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Customer Review

75 of 88 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Doesn't discuss what it says it will, 14 Nov. 2011
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This review is from: Empire: What Ruling the World Did to the British (Hardcover)
If this book were positioned as an easy to read, brief and occasionally light-hearted history of the British Empire, I would happily give it five stars out of five.

Paxman gives a nice potted history, with an enjoyable focus on some of the Empire's more colourful characters. He nails his colours clearly to the mast and we know he doesn't really approve of what went on. I think he's quite unfair to some of those living abroad in 'the dominions', portraying people as racist and unkind, based on their comments about general life, the difficulty of finding good servants, etc. A bit of context would be handy. I would like to see Paxman try to get people to do simple things to his standards in certain parts of the world today, for example. The sneering tone he adopts when commenting on a guide housewife's guide to making sure 'the help' do their job properly is totally misplaced.

Where the book fails is in its promise to discuss what ruling the world did to the British. I was expecting an in depth discussion on this topic - instead all we really have is the last chapter or two telling us we have curry houses and corner shops and that the UK likes to get involved in global conflicts. This part of the book, which is positioned as being the central theme for the entire work, feels more like an appendix.

So, an enjoyable, biased, discussion of the British Empire. Not, however, the treatise on how Empire has affected the British, as promised by the book's title.
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Showing 1-4 of 4 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 24 Aug 2012 12:05:58 BDT
Ekisenge says:
"The sneering tone he adopts when commenting on a guide housewife's guide to making sure 'the help' do their job properly is totally misplaced." Why?

In reply to an earlier post on 24 Aug 2012 12:54:46 BDT
His sneering tone is misplaced because Paxman makes no effort to understand what it might actually have been like trying to get your servants to do things as you would like them to be done.

If the housewife's guide were being written today, for British people in British home with British 'help', then its tone would be out of place and worth criticising.

The way the book was written simply reflected the realities of trying to get things done. If that sounds racist, it's not meant to. Even today, in many parts of the world, getting things done properly is hard to do. That's simply the way things are.

In reply to an earlier post on 27 Aug 2012 15:56:01 BDT
Ekisenge says:
Thank you for your response.

I'm not sure I understand. You say you do not mean to be racist but you appear to be saying that in places other than Britain it is hard to "get things done". You say it would be appropriate to sneer if we were talking about "British Help". Implicitly you seem to be saying that it is difficult to get people who are not British to do what you want them to do and thus a book explaining how to do that is appropiate, while "British Help" would know exactly what to do and therefore no such book would be needed. If I have understood you correctly, that view seems to betray a degree of prejudice and a certain sense of superiority over non-British persons.

I think it is the very assumption that non-British people were/are merely there to serve our requirements that Paxman is sneering at. The housewife's guide was merely one example of the wholly arrogant attitudes that empire building instilled in the vast majority of those involved in running it. In my view, such sneering is entirely appropriate.

I don't think it is fair to call someone biased just because they disagree with your point of view. Afterall, your seemingly positive views of the British Empire are no less partisan. Paxman's views on the British Empire, and on Empire building in general, are certainly very negative. But so are the vast majority of humanity's. I personally agree 100% with his views in that respect. That is not to say that some former colonies have not benefitted in some ways from having been under colonial rule. But the assumption that one group of humanity (whether German, Russian, Japanese, or British) is sufficiently superior to justify imposing their rule on other groups cannot, in my view, be described as anything other than morally repugnant and logically flawed.

On the other hand, I entirely agree with you on the book's failure to discuss fully the issue of what running an Empire did to the British in the long term. That very interesting question has been virtually ignored.

In reply to an earlier post on 27 Aug 2012 16:56:31 BDT
Last edited by the author on 27 Aug 2012 16:57:34 BDT
I wasn't trying to say that being British means you have some kind of innate superiority over other people.

What I was saying that is that the housewife's manual is not a symptom of racism or imperial ambition, or something that you can read too much into. It's almost certainly a practical guide on how to get things done and run a British home in India. When read by a middle class English journalist who's always lived comfortably in England, it probably sounds racist.

Trying to get anything accomplished is always easier when dealing with educated people from your own culture who are all native speakers of the same language, have shared similar experiences, eat the same food, etc, etc.

Let me try to explain things better and change some names around to make things clearer.

You're a middle class Hindu living in the UK in the mid 1800s and, for whatever reason, you have English servants. Those servants are not native Hindi speakers. They are not educated and did not grow up in a nice house. They have a different religion, they eat meat, they have different attitudes to many things, different ideas about cleanliness, different ways of expressing deference, different concepts of common sense. This isn't anyone's fault - everyone in the house is from a different background.

If a manual for a Hindu housewife were written in the mid-1800s explaining how to get one's British servants to keep house to the expected standard, it wouldn't be racist. It would probably be quite funny.

I live in Dubai, where you've got a tonne of different nationalities interacting with each other. Trying to get simple things done can be extremely difficult at times, especially when the man sent to your apartment to fix your wiring was actually a farmhand in Bangladesh three months previously, but was given a screwdriver and a couple of spare fuses by his employer on arrival and told he'd now be working as an electrician. Does this mean all Bangladeshis are incompetent? Of course not! That would be a ridiculous assumption. Does it make sense, when a newly arrived colleague from Europe tells you he's got the electrician coming around later that day, to set some expectations? Yes, it does.

Writing a guide that explains how to navigate a different culture and achieve what you want to achieve is often going to sound racist when read by people who've never been lived much outside their own culture.

I'd like to see Paxman try to deal with living in certain parts of the world and dealing with tradesman, cleaners, repairmen, etc. I imagine he'd prefer to read an honest guide beforehand to help him keep his sanity!
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