Thursday, 9 August 2012

Review: An Utterly Exasperated History of Modern Britain OR 60 Years of Making The Same Stupid Mistakes as Always by John O'Farrell

Book cover of An Utterly Exasperated History of Modern Britain by John O'Farrell
When I'm reading a book I know I'm going to review later, I write reminders in my little panda-shaped notebook. You know, particular actors I imagined in the role of the characters, plot holes, quotes or just phrases that would be a good way to start a blog post. It's useful, especially if I end up writing the review a good while after I've read the damn thing. So, today I go to pick up the little panda, flick to the pages of scribbles about An Utterly Exasperated History of Modern Britain... and I'm stumped. I got so caught up in The Learning, that I have four pages rammed full of interesting facts and dates I want to remember and not a damn thing about the book itself. God damn it.

Following his hugely popular account of the previous 2000 years (which won 'Best Comedy History Book' at the 1815 Congress of Vienna) John O'Farrell now comes bang up to date with a hilarious modern history asking 'How the hell did we end up here?'

All the major post-war landmarks are faithfully recorded. The sombre day in 1967 when Harold Wilson went on the television to announce that Britain was converting to flared trousers. The tragic split of seventies rock superstars The Wombles after Great Uncle Bulgaria overdosed on amphetamines and bourbon. And the mild scandal of the 1981 Royal Wedding when Lady Diana's marriage vows omitted the word 'obey'; declaring instead that she would 'Love, honour and then utterly humiliate the Royal Family with a string of embarrassing revelations after shagging James Hewitt.'

AN UTTERLY EXASPERATED HISTORY OF MODERN BRITAIN informs, elucidates and laughs at all the bizarre events, ridiculous characters and stupid decisions that have shaped Britain's story since 1945; leaving the twenty-first century reader feeling fantastically smug for having the benefit of hindsight.

So there are no Tudors, no Victorians and no Stuarts in this book. No Charles Darwin or Titus Salt (it's a local thing, just go with it. I am, however, convinced that Darwin and Salt are the same person). No Emmeline Pankhurst or Fergus O'Connor. What you do get though, is a thorough history of Britain since the end of the Second World War - including enough Thatcher-bashing to satisfy even the staunchest Labourite (*waves*) and an actually fairly unbiased account of Britain's successes and ****-ups.

I'm not sure how much of this will really make sense unless you're at least vaguely familiar with the United Kingdom's political history. Hell, I live here and bits of it went over my head. It's not a complicated book; it's actually very accessible, but I occasionally had to reread a paragraph or two to completely grasp the point the author was trying to make.

Despite the moderately intimidating theme though, parts of this are absolutely hilarious. One part had me nearly crying with laughter and when a history book is that funny, you know you're on to a winner. Each particular topic is one tiny little subsection grouped together into chapters by decade, although it still feels like you're reading one continuous story. Which you are - OUR story, God damn it! :)

Oh how he hates Margaret Thatcher. John O'Farrell is clearly, clearly anti-Conservative - you could tell from his comments in this book even if he hadn't written Things Can Only Get Better: Eighteen Miserable Years in the Life of a Labour Supporter, 1979-1997. Which, you know, I bought before I'd even finished this one. *waves her little Labour flag excitedly* He doesn't back away from criticising Labour when they need it though, and can even (grudgingly) admit when the Tories managed to do a good job.

Some in Westminster have talked about her receiving a state funeral when she dies, which seems a bizarre sort of tribute to someone who believed the state should do as little as possible. It would be far more appropriate to allow competitive bids from private companies to run the funeral arrangements. 'And we now go over live to Westminster, where state leaders are lining up for Lady Thatcher's funeral sponsored by McDonald's. And there we see the coffin respectfully borne on the shoulders of six part-time burger-flippers dressed in the official Ronald McDonald costume, before the private cremation when the body will be flame-grilled with gherkins and a slice of cheese.'

It's what she would have wanted.
I'd say it is mostly a political history examining all the Prime Ministers since Churchill, but then again it would be quite difficult to write a modern history of anywhere that didn't involve a lot of politics. I've learned all sorts, although it shocked me how few of our previous Prime Ministers I actually knew about!

Okay, I'm done raving. But An Utterly Exasperated History of Modern Britain is absolutley brilliant - it's a hilarious, informative guide to the history that our schools leave out, and I'll definitely be reading the rest of John O'Farrell's works.

Find John O'Farrell on Twitter.


  1. Oh goody, I've got this one on the shelves somewhere! I liked John O'Farrell as a Grumpy Old Man, so I'm fairly sure I'll enjoy his work as a Grumpy Old History Writer too... Crying with laughter while reading political non-fiction works for me! :D

  2. I LOVE John O'Farrell!! This one's really good because my modern history was a little bit wonky too :-/ If you haven't already got it, An Utterly Impartial History of Britain or 2000 Years of Upper Class Idiots In Charge, it's equally brilliant. This one was more out of my comfort zone too, though, so I kind of had that learning feeling more with this one.

    His fiction is funny too but it can be quite...masculine.

    Also, it has been far too long since I've looked at your blog on my actual laptop because I only just noticed the cute little paperclips on the quote! Love them...


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