My rating: 3 of 5 stars
A short history of a country is never going to be an all-encompassing in-depth review of historical events. As such, a book of this sort is always going to be open to criticism and Simon Jenkins’ book has certainly received plenty of that.
Some, I feel, is unjustified. While I can appreciate those that feel it was just a list of battles and wars with little other depth, trying to condense nearly two thousand years of English history into a slim volume can’t really do much more than that. But it is also only true to an extent and certainly not beyond the Plantagenets. From the Tudor period onwards, the politics of government becomes much more interesting and, eventually, the true shaper of national destiny.
Other criticisms are more valid. In particular, the sense that this is almost a Tory apologetic for English nationalism, is difficult to ignore. There’s little doubt that Jenkins is wholly optimistic about the British and glosses over the whole empire period with not a single mention of the wrongs carried out in the name of English. Gandhi doesn’t get even a brief mention when dealing with the colonial period in India, nor do events like the Amritsar massacre (yet the oft-inflated ‘Black hole of Calcutta’ does get a slot, deftly portraying the Indian as a cruel and vile uncivilised creature). Instead, Jenkins succeeds in making it sound like the dismantling of the empire was a benign idea bestowed on countries by the magnanimity and graciousness of the benevolent English, rather than a hard-earned freedom by peoples who gave life and limb to earn the right to rule their own lands from a reluctant and grouchy English master.
It is hard to turn a blind eye to this, even allowing for interpretation and natural bias, when Jenkins doesn’t seem any more trustworthy in other parts of history either. Having taught Tudor history for A level in recent years, my knowledge in this area is reasonably in-depth and, frankly, I don’t really recognise Jenkins’ version of the 16th century period. It feels very much like his source materials were all books written for children from before 1980 presenting a view I recognise from my childhood past, but not one that most historians would validate now. With Jenkins we’re back angry and incompetent Henry VIII and weak and weedy Edward as a successor with Elizabeth’s proud navy destroying the Spanish Armada (just the one mind, there were no others in Jenkins’ world) rather than a truer mix of luck, weather and Spanish strategic incompetency.
That said, as a general overview of English history, the book is reasonable enough. To get a ‘big picture’ view, as it were. As much as I know about Tudor and colonial history, I know very little of medieval (which was one of the reasons I wanted to read a short book – to get myself quickly up to scratch). I’m forever mixing up when the Romans came and when the Vikings came and took their ‘holidays’ with us! Assuming that the author’s errors are not so glaring as to get things in the wrong order, this was useful to me. Likewise, my knowledge of Jacobean, Georgian and Edwardian eras are a little ‘holey’ so it was good to get a refresher on these areas.
I also specifically wanted to read a more ‘traditional’ history written by a white middle class male because I’m about to embark on books such as ‘Empireland’, ‘How Britain Ends’ and ‘In Search of Black History’ and I wanted a ‘control’ book, as it were, to make comparisons with. As it is, even before reading these, I can already see some of the issues. Too often I see white apologists on Twitter and so on, accusing such books as ‘revisionist’ suggesting they are deliberately reinterpreting history to suit their own (leftist/communist/ perverse) agenda. Before reading, I can see from books like Jenkins’ that the revisionist writing as actually been going on for a long time – and it is white to the core.
His latest book is ‘Try not to Laugh’ and is a guide to memorising, revising and passing exams for students.
D K Powell is available to speak at events (see his TEDx talk here) and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.