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Empire: What Ruling the World Did to the British Hardcover – 6 Oct 2011

3.9 out of 5 stars 91 customer reviews

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Viking; First Edition edition (6 Oct. 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0670919578
  • ISBN-13: 978-0670919574
  • Product Dimensions: 16.2 x 3.3 x 24 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (91 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 47,192 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description


He writes with wit and penetration, and every page of Empire can be read with relaxed pleasure (Spectator )

Paxman is witty, incisive, acerbic and opinionated . . . In short, he carries the whole thing off with panache bordering on effrontery

(Piers Brendon Sunday Times )

A very engaging account...with a good sprinkling of jokes, funny nicknames and sexual references. Paxman makes some very sharp points and writes well (Guardian )

About the Author

Jeremy Paxman was born in Yorkshire and educated at Cambridge. He is an award-winning journalist who spent ten years reporting from overseas, notably for Panorama. He is the author of five books including The English. He is the presenter of Newsnight and University Challenge and has presented BBC documentaries on various subjects including Victorian art and Wilfred Owen.

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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Jeremy Paxman stylishly, wittily, sardonically and graphically summarizes the history of the British Empire. The Introduction is a treat in itself, and already it shows the author ready to spice his comments with adjectives like "unhinged" (for Gordon's mission to Khartoum) or "cracked" (for Baden-Powell) - there will be more such in the rest of the book.

It is quite a challenge to cover some three and a half centuries and involving every continent - many of which Paxman has visited for the television series to be based on his book - in under 300 pages of text (plus a bibliography of 32 pages! No wonder he pays generous tribute to Jillian Taylor, his researcher). In such a small space, Paxman not only manages to tell the stories - brutalities, heroics and all - with which many members of an earlier generation would have been more familiar than among those who have grown up in our post-imperial days - but he also finds room, in the text or in the footnotes, for the unfamiliar, the illuminating or witty anecdote, and for personal comment or interpretation. There is, for instance, the lovely scene of the first trade mission to the Chinese emperor in 1793 (followed by the weasel words with which the website of Jardine & Matheson conceals the origin of that firm's prosperity in the opium trade); or the extended account of the building of the Uganda Railway, beset as it was by two huge man-eating lions (one of whom had too diseased a lower jaw to kill larger prey - Paxman's comment: "the railway workers were a sort of convenience food.
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By M. D. Holley TOP 1000 REVIEWER on 21 Jan. 2012
Format: Hardcover
There is not enough discussion of the British Empire. Generations of British children have grown up with a view of history which focuses too much on Hitler and Stalin, while remaining ignorant of the Empire. As a young schoolchild in the late 1960s and early 1970s some of our (older) schoolbooks still spoke proudly of the Empire, and we even had on the wall a map of the world with the Empire coloured in red. But by my teenage years the subject had been mysteriously airbrushed out of existence. So this book is especially welcome.

Paxman's book is very well written. It is lively and informative. He has an unerring eye for picking out the juicy and entertaining episodes, so the interest never flags. He keeps a good balance - criticising the racism, greed and violence where appropriate, but pointing out some positive aspects too. I note that in the Amazon reviews some accuse him of being an apologist for the Empire, and others make the opposite claim that he is unpatriotic and too politically correct. That suggests he's probably got the balance about right.

The blatant racism of the empire builders, reaching quite far into the twentieth century, is rather shocking to our modern selves. Reading here some of the quotes from the time, one wonders whether Nazi ideology was a little more mainstream in the first half of the twentieth century than we are led to believe today. And the chapters which describe how the Empire reached its largest extent in the 1920s and 1930s are interesting - I guess it is more comfortable to imagine the Empire as something from the very distant past.

The one weak part of the book is the conclusion. A longer discussion of 'what ruling the world did to the British' (it is in the title after all!) would have been welcome.
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Format: Paperback
Paxman's "Empire" is a distinctly mixed book. It has numerous positives and numerous negatives, but when all is said and done it is an entertaining read.

So first, the positives.

The British Empire is obviously a huge topic, and Paxman does well to move through it at pace enough to sustain interest. It would be very easy to fall into a series of reports about acts, events and biographies and thus lose sight of the overall picture, not being able to see the forest for the trees. Paxman does not do this, showing an appreciation of the topic that is very impressive.

The research is considerable, and wide-ranging, and the actual nitty-gritty of the subject matter touches upon events that are known by name alone to the majority of people ("black hole of Calcutta", the Empire Exhibition of 1924) and illucidates on them. As such it "joins the dots" in a most pleasing manner, leaving one feeling much more educated by the end of it, although in terms of viewpoint nothing really changes.

The approach is broadly thematic rather than chronological although it does all wind together in the final chapters dealing with the end of the Empire and the start of the Commonwealth. There's enough broadness, and enough depth, to suggest further areas of interested reading to any reader of the book who's motivated enough. The section on women in the Empire was particularly impressive.

And now, the problems.

The history is a little imbalanced. Events such as the US War of Independence get virtually glossed over, likewise Australia and New Zealand (although there is more.) Canada barely gets a mention. By contrast, the sections on Africa and Asia are reassuringly thorough.
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