© Norman Davies; (P) Macmillan Publishers Ltd
"A historiographical milestone." (Sunday Times)
"If ever a history book were a tract for the times, it is The Isles: A History...a masterwork." (The Times)
"A book which really will change the way we think about our past...marvellously rich and stimulating." (Evening Standard)
"The Isles" may annoy some readers because as a history of the British Isles it can feel incomplete, and it can be perceived as sneery toward the British. Unfortunately this abridged audiobook misses out Davies's introduction, in which he explains his aims. The point of the book is to be a history of the ideas of Britishness, Englishness, Irishness, Scottishness, etc. It explores where these ideas originated, and how they have developed and changed over time. For this reason, it deliberately avoids the traditional way of writing about British history (which often describes the political union of the islands as natural and inevitable), and also avoids the sentimental Celtic reading of history (in which the division between the English and the Celtic nations is seen as timeless and unchanging).
The result is a history of the Isles that deliberately complicates supposedly simple concepts like 'British'. The best example is the way Davies insists on referring to the kings of the Isles by the names they called themselves - so you get Edouard I, Henri II, and Robert le Bruce as a constant reminder that these English and Scottish heroes spoke French. There's also an opening section on prehistory in which he refuses to call the islands 'British' until the word British has been invented, making up names (like 'The Great Isle' and 'The Green Isle' for Great Britain and Ireland).
All of this works well in an audiobook, and the always reliable Andrew Sachs is a perfect narrator. The story does seem rushed at times (especially in the 19th and 20th centuries), but there were no glaring gaps in the abridgement, except for the introduction. The history is mainly concerned with kings, prime ministers, power politics and the politics of nationhood - there isn't much social history.
This is a very good, absorbing listen, and will make you rethink your understanding of history at times. You do however need to understand the book's aims, or you might be disappointed.
Davies has done brilliant work in the past, and relishes in debunking complacent opinion. Here, instead, he has written a history for BBC TV. Britain emerges Great, triumphant, only improved by its travails. All the imperial losses - US independence, the millions dead in the partition of India, Soros (alternately "an American" and then "a Hungarian") breaking the Bank of England) are attributed to individuals' errors, none of these catastrophes sprung from social forces, economics, the national arrogance, etc.
Half the book is the standard monarchical history of who begat and supplanted whom, alternating England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland to show their equivalence, but there is no sense of why and next to nothing in the way of geographical, geological, economic explanation of developments, nor any other explaining. The royal ties to Europe are cited repeatedly, with little mention of European machinations in Britain beyond the invasion attempts.
Speaking for the new British everyman, now worldly enough to enjoy Indian food, European beaches, and the Irish, Davies even brings Princess Di onstage, to warn the royals that their high-handedness will not be tolerated, in the name of the people.
foreign words pronounced without ironic pause
Read Davies' wonderful history of Europe, instead
"Good, but inconsistent."
In its title I saw hope that, at last, a book dealing with Ireland and Britain was going to be objective. The author does attempt to be just that. British history does constitute the majority of the book (disproportionately at times), yet Ireland is never too far away. The author goes out of his way to recount the development of national identities, reminding readers/listeners of the immense European influence (Gallic/French, Dutch, Viking/Danish,Saxon/German, etc) on Britain and the foolhardiness of speaking hubristically of an continuity to the 'English' nation, while ignoring the Celtic origins of the Britons, the excessive weight academics apportion to the Roman influence, the French speaking (and often French-based) 'Kings of England', and, of course the Dutch and German kings of later centuries.
The narrator, Andrew Sachs, has a nice voice, yet perhaps with the exception of French words (which he appears to relish) his pronunciation of non-English words, be they Irish, Welsh, Scots-Irish, etc. is awful to the point of them being at times incomprehensible. In the discussion of P and Q Celtic languages, the deficiencies actually impact on the thrust of the argument as heard by the listener. Inconsistency too is a problem, as Sachs adds all the Gallic flourishes to some French names - Henry is 'Oonree' - while Humbert is just that; Hum~bert, as opposed to Uum bear.
The last third of the book is all too rushed. The author appears to try to get through the British colonial expansion and contraction as quickly as possible - to the detriment of the book. He bounces around the twentieth century like a ping-pong ball, unsure where to place the emphasis.
His treatment of Ireland's later history has a number of inaccuracies that would call into question the standard of research - 'Thomas' Wolfe Tone? The Anti-Treaty side winning the Irish Civil War?
Not bad at all, but certainly not flawless.
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