Book Review: Sunburn – The unofficial history of the Sun newspaper in 99 headlines by James Felton


My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I can’t remember now how I came across James Felton originally. I think it was finding his book ’52 Times Britain was a Bellend’, which I loved, reviewed, and then found him on Twitter. Since then, I’ve just come to think of Felton as being one of the best people to follow on Twitter if you like ‘in-your-face’ tweets calling out the wrongs and incompetencies of the government and various political commentators, all with excellent (but caustic) humour.

I know that the job of comedians is to make jokes seem effortless when, in reality, they’ve put in huge amount of time and effort to craft their lines, but I don’t know if Felton does the same. For sure though, he seems able to pump out a shedload of tweets every day which unfailingly hit the mark. It is rare one doesn’t raise a laugh, along with a sage nodding of the head in agreement. I’m in awe; I could spend all day trying to emulate even one of his tweets.

’52 Times’ was a book which was absolutely on point. Felton demonstrated that the British, on the whole, are really a nation of euphemistic bankers. It seems hardly surprising then, seeing as we’ve been utter plonkers for centuries, that we would eventually come up with a paper (eventually papers, plural) that would feed new, up-and-coming right-handers and comfort the older ones. It took an Australian, Rupert Murdoch, to make the transformation happen, but transform it did and The Sun – as we know and hate it today – came into being.

This is another of those books where I seriously don’t know how the author doesn’t have his ass sued off by the objects of his wrath. I assume that the publisher’s lawyers have been all over this book to make sure there’s nothing that can prove costly, but that only tells me how bizarre the law is that someone can say something innocuous in a tweet and be threatened with legal action but Felton can write an entire book attacking and name-calling the various editors and writers for The Sun and not face any problems at all.

I’m glad he has though. Through 99 headlines, Felton takes us through the worst of The Sun’s moments (though I’m pretty certain he had to cherry-pick given that I don’t think I’ve ever seen a decent headline from this shit rag in nearly fifty years of walking past it on newspaper stands and ignoring it); and does so, so that we don’t have to read it ourselves. He should receive a commendation for services to the British public for that.

It makes for horrendous reading. If this material had been presented in a serious manner via a history book, it would be enough to make you pack your bags, leave the country and let the people burn. I grew up in a coal-mining town in the 80s and lived most of my adult life in relatively poor rural Cumbria, so it feels to me that most of the people I know and have lived with read this rag, along with other similar ones such as the Daily Fail and the late unlamented Fake News Of The World. It is easy for those who shield themselves from this rot to think that no one reads this rubbish and no one thinks like this. In my experience, they do. That’s the problem.

And that is very much Felton’s raison d’etre for writing the book. While showing that, despite its claims, The Sun does NOT win elections, he also argues (quite rightly) that it drip feeds odious thoughts and lies into the British psyche (and remember, historically, we don’t exactly need much encouragement) turning us into shitty little conspiracy theorists. This isn’t a harmless rag. This is a dangerous one.

Thankfully, I’m not packing my bags because, while Felton has done his research properly and this is as accurate as any history book would manage, he fundamentally wants to make us laugh. And laugh we do – which makes everything seem better and makes us put the suitcases down. I have deliberately written this review with a splashing of ‘language’ because Felton’s abounds with much worse and with considerably harsher innuendos. If you find the review even the slightest bit offensive, you really do not want to read this book. If, like me, you appreciate someone calling a spade a ‘fucking big shovel’ when it happens to be true, then you’ll love it. And, for once, you don’t have to mumble an ‘everyone knows The Sun is shit’ response when someone says they read it but you know you haven’t a clue what is in it because you never read it yourself. You can read Felton’s book – covering from the very beginning in 1969 right up to present times – and know exactly what utter rot this paper vomits out on a regular basis.

It is sometimes said, at least by ardent left-wingers, that Jeremy Corbyn has proven time and again to be on the right side of history. If this is true, then The Sun is the universe balancing its karma. Over the last fifty years, it seems almost everything it has every stood for – from promoting under-eighteen-year-olds to flash their breasts (now consider paedophilia), to vilifying gays in numerous ways, to campaigning to have all the junior doctors sacked – has proven to be embarrassingly, gut-wrenchingly wrong. You would think the publishers would actively be trying to remove all sources from public records and brush over history with fake news to make it appear they never said these things. Indeed, as Felton points out, several pages on the internet site have indeed been removed for exactly that reason.

If you’ve had your fill of xenophobic, Tory-loving, chest-beating British nationalists, then ‘Sunburn’ is definitely a perfect place to go to remind yourself how mind-numbingly stupid these idiots are. But then go on to read his ’52 Times’ book to remind yourself that, in harsh truth, we’re all not so different ourselves.

Literally, on this morning of writing, we’ve woken up to the news that Captain Sir Tom Moore has died. Quite rightly, the nation is mourning this lovely old man who inspired us back when lockdowns were a shock but made us rally together. On Radio Four this morning, one commentator said how Sir Tom had given us ‘a story we could believe in’ when we needed one to raise our spirits. They were absolutely right – but it is our nation’s nature to believe in stories and that’s not good. We reinvented ourselves in the Renaissance period (what Peter Frankopan says is really a ‘naissance’) and told stories we absolutely believed in that we have this heritage stemming back to ancient Greece and Rome – which is why serious Oxbridge scholars continue to spending years waxing lyrical about ‘myths’ otherwise known as silly children’s stories, rather than study something sensible. We told ourselves stories of our bravery in the World Wars against the ‘evil Germans’ to hide our own 200-year imperial shame. And we continue to sell ourselves the myth that we are better than others (Europeans especially), that foreigners are just wrong – period – and that we can do whatever the fuck we like because we’re British and we are always, always right.

And that’s why James Felton’s books should be required reading. Someone really has to redress the balance. It might as well be someone who can make you laugh along the way.

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.

His latest book is ‘Try not to Laugh’ and is a guide to memorising, revising and passing exams for students.

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 available to speak at events (see his TEDx talk here) and can be contacted at 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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