Saturday, February 7, 2009

British history

For aficionados of British history - or for anyone with an eye for a really good story - we have a couple of new books that look at two major components of Britian. One book details her globe-spanning empire, while the other looks at one of her most iconic symbols: the Thames river.
The modern world would be a vastly different place if the British had not extended their reach beyond the narrow confines of their small island (North America's political boundaries would certainly be much different). In The Decline and Fall of the British Empire: 1781-1997, Piers Brendon lays out an entertaining narrative of where the Brits went (practically everywhere), what they did there (some good, some bad) and how they left (occasionally with pomp and circumstance, almost always on the heels of bloody conflict). The book begins with Cornwallis' surrender to Gen. Washington at the battle of Yorktown, and ends with the sulky return of Hong Kong to the Chinese government. Along the way, there are tales of political intrigue, financial rapaciousness, cultural insensitivity and stunning ingenuity and ambition. Smashing fun!
Peter Ackroyd's portrait of a river - Thames: the biography - is a little more light-hearted, since it only involves rampant disease, environmental disasters, class discrimination and grinding poverty. The Thames is a really interesting body of water, since its character changes so dramatically in such a short distance. It's only 215 miles long, but it ranges from meandering tree-lined countryside to industrial squalor in one of the world's largest urban centers. The Thames is dripping with history, from Queen Elizabeth I's trip downriver to the Tower of London to the first underwater tunnel in the world to the bleak career of the gallows at Execution Dock. Ackroyd also does a nice job illustrating the amount of influence the Thames has had on artists and writers over the centuries. This is a very interesting, enjoyable story to read.

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