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Could do better
on 4 June 2012
To be fair this is not a bad book; but it could so easily be better. To begin with, it appears to have escaped the attention of a good proof reader, because it is littered with errors. For the most part these are grammatical and punctuation mistakes, which are irritating and interfere with the flow of the work, but some are factual and really inexcusable in a published work of this nature. On page 421, for example, there is a reference to the Battle of Trafalgar, where the date is given (inaccurately) as 21 September 1805, whilst on page 428, a further reference to the battle correctly gives the date as 21 October 1805. On page 412 there is a mention of the Irish lawyer and politician, Daniel O'Connell, who also appears on page 451, where he is called David O'Connell. It is quite clearly the same person, because on each of the pages the dates 1775-1847 appear immediately after the name. On page 566 it says: "...the important British political moment at the start of the 1920s was the appearance, for the first time, of the Labour Party as Her Majesty's Opposition...". The fact is that there was a king on the throne at this time and it was His Majesty's Opposition. A less egregious error perhaps than the two others quoted but something that ought to have been picked up before the presses were allowed to roll.
Leaving aside the sloppy editing, the other way in which this book could be improved, without too much effort, is by the inclusion of a few maps and diagrams. The six hundred pages of this volume contain not one illustration. This betrays its origins as a series of radio programmes, where pictures are admittedly superfluous. But it doesn't follow that in translating the work for publication as a book it is acceptable to take the same approach. Quite early on the author describes the extent of the various regions of Great Britain as they existed prior to the Norman Conquest (Mercia, Wessex, etcetera), but he does so without the aid of a map, which would be so helpful in this context. In a similar way so would a family tree showing how claimants to the throne were related to one another at the time of the Wars of the Roses, for example. In fact an appendix containing trees for the various royal families through the ages would be a worthwhile addition. A few illustrations would not add significantly to the size of the book, nor to its cost, but they would add to its value as a reference work.
The book is concerned with what it is to be British and how Britishness evolved, which objective it arguably achieves. It is also a one volume history of Britain, which is why I bought it. There are plenty of weightier tomes extending to several volumes but not many that seek to cover what is a complex subject within such a limited space. Of those I examined before choosing This Sceptred Isle, none seemed to offer the same depth. It was a huge disappointment therefore, to discover so many shortcomings that could so easily have been remedied. If the publisher acknowledges these shortcomings and seeks to rectify them in a later edition, I believe the book would benefit immensely. I think I should then be able to recommend it with less hesitation than I can now, for while it is a good book, as already stated, it could so easily be much better.