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It's History Lite but it's Still Fun
on 16 May 2011
This is a joint review together with Marr's 'The History of Modern Britain', the companion volume which deals with the post-war history of the UK.
First, the good points. Marr is a very engaging writer with a good eye for an anecdote. Both books are rich in period detail and cover areas (for example, the rise and fall of the music hall) which aren't usually dealt with in general histories of this period. He also has a neat way of starting with something small (a minor incident, a now forgotten personality) and using that as the introduction to a far bigger picture, tying the personal or incidental to more familiar historical themes. This makes them perfect bedside books - you'll find yourself dipping into them for the pleasure of spending an hour or so in Marr's company.
And the bad? The fact that they are perfect bedtime reading means that they are pretty undemanding and, at times, superficial; the two world wars, for example, are cantered through with indecent haste. Similarly, there is no original research; no-one with a passing knowledge of 20th century British history will learn anything new here. And, as others have noted, they also contain quite a few factual errors. Some readers might notice a bit of political bias, too (Marr cheerfully admits to being a "raving Lefty" as a student) and there are bits - the rise of the trade unions, for example, or 1960s counter-culture - which read as if Marr never really left the editor's chair at the Independent.
However, if you accept that Marr is a journalist rather than a historian and that these are essentially tv tie-ins (albeit top-notch ones) rather than History-with-a-capital-H then you'll find plenty to enjoy. Recommended.