This was first published in 2010, but I found it on my Belle Mère’s bookshelf and I thought I’d have quick read. Now this was at Christmas, but I have a 4 and a 1 year old so….
This is a very fast paced, lighthearted look at the relationship between the French and English over the millennium and I must say that it was a very informing overview of the historical period from both perspectives. When I was at school in the late 80s you did the industrial and agricultural revolution, earlier in the 70s you did Hastings, but little else besides the wars. So the book filled in a lot of gaps.
The focus on the early part of the millennium up until the Middle Ages and Napoleonic years makes sense when you read Clarke’s biography. He studied medieval history at university so those, admittedly very few, negative reviews on Amazon critiquing his historical knowledge are probably not entirely correct in their assessment.
It is evident that Clarke loves his earlier topic and gallops along with facts, witticisms and some insight. In fact his brief excursions into the latter half of the century seem almost perfunctory as a result. This is no bad thing as if as much attention had been given to these latter events the book’s length would have been off putting for its tone. Besides, as the devastation of the First World War and the moral certitude behind the second campaign have resulted in these periods of history constantly visited and vividly in our memory there is no significant loss of their lesser part.
My only area of criticism is that, being a self confessed prude (hey, where’s my parade?) I could have done without the descriptions of Edward VII’s foray into furniture design. In fact I did as I skimmed the pages to where my demure eyes could rest uncontamintaed by such goings on.
Whilst reading it I was curious to see other people’s opinions and had a look through Amazon to see and, although the vast majority are very positive, this one stood out;
“1.0 out of 5 starsHistory, Daily Mail-style
ByMr. Peter Kahlon 20 October 2011
What a tedious book this is! I received it as a gift and I tried to read it several times but I’ve finally given up on it. Its pages will now be used to light fires in the fireplace this winter because I wouldn’t want to inflict them on any unsuspecting customers browsing the Oxfam store.
Let me be clear, I am fascinated by history and I do like irreverent treatments or sideways looks at our past. But this does not belong in that category. This is the Jeremy Clarkson school of history. It is the smug, grinning and self-satisfied face of Britain. It is the pub bore who will tell you that climate change is just a conspiracy of scientists and politicians who are trying to make money out of it. It is the bloke at a dinner party who tells you his three-year-old son could better than Jackson Pollock. And it is the woman at the same dinner party who is really upset about XXX getting voted off Strictly Get Me Out Of Here On Ice.
Read Ken Follett or CJ Sansom if you like a good yarn. Read Simon Schama or David Starkey if you like solid historical information that is accessible to non-experts. Or read Bill Bryson for a really affectionate and touching portrayal of Britain’s recent past.
But give this one a miss – unless you like to see your own prejudices reinforced.”
I actually wondered if it was a send up? But then the recommendations of other books would suggest otherwise. The irony of someone talking about other peoples prejudices having written that….
Clarke is clearly not a bigot – any joke made at the expense of the French is balanced by one made about the English too. On the whole he comes across as a self effacing patriot who loves his life and friends in France.
Even when Clarke is landing a shot in seriousness he is even handed. For example Clarke talks of the tendency to collaborate in World War 2 Clarke and not only outlines the way this was done, whilst acknowledging that there were heroes too, but he challenges the assertion that “l’ont échappé belle”. That is, the British and Americans never faced occupation and therefore the moral dilemmas posed as a result.
Clarke compares France’s response to that of the residents of the Channel Islands. He acknowledges that there were individual collaborators; however he maintains there is a difference in that there was no Vichy equivilant of welcoming the ideas of the Nazi regime on a governmental level and the island’s police involvement was not as pivotal in the carrying out of the Nazi regime. In other word they were individual rather than corporate moral failings.
Despite questioning the validity of Clarke’s comparison – after all the Channel Islands were culturally attached to the UK and therefore it could be said that its main leadership was free adding a moral pressure – he is even handed. One of the things that struck me was his none glorified depiction of the battle of Agincourt and his obvious embarrassment at the British reverence for it; particularly in the way he refers to the ‘undiplomatic’ way in which someone had embedded a replica arrow in the observation tower with ‘For Saint George and England’ engraved on it.
What really struck me whilst finishing the book at this time, with the referendum looming, was if Clarke, would be for Britain’s ongoing relationship with the EU. I browsed his Twitter line, I’ve even asked him on the feed I was so curious. The answer is probably for in, but the more I think about it the more I’d love to hear his views. At least I know they’d be entertaining!