Book Reviews: Sellar and Yeatman 1066 and All That (1930); O’Farrell An utterly impartial history of Britain

Sellar and Yeatman invented satire on school-boy history. They mocked history books which were current at the time which mostly created the myth that the British were naturally superior to all other countries. They developed the phrase ‘a good thing’ as a catch-all.

The Roman Conquest was, however, a Good Thing, since the Britons were only natives at the time.[p11]

Which nicely sums up 1930s racism as well as commenting on the benefits civilisation. Meanwhile they developed the idea of a Bad Thing.

Napoleon now invented a new Convention that the French could massacre all the other nations and become top nation, and this…. was a Bad Thing. [p96]

Sellar and Yeatman might feel quite dated but their wit is elegant and short. The book is 124 pages and the text isn’t dense- there are lots of line drawings. O’Farrell on the other hand is in love with himself. There is a sledgehammer quality to his re-writing of Sellar and Yeatman but in amongst the dross he does offer some interesting insights. His take on Caesar is-

Caesar never did conquer Britain. He came, he saw, he went home again. [p8]

O’Farrell also comments on Napoleon’s genius

Napoleon’s army was defeating the Austrians again and the invincibility of Napoleon was more terrifying than ever. [p277]

I prefer Sellar and Yeatman. O’Farrell goes in for arch comments which aren’t funny and his entire book is overblown. He has some wonderful ideas but doesn’t recognise that they can only take so much repetition. The image he should have had before him is the fact that Fawlty Towers only extended to two series (12 episodes) unlike the gruesome USA box sets where 50 episodes seemingly is a minimum.

Sellar and Yeatman are available here

The O’Farrell book is available here


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