An Utterly Impartial History of Britain

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John O'Farrell, Doubleday, £16.99

This book is at times amusing, entertaining and informative, yet ultimately dissatisfying. O'Farrell ambitiously sets out to strip 7,000 years of British history down to less than 500 pages, and to do so in an entertaining and accessible way.

Yet if you hated learning about all those kings and queens at school, I'm not sure this book solves your problem. For here once again we go through all the Henrys, Edwards, Georges et al, even if in a wittier way than I imagine you were taught. Having said that, O'Farrell does strive to put things in social context and give some feel for what was happening among the mass of people.

The obvious book to contrast this with is Mark Steel's Vive La Revolution: a stand up history of the French Revolution.

Steel's is in all honesty a much better book, both as a piece of history, and as a work of comedy. Furthermore, Steel's book exposes a central flaw in O'Farrell. Steel can draw modern comparisons, but has an understanding of historical context that ensures the comparisons are not crass.

So while I understand that it can be tempting as a piece of shorthand for O'Farrell to compare Oliver Cromwell with the Taliban (and the Irishman in me might be tempted to say, "That's being hard on the Taliban"), the truth is it is just bad history.

Cromwell represented historically progressive forces overthrowing the outdated and the reactionary. The Taliban, in their opposition to imperialism, essentially reject modernity. The fact that neither would approve of dancing round maypoles or the short skirts of the Spice Girls is neither here nor there.

O'Farrell's book gets weaker the nearer we get to the present. So he recognises the horrors of the First World War - a war he opposes - yet states that it was the Germans who were to blame - a sort of Basil Fawltyish "they started it" take on events.

The Second World War becomes even more problematic. To ask why the French succumbed to the Germans while the British fought on, and then to state that "the answer can be summed up in two words, 'Winston Churchill'", is patently absurd. Again, to describe the 1945 Labour government as the only real revolution Britain had is to both overstate the event, and completely miss the much greater historical significance of the English Civil War.

Finally the narrative tails off with a mawkishly sentimental account of "Britishness", which is a sad way for O'Farrell to end what at times is an enjoyable, and throughout a very readable, if ultimately flawed, book.