Greater Than the Sum of Our Parts

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Review: An Utterly Exasperated History of Britain by John O’Farrell

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Or, to give it its full and wonderfully unwieldy title, An Utterly Exasperated History of Modern Britain: or Sixty Years of Making the Same Stupid Mistakes as Always. The sequel to the equally unwieldy An Utterly Impartial History of Britain: (or 2000 Years Of Upper Class Idiots In Charge), this employs the familiar facetious tone and modern angle on recent history that O’Farrell previously used in summarising vast swathes of British History until the end of WW2.

Image of the cover of the book

Once again, O’Farrell abandons the “people were different in the past and everyone knows that” starting place of drier history books and adopts a childish, irony-heavy, almost Carry-On approach to the past, littered with modern references and elbow-nudges designed to link the situations in years past with the current world via humour. It is childish, quite frequently, but the silliness is part of its (very British) charm.

There is one area, which O’Farrell notes in his introduction, in which Utterly Exasperated differs stylistically from Utterly Impartial; the clue is in the title. Most of the events – or certainly, a sizeable portion of the book – take place within the author’s lifetime, and he can hardly be expected to be as without opinion on them as he might have been about the antics of William the Bastard. Heavy hints are dropped in the introduction – along the lines of “yay, Nye Bevan” and “Boo, Thatcher”, rather less hints than outright flagwaving – of his bias, but as it’s a bias I agree with (having grown up in the 80s in a single-parent, unemployed family and therefore been one of Thatcher’s bete noirs I am more than comfortable with loathing almost everything she did) .

As this book is covering a mere 60 years, rather than roughly 2000, in the same number of pages, there’s a lot more detail on individual events and figures than in the prequel. It is also, I’ve discovered, a lot easier to find oneself moved by the  idiocy of one’s government when their pettiness, sloth, cowardice, or incompetence, and their general scrabbling efforts to stay in power at the expense of the well-being of the country (or to pander to their pet discredited theories at the expense of the country) is still having palpable effects now.

Moreso than Impartial, Exasperated is a political history. It discusses technological developments, but the majority of the book is given over to the circumstances and consequences of political decisions and the way in which various elements of life in the country were (and continue to be) affected by the most unexpected combinations of forces. Entire weapons programmes were drawn up because someone was once rude to the Foreign Office, and whole industries razed because someone got some ridiculous idea into their head and didn’t want to be seen to back down.

As a catalogue of human failings in Britain from 1945 to roughly 2009, An Utterly Exasperated History of Britain is quite depressing and angering; that it succeeds in being funny at the same time is a credit to the author.

However, I would recommend this book not to those who are already well-versed in modern British history, but rather to those who, like me, either opted to take Geography instead or who just weren’t paying attention in school, as it is – sneakily, facetiously, and surprisingly – very informative for the “layperson” (where layperson = “I spent my history classes lobbing pens at Jimbo”).

An Utterly Exasperated History of Britain by John O’Farrell generally retails for about £7.99

Post by Delilah

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Written by Amelia &/or Delilah

March 30, 2011 at 2:11 pm

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