Book Review: 52 Times Britain was a Bellend by James Felton

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My rating: 5 of 5 stars

James Felton is, on the strength of this book, my new personal god. There is literally nothing to fault bar the fact he uses copious amounts of ‘F’ words and insults. But then, with the title featuring the words ‘bellend’ in it you’d have to be pretty bloody stupid to be offended by this if you’d gone further than look at the cover and move on. The level of language was going to be fairly obvious really so you only have yourself to blame.

The book is incredibly simple to read (not an easy feat for what is, essentially, a history book). On the right is one page of text covering one of the ’52’ moments in history, covering from modern times right back to at least the 13th century; on the right is a funny cartoon ridiculing the act of stupidity in some way.

You could easily dismiss the book from this style, thinking it to be simplistic, sensationalist tripe from some guy with a grudge against the British. But you be wrong if you thought so. I teach history and, in particular, studied Indian subcontinent history in-depth for my second masters. If you know your history then you’ll not be surprised that many of the ‘bellend’ moments take place in this part of the world and in Asia more generally. The Amritsar massacre and forcing the Chinese to buy our opium are just two that spring readily to mind. I can tell you then, that Felton gets his details right. He uses great humour and doesn’t shy away from expressing exactly what he thinks of the British in each case, but the details are not exaggerated in the slightest. Felton has done his homework and researched as well as any academic historian.

And yet, the events he describes seem utterly unbelievable – even for myself at times. Discovering that my memory of modern history in Egypt is shakier than I thought, I read the passage on ‘We tried to hold a river hostage’ and thought “No. No way. That just can’t be true.” So off I went to research it. Sure enough, every word was right. It was the ‘Suez crisis’ and I realised I did actually know this. Only, when dealing with lots and lots of history around the world (as I do), it is so easy to sanitise an event when it is glossed over in a few lines of a text book. Felton’s presentation simply changed the perspective to make you look again more clearly.

This respect Felton reminds me of my favourite historian, Peter Frankopan, whose ‘Silk Roads‘ book is, by far, the best global history I’ve ever read and one I recommend to all my history students. Both writers have a way of making you look at history in a fresh and alarmingly clear way. While one is writing an academic, but accessible, tome, the other is writing to entertain while making it clear that he thinks the British can be absolute knobs.

And James Felton is right in this respect. I bought the book because I already knew my own nation is exactly how he describes. The events I didn’t know (or didn’t know I did know) have merely given me even more ammunition to fire at the plonkers I meet from all walks of life who think the Brits are the best nation ever and the rest of the world owes us a favour. For that, I will always be grateful to the author. There’s more than enough here to put anyone in their place.

I take back, slightly, my opening point that this book is just about perfect. In trying to find references while writing this review, I suddenly realised it is annoying that there is no contents list. I know the primary aim is entertainment – a bit of fun at the expense of the British – but Mr Felton has not really appreciated just how useful a reference book this is. It is certainly one I’ll dip into regularly. A contents page would really help with finding stuff.

Not sure I can recommend the book to students though(there’s rather a lot of cartoon drawings of penises for one thing); I might, however, slyly suggest-not-suggest it to my A level ones. Perhaps I can gift copies to them when they finish exams and my legal obligations to them are over? Whatever, for the rest of the world – and to anyone who’s fed up of all the nationalistic nonsense heard in our pubs, clubs and social media – this book is a must.

Social Entrepreneur, educationalist, bestselling author and journalist, D K Powell is the author of the bestselling collection of literary short stories “The Old Man on the Beach“. His first book, ‘Sonali’ is a photo-memoir journal of life in Bangladesh and has been highly praised by the Bangladeshi diaspora worldwide. Students learning the Bengali language have also valued the English/Bengali translations on every page. Listen to his life story in interview with the BBC here.

Both ‘The Old Man on the Beach’ and ‘Sonali’ are available on Amazon for kindle and paperback. Published by Shopno Sriti Media. The novel,’The Pukur’, will be published by Histria Books in 2022. D K Powell is currently writing a book on memory techniques called ‘Try Not To Laugh’

D K Powell is available to speak at events (see his TEDx talk here) and can be contacted at dkpowell.contact@gmail.com. Alternatively, he is available for one-to-one mentoring and runs a course on the psychology of writing.

Ken writes for a number of publications around the world. Past reviewer for Paste magazine, The Doughnut, E2D and United Airways,  and currently reviews for Lancashire Life magazine and Northern Arts Review.

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