ceased to be funny when he hammered the joke home. It often stopped being witty and just became silly, reading like a naughty schoolboy essay. I’m enjoying the book but not as much as I expected. I had planned to give copies to several other people as presents but I won’t be doing that now.

  2. Nick s says:

    April 27th, 2009 at 11:03 pm

    Just like Julia, I thought your review was spot on. Relatively funny (and irritating at times) and informative without getting into the detail, a good read for the newcomer to british history. Particularly liked the chapters on the middle ages and a few of the little gems like the explanation as to how the kop became known as, well ‘the kop’! That said I’m onto the final chapter and starting to skim read… Never a good sign!

    6 out of 10 for me

  3. great website says:

    July 24th, 2012 at 7:30 pm

    I’m onto the final chapter and starting to skim read… Never a good sign!

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