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Half-Term Reading: The British Empire

This half term I’m taking the opportunity to read as much as possible. When I’m working it can be a struggle to really get into a book but an isolating son and horrible weather means that I can guiltlessly lay around with endless tea and piles of books.

Reading widely is the single best thing any student can do to improve their own literacy but also to build on their cultural capital (a nonsense term if I’m completely honest - it basically means knowing some stuff). History textbooks are unique in their ability to take fascinating subjects and boil them down to their crudest and most uninspiring parts and well intentioned students who sit down to study them will often find themselves numbed with the tedium that inevitably follows.

Instead I strongly encourage students to read something a bit different. History books of course but also novels from the period they are studying; good quality historical literature; biographies and memoirs; anything that gives a sense of place.

These are some of my recommendations for those who wish to widen their historical horizons, if you’re interested in the British Empire:

The recently released EmpireLand by Sathnam Sanghera is a great introduction to the concept of empire from a modern perspective. It is in many ways a straightforward rebuttal of the equally fascinating Empire by Niall Ferguson. While Ferguson’s history is, according to Sanghera, the “history of the balance sheet”, Sanghera’s is a much more personal and nuanced consideration of the impact of empire on everyone within it.

For a different route into the topic, Jeremy Paxman’s Black Gold is a brilliant account of the role of coal in the economy and lives of the British people. It considers the methods of extraction; the toll taken on the miners’ themselves and takes the reader through the hopeless but determined attempt to save the industry. If you are studying twentieth century Britain this is an excellent way to see the post-war concensus in action. It quotes widely from Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier which is another great text well worth reading if you are interested in the experiences of the working classes in the early part of the twentieth century.

Continuing into the twentieth century, I can’t recommend enough Sam Sevlon’s novel The Lonely Londoners which is a romantic and heartbreaking account of Windrush migrants trying to find a place for themselves in London.

Finally, if you want to see the human cost of the Empire and the impact on its colonies, do watch Richard Attenborough’s masterful film Gandhi which tells the story of Gandhi himself and, in so doing, tells the story of India’s independence and partition. It’s a long film but utterly beautiful and compellingly told.

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