An Utterly Impartial History of Britain (or, 2000 years of Upper Class Twits In Charge)

In the introduction to An Utterly Impartial History of Britain, author John O’Farrell says he wrote it for ‘all those who weren’t listening at school’. I have to disagree. In my experience, here’s what school teaches you about history:

  • Henry VIII had six wives.
  • During the blitz there was rationing, which meant there were no bananas.
  • Henry VIII had six wives.
  • During the blitz they had Anderson shelters.
  • Henry VIII had six wives.
  • Victorian sitting rooms had chairs and desks and curtains and stuff.
  • Did I mention Henry VIII’s wives?

By the age of 14 I couldn’t give a toss about Henry VIII’s wives. They were the go-to topic for years, and it became dull as, well, they actually became my baseline for dullness. Sure, the curriculum eventually slipped in the Reformation, but without any explanation of what Catholic / Anglican / Protestant / Whatever actually meant it was all a bit abstract, and glossed over so we could quickly get back to the wives. Despite this, I took History GCSE. This was because of Mr Feldman.

Mr Feldman was a walking cloud of ash. Sometimes he couldn’t make it through a lesson without nipping into the store-room, emerging a few minutes later to indiscriminately fire a barrage of smoke particles into a room of children to whom nicotine was the equivalent of the Black Death. But he was a hell of a teacher. He’d stride about the room, gesticulating wildly as he told tales of heroism and national conflict, betrayal and sacrifice, war and nobility. The whiteboard would end up a chaotic scribble of maps, arrows and keywords. He’d tell of his visits to the locations of famous events, and how he stood in the actual spot where King Thingy fell to his death – or was he pushed? He was occasionally brusque, but you couldn’t deny his enthusiasm, and it was infectious.

One lesson stands out for me. Our curriculum, for reasons beyond understanding, skipped straight from the outbreak of the Second World War to the building of the Berlin Wall. It is obviously impossible to understand the latter without some understanding of the events of the former, and Mr Feldman was appalled. So, one lesson, we had an unrequired whirlwind tour of WW2, just because he thought we should know. It was fantastic. The kind of high-level overview you never get, because they’re too busy telling you about sodding bananas. The whiteboard devolved into anarchy as Britain retreated, and Germany expanded in all directions, before abruptly stopping as Russia started moving east, and then the Allies returned, and everyone’s converging on Berlin…

It was how history should be taught. You could go back for the details later – here was a simplified version of the entire event. But we only had this for WW2. Between Henry VIII and the beginning of the 20th century, we knew nothing. I finally realised this last month, and in an attempt to educate myself bought An Utterly Impartial History of Britain, purely because it looked ok on the shelf.

Turns out, John O’Farrell is a Mr Feldman. His book starts in 50BC, as Caesar tries and fails to invade, and ends in 1945 with the establishment of the NHS. And inbetween is a decent guide to the history of the UK – exactly what I wanted. Enthusiastic and funny, it whips through the centuries, picking out major characters and stories and introducing them with just enough detail to be interesting, but without getting bogged down in minutae. Henry VIII doesn’t get much space, because he wasn’t actually all that special. Lots of wives, and pissed off the Pope, but otherwise pretty dull. Plenty of British institutions get the same treatment, and it usually turns out that everything I thought I knew was wrong.

The Spanish Armada, for example: turns out, not a great victory. In fact, the battle was a fairly middling all-score-draw that would have likely seen the Spanish fleet eventually win, had the wind not turned to prevent their landing. So they wandered off for a bit, probably planning to return shortly, but said turning of the wind escalated rather, and the Armada sailed into one of the worst hurricanes ever recorded at such a latitude, sinking half the fleet and killing >2000 people. Lucky for the UK, yet touted to this day as Francis Drake = awesome.

And this is representative of much that happened under Elizabeth I. Her spin doctors were of such a high calibre that they’re still successful. Elizabeth killed more religious dissenters than oh-so-evil Mary. She took the country into massive debt by fighting unsuccessful wars. And was she a virgin queen? Of course not. Yet: at school, Elizabeth was lovely, Protestant and the change the country needed. Not so much.

Now, even a guide like this has trouble at times. There are a lot of Henrys and Edwards. I mean a lot. Too many to keep track of, if I’m honest. I just finished the book, and they’re already getting mixed up. Henry V = Agincourt; got it. Henry IV was…erm. Well, he probably lost to France, since they seemed to alternate…other than that, it’s kinda blurry. But that’s ok – it’s a high-level overview, and it knows you won’t remember everything, but you can get the gist then come back later to fill in the details. It’s the kind of book you need to read more than once, and thankfully there’s enough depth that this is possible. There’s an old claim that you only remember 10% of the details on an initial read, and that feels about right – I know I’ve already forgotten much of it. But I now have a rough idea of what went on over two millenia, which is a good start. Shakespeare’s Histories shouldn’t be a total mystery any more, even if I can’t remember quite which King did which thing. I’ll read it again in a month or so, and a bit more will stick. I think that’s the way forward, and it’s possible because the book is so readable.

It’s kept alive by many, many jokes, as well as occasional asides and meanderings, most of which make it very clear that John O’Farrell is a total lefty1. The class system features heavily: he repeatedly points out that most of the country’s revolutions and crises were rich people overthrowing other rich people – the working classes were left to rot whatever. He’ll frequently puncture right-wing ideas, pointing out, for example, that it was only with the advent of machinery that women started to spend time in the home rather than working alongside the men (if you weren’t rich, anyway) – the ‘traditional’ concepts of family life are only a couple of hundred years old. He’ll also sometimes veer into a cul-de-sac to discuss the value of learning history, say (just at the point where you’re despairing over yet another bloody Henry), or make vaguely political comments about the value of making analogies to World War Two in a world that’s very different (I let out a little cheer when he said we should ‘let it go’). Being rather a lefty myself, I enjoyed this a lot. Those of a more Conservative bent may object. But, given the verdict of history on right-wing attitudes, they probably won’t do it loudly.

I highly recommend this book to anyone with a vague interest in history. It’s not that we weren’t listening at school, it’s that there was little to hear – and this book does its job nicely. Mr Feldman would be proud.

  1. actually, the subtitle might tip you off []