This Little Britain by Harry Bingham

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This Little Britain by Harry Bingham

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Category: History
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: A serious look at the benefits Britain has bequeathed the world, historically, scientifically, judicially and mostly quite superbly. Possibly too rich, it is an interesting and comprehensive volume for all.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 384 Date: October 2007
Publisher: Fourth Estate
ISBN: 978-0007258482

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Ah, Britain. Sorry, Great Britain. Sorry, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland ... and the Channel Islands, the bits in between, the other splodges left around the place by the Commonwealth - may God bless her and all who sail in her.

Britain - the country that gave the world Jordan (or most of her), Bath buns, the worst national anthem imaginable, and Simon Cowell. Such might be the appraisal offered by one of those flippant novelty books released just in time for Christmas. Make no mistake, this is most certainly not one of those.

Instead this book prefers to revel in the Poor Laws, Shakespeare, thermionic valves, and a whole host of other details. Finding a lack of historical volumes that detail the many diverse ways in which Britain's uniqueness should be celebrated, novelist Harry Bingham has chosen it upon himself to do a whole host of research to come up with a quite exhaustive look at Britain's achievements.

To start with, we here in the UK have the use of the world's richest language, even if the spelling might leave a lot to be desired for the foreign learner - a lot of hiccoughs are used as illustration. This tongue also spread its way throughout the world - and there are social and historical reasons given to show why that was. Just because the Mayflower pioneers were English speaking, if the conditions were rather different the next influx of migrants to the USA might well have come from elsewhere, and the world would be very different.

There is a lot of very interesting history here, showcasing the brilliance of the Royal Navy, and again just how that was able to be the best, and what that entailed for the country it was defending. Later, there are several economic chapters - but for me a little too much. What there is is perfectly well explained but I guess it shows how easy it is for me to switch off when GDP is raised, however well it ties in with the exuberance we should all feel to know we invented the industrial revolution twice over.

I think I'm one of the least jingoistic folks you might find, but there is something about Newton as portrayed here that is quite stirring. The force of the level-headed survey of the "exceptionalism" of Britain is very well told, and while I can think of lots of reasons why the country I use but hold very little affinity to is dire, this book is certainly very educational, as it would be to much more erudite people than myself.

What's also interesting is what is largely unwritten about countries elsewhere. If it weren't for fate we might have to use our version of the Academie Francaise, protecting our language from the influx of words from elsewhere threatening to upset the apple cart. If we don't care for the cash for honours scandal, or Cherie's property dealings, we might decamp to Italy or somewhere with even less transparent government. If we wanted a written constitution we should head to America - yeah, right, like theirs was such a good idea it has never needed amending. We didn't get one, we are told, because we haven't yet needed one.

We get such a rounded resume of brilliance that the personal opinion only comes right at the end, and I'm not sure I can agree with it when it does come. There is a lament, and rightly so, at the halfway stage, when the future of Britain's technological might is mentioned. Once upon a time we could be relied upon for our inventiveness (a Scot thought up the fax machine, in 1843) but since having our name on the World Wide Web all we've got to offer the world is a wind-up radio and James bloody Dyson. Now our talents at the capture of Nobel prizes seem to be being usurped, and if as another book I read recently said, Reading University is closing its physics department, then the brain drain will only continue.

On the whole though the future of Britain - one perhaps of no scientists but lots of X-Factor rejects reading media studies - is not thought of, and apart from explaining the British traits that allowed it to invent and codify so many sports there is not a lot that actually portrays the character, the soul, the mindset of contemporary Britain. Again, a novelty book would do that a lot more breezily and successfully, and there is no place for Beckham's hair here.

Instead the tone is much more serious, and all-encompassing - so much so it's a surprise to get to the end and find no index. This is certainly a more scholarly tome than it could have been, and probably all the better for it; however I finished it a little overwhelmed. I can't call it dry - it isn't - but I thought afterwards it was the wrong approach to plough through it in two sittings. It's not for delving in while on the toilet, but the book is so comprehensive and the more trivial highlights such as I've made use of for this review so subtly and unshowily inserted I needed to browse again to find and confirm my favourites.

As a result I will be very interested to watch the future of this book. I hope it is positioned away from the throw-away volumes, as it correctly leaves them to discuss current themes and Britishness. Given a fair wind I can see This Little Britain having something akin to the success of similar populist but serious books of recent times - certain ones regarding English punctuation and spelling spring to mind. I hope for the publishers this is so - while I didn't fall in love with its depth I was impressed by the volume, and give a rounded four stars (if you don't find the history and economics too heavy you might well give it more) - and thank them for sending a copy to the Bookbag to sample.

Finally, just how modest, how unassuming, how ironic - how British - is that title? I think there's a book in that...

Booklists.jpg This Little Britain by Harry Bingham is in the Top Ten Books about Britain, Britishness, and the Brits.

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Natalie, Cirencester said:

Just to say I thought this book was 5-star, 24-carat amazing! I agree it's so much more than just a novelty book - and yes, you do feel a bit dazed by the end of it. I'd never realised before what an amazing country I lived in. This book has really made me prouder to be British. When I got to the end of the book, I didn't know whether to cheer or just start again from the beginning.

An amazing read! My best book of the year. Strongly, strongly recommended.