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Fifty Things You Need To Know About British History Paperback – 25 Jun 2009
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‘If history is your subject, then look no further than Fifty Things you Need to Know about British History. If you want an overview of what went on here, in bite-size chunks, throughout the centuries, this is the book for you’ The Lady
‘It offers insight and knowledge upon which to build a better understanding of the country we live in today’ Today’s History
Best General History ‘Combining simplicity with significance and anecdote with fact, this book will have relevance for every modern British reader’ Family History Monthly
About the Author
Hugh Williams read Modern History at Oxford before beginning his career in television with the BBC. He has specialised in history and current affairs programming and in the early 80s was responsible for introducing the famous BBC history programme ‘Timewatch’ into the schedules. While Head of Broadcasting in Manchester he had the idea for and subsequently commissioned A.N. Wilson’s series ‘Eminent Victorians’.
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My key question was does it provide an easily digestible account of a subject too frequently rendered as an opaque and incomphrehsible series of dates and seemingly unrelated events? The answer is, with only very mild qualification, yes it does. The author manages to conjure a voice that tells the story of British history through the ages, weaving together a grand meta-narrative that reconciles the dark ages, medieval era and the imperial past with the present day cosmopolitan outlook of a more progressive age.
People are invariablly enthused about and motivated much more towards the research of their own history and this often reveals itself through a rose tinted hue or moral ambivalence in the text. This book is no different. While the sound of 'Rule Brittainia' is not deafeningly audible through the different chapters it is none the less there in parts - literally in one instance when describing the pompous theatre of nationalistic pretention that is the 'last night of the proms' spectacle. But there are few accounts of British history that escape this criticism and indeed it is an attitude that still lingers in some quarters - the quotation from Simon Heffer on the front cover is a telling clue to the potential the text has for taking the occasionally disdainful and overbearingly pompous tone.
But this can (just about) be forgiven. This island is a small one and our psychological regression from the height of the empire is fittingly captured in this book, despite it seems, the occasional hint of nostalgia and sadness. The conquest of other nations and peoples is obviously seen from the victors eye and this a victors telling of history. Whether that makes it 'factual' is difficult to say and whether history can ever be factual without being reduced to a few incontestable dates and events is a consideration that slightly mitigates whatever slant is taken. One thinks of Emmeline Pankhurst and her bold and brave advocacy of women's suffrage yet readers might take a less elevated view of her achievements were they to know she took to handing out white feathers to conscientious objectors (taunting them as cowards) and was a considerable advocate of imperialism which in the context of her mission to seek equality sits rather ill at ease with it. It has been said she had attitudes typical for people for her class and position and this is probably no less true for the country as a whole when its story is retold by historians. Attempts to make history digestible are therefore too few and almost never told by dispassionate third parties and this book is absolutely superb at engaging the reader.
As others have commented, the publisher has done a fairly light job in providing editorial support to the author, as is common in the publishing industry these days - their input has likely been in providing crude copy editing and printing. A few sections sit unnaturally adjacent to each other but this leads to stark incongruity rather than bafflement or confusion (e.g. the suicide of 'Clive of India' and 'Food through the ages' sidebars mentioned by others).
One challenge for anyone trying to make sense of history are the inter-relationships between successive monarchs and here the book is as successful as is possible whilst being mindful that it deliberately does not attempt to provide a continuous account and is restricted to 50 key events. The are a few times that the book misses the opportunity to reinforce a description, label or account given earlier, for example, references to Bonnie Prince Charlie are sometimes by name and sometimes indirectly by the relationship to his father James III as in '...Louis XIV was now harboring his son', thus forcing some head scratching, and this will doubtless be revised in future editions.
One also expects that events such as the installment of Charles II will be attached with their labels i.e. the Restoration, and other terms such as Reformation, will be introduced and clearly applied to their context. Other similar examples such as Renaissance and Enlightenment would benefit from similar care and consideration. While such occurrences sent me searching elsewhere the work incurred in such research was, on the whole, rewarding and reinforcing. These mild criticisms should be regarded against the frequent revealing insights the author throws up such as the who the last King of England was who died leading his won troops (Richard III), or the last time when Britain was invaded (the Norman conquest), the peak of the Empire (around the time of Wellingtons success against Napoleon) and its subsequent decline (beginning around WW I). For these seeking to understand the key themes in history these are invaluable and this is where the book succeeds.
Overall, this is a tremendous account of Britain and this book has benefited me greatly despite the occasionally and perhaps unavoidable nationalistic voice with which it speaks. I would recommend it as a refreshingly penetrable treatment of a subject that is almost invariably stifled and mis-communicated in its treatment.
Pros: Brief, Broad, Well-Written, Exciting, Informative, Neutral
Cons: Poorly Organized
There is a major problem with the Kindle version though. The 'table of contents' does not work. It doesn't matter if you read the book from start to finish. But if you want to dip in and out at random it makes finding the relevant chapter easily nigh on impossible.
On the whole though, I would give the book 5 Stars for the content but only 3 Stars for the kindle version.