Friday, 14 February 2014

1000 Years of Annoying the French by Stephen Clarke

Sometimes you might notice a book about history that takes an angle of being idiosyncratic in some way.

The title may suggest humour or what the publishers like to quote on the back cover from unnamed sources as being “an irreverent” look at history. Upon reading the book, reality quickly hits home with how the promise of humour by the quirky title bears little relation to the mostly unfunny text inside. It is not far from being like the “click bait” used on newspaper websites to make readers click through to what appears to be an interesting piece of news that only turns out to be a space filling non-news story. And nothing kills interest in attempting to read all of something than when it turns out we’ve been misled as to the true nature of the article – or book. I am not saying that everyone is disappointed by such books; such books are in fact a good read and the target audience value them. Even so, there is a margin of people who buy a copy and then give it away on the basis that it wasn’t what they were led to believe. You would think that publishers would be concerned by this but no, they are not. Publishing has a long history of marketing books beyond their target audience in order to maximise profit. One way is to jazz up the title and cover. 

Another type of history book is the one that genuinely does its best to be funny. Unfortunately, reading some of these can quickly become a tiresome experience. There are many reasons. One is if the humour is forced; sometimes over-forced. The style of writing seems to overstate that a joke has been made. Long ago, one of my university tutors described the style to me as being like a command: “I have made a witticism, YOU WILL NOW LAUGH!!!” And like that last sentence that is what the style sometimes contains; lots of unnecessary exclamation marks and phrases in upper case characters. 

Wading through this lottery of popular history paperbacks can therefore be hit or miss for people who are only dipping into the subject for entertainment. If you are among those, then there is a book I highly recommend. It is so good some of you may have already read it. 

It is 1000 Years of Annoying the French by Stephen Clarke. The title does not even begin to relate how funny the book is to read. Although the title suggests a somewhat anti-French approach to the subject of history, that is not the case. Clarke bursts the bubble on many British and French myths about the history of those two countries and their relationships over the past one thousand years. The strength of the book, the strength of the humour, is that Clarke’s style and his ability as a writer is that of a genuinely funny raconteur. The book begins with William the Conqueror, explaining that he was not French and how he greatly disliked the French, and finishes on the Channel Tunnel and the realities of the English and French relations behind its creation. 

It is a thick book with six hundred and eighty-six pages but it does not seem like it as you read it. The saying “time goes quickly when you’re having fun” very much applies to this book.  

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