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Oct 2008
An Utterly Impartial History of Britain - John O’Farrell - Black Swan, 2007
* *
Anyone who attempts a humorous history of Britain will - however they try to deny it in the introduction - invite comparison with the Sellar and Yeatman classic 1066 and All That. The genius of the latter lay in its acceptance that the overwhelming majority of history is deeply boring to the average reader and its brilliant solution of focusing on the bits that you remember (or mis-remember). Sadly O’Farrell ignores this important observation and attempts a factually accurate re-telling with some humour thrown in, largely in the form of snatches of jokey-blokey dialogue which feel like out-takes from a sub-Blackadder sitcom. This becomes wearisome fairly quickly and the result is a volume which for all its good intentions is almost as long and dull as the history textbooks it is drawn from.

Nov 2008
Mencius - tr. D.C. Lau - Penguin Classics, 1970
* * *
Congratulations if you know who Mencius is, because I certainly didn’t, despite his importance in the development of Chinese political thought. He was a travelling sage and follower of Confucius who lived during the Warring States period and advised the kings of the time. The book is a record of his sayings and stories, and is essentially a primer on how to be a benevolent despot.

In contrast to some of his contemporaries, Mencius believed that human beings possess “heart” which makes them innately predisposed to civilised (“gentlemanly”) behaviour, but that this tendency can be squelched by hostile social conditions. The purpose of a good ruler, therefore, was to set social policies so as to ensure that people’s natural kindness could be expressed. His influence has been immense; all China’s regimes since have espoused this aim. Though the current one may not be so keen on his notion that rulers who failed to promote benevolence could be legitimately deposed.

An interesting read, though perhaps not in this edition which fails to explain adequately the history, geography and personalities of Mencius’ world, nor the principles of Confucianism on which his philosophy is based.

Dec 2008
Wintersmith - Terry Pratchett - Corgi, 2007
* * *
It is interesting that Pratchett has redirected his “Witches” sequence of Discworld novels into the young adult genre, possibly because their rural setting is less amenable to the technology upgrades that drive the development of his other series. His solution is the bildungsroman of Tiffany Aching, a witch of implausibly tender age who can generate new stories by the simple expedient of growing up. Here, as a young teenager, she gives in to her hormones and rebelliously joins the Dark Morris dance, a ritual that powers the seasons. Which turns out to be a bad idea, because in doing so she attracts the attention of the Wintersmith, the spirit of the season. And when an elemental who only knows about ice and snow starts to take an interest in you, things can get out of hand.

The result is a book with some nice ideas but less interest for an adult reader than Pratchett’s other novels. The MacFeegles, Nanny Ogg and Granny Weatherwax all do their music-hall turns, there is an interesting new take on witchcraft (Miss Treason and her boffo) and a good wintry atmosphere. But somehow it all feels a little dumbed down.

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