History Made Simple

Daily Mail (London), September 7, 1996 | Go to article overview

History Made Simple


Byline: Simon Heffer

The Story of Britain by Sir Roy Strong (Hutchinson, [pounds sterling]35) SIR ROY STRONG, in this magnificently produced book, has self-consciously tried to emulate that previous epic of British nationhood, Our Island Story.

He has set out to create a massive work of history, in a single volume, that will enlighten and inform his readers about the past of the land they live in, and how we arrived at where we are today. In that aim he largely succeeds; but he does not overcome the difficulties with which the execution of such a massive project must be fraught.

He traces our story from pre-Roman times to the present day, helped by a particularly fine choice of illustrations that have benefited from the author's aesthete's eye. For the most part he confines himself to narrative, though slips occasionally into commentary and the passing of opinion. His main achievement will be to prompt those of his readers unfamiliar with a certain period in history to read more widely on that subject; one reason why a full bibliography would have been useful.

The main problem with the book, though, is the question of at just whom it is aimed. At [pounds sterling]35 it is a lot of money to spend on a children's book, but that, essentially, is what it is. Any adult wanting to know this much about history would not start here; or if an adult did, he or she would soon, I fear, feel that subject matter was - of necessity, given the scope - being dealt with more superficially than was desirable.

For a child, though, the book would be marvellous: more than seventy short chapters, easily digestible, proceeding step by step through our history. Important figures - like Chaucer, Shakespeare and Florence Nightingale - get chapters to themselves, though this prompts the question as to why certain others, just as significant, do not. But for a young person starting more or less from scratch, this cannot but be an excellent primer.

Sir Roy is especially good on the Tudor and Stuart period, and in describing certain battles in the Wars of the Roses he takes a fresh angle, reminding us just how little the population of the country was involved; a contrast with the Civil War nearly 200 years later, in which whole settlements were devastated and many killed. …

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