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Fast and loose with the facts
on 9 September 2011
My initial inclination was to "award" this publication with one star but having read only as far as page 41, when both I and my corrective pencil gave up in despair, I suppose it would be a little harsh to judge the remainder of the book after having given up the will to live; so two stars it is. Based on what I did read, however, I am not sanguine.
To cite just a few of the egregious errors I found in those first forty pages:
* In his chapter on Roman Britain, Mr Ackroyd refers to 'England' and the 'English' throughout. Both terms would have been utterly meaningless to anyone living at the time, and remain totally nonsensical to anyone with a proper sense of our country's history in this period. I note that Mr Ackroyd himself 'confront(s) questions of nomenclature' on page 41 - the point at which, you will recall, I was confronted with the last straw - but his subsequent "explanation" for the use of the terms 'England' and 'English' is, by turns, spurious, contradictory, fallacious and, frankly, risible.
* The destruction of the Druids on Anglesey did not take place following Boudicca's Revolt, as is heavily implied on p29. The Governor, Suetonius Paulinus, was on Anglesey, mopping-up, when he first heard news of the Revolt taking place 300 miles away - hence the very real threat the Iceni uprising posed to the continued existence of Britain as a Roman province.
* Julius Agricola was a subsequent Roman Governor (by 17 years), not the 'next' one.
* Mr Ackroyd states that the Romans 'never had any intention' of conquering the whole of Britain. Well, under Agricola at least, they did: the Governor's invasion of Caledonia and subsequent victory over the Picts at Mons Graupius in 83 left him poised to gain control over the whole island. (For good measure, Agricola advised the Emperor Domitian that, in his opinion, Hibernia could also be invaded successfully and held subsequently with the deployment of a single legion.) It was only Domitian's short-sighted, though probably not spiteful, decision to withdraw a legion from Britain in 84 that prevented the conquest from being made total.
* 'The military zone ... required a standing force of 125,000 men.' This is a ludicrous statement. The maximum number of legionaries and auxiliaries stationed in Britain at any one time would have been about 40,000 - which was bad enough as far as the Roman military was concerned (and could have been substantially less but for Domitian's decision of 84).
* 'In AD 268, one governor of England (sic), Carausius, proclaimed himself Emperor.' The year was 286 and he did nothing of the sort: he proclaimed himself ruler of an independent Britain. He did not 'take his forces to the continent' as he already had forces in the extreme north of Gaul, he having been appointed originally, by the Emperor Maximian, to be naval commander of the Channel and North Sea waters, based in Boulogne.
*(Britain) was subdivided into four and then five provinces, emphasizing the fact that the country (sic) was being closely administered and exploited.' No, it emphasized the fact that the Emperor in Rome had no wish to grant to one, or even two governors control of all the military resources that Britain, by default, encompassed.
I could say more but you have the picture. Mr Ackroyd's reputation precedes him and I am bound to say that I was looking forward immensely to reading this first (of a projected total of six) volume of his history of England. Alas, no longer, and not least for the sake of my blood pressure. This book is both a profound disappointment and a source of astonishment that such a display of "historical" writing should ever have made it off the printing press.
ps Since writing this review, I have been asked by one commentator to suggest a book I WOULD recommend be read in order to gain a proper understanding of how England and the English came to be as they are. (I replied directly in the 'Comments' section - see below - but it occurred to me that I should make the same response here.) Without question this would be Paul Johnson's 'The Offshore Islanders'. Although nearly 40 years old it is still in the top rank of any proper history of England. (Copies are readily available from Amazon.) I retrieved my own 1972, first edition copy from my shelves, in blunt reaction to my brief acquaintance with Mr Ackroyd's book, and can say, unequivocally, there is no comparison. Quite frankly, if I were Paul Johnson's publisher, I would be rushing out a reprint.