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Tom Holland and Dominic Sandbrook

The Rest is History

"1066 And All That" published nearly a century ago, demonstrated that history can be fun. Sellar and Yeatman delighted in debunking the solemn certainties of the past, in showing that there is more to history than dusty archives, soporific biographies and the hushed rustle of the college li-brary.

Tom Holland and Dominic Sandbrook have for the last three years presented "The Rest Is History" podcast in much the same spirit, proving to them that, as Holland puts it, ‘that the fascination of the past is infinite.’ They are both well-regarded historians, albeit of strikingly different periods: Holland’s books have ranged between ancient and early medieval history whereas Sandbrook is best known for his social histories of Britain since the 1950s. This book is a distillation of the pod-cast.

"The Rest Is History" (the book) is bite-sized history – a series of short essays, lists, games and his-torical riffs, for the most part determinedly lighthearted in tone and full of arch jokes. It is not, I’d say, a book to be read from cover to cover, rather a bedside book or loo reading, to be dipped into at random. On one view, it’s a giant repository of historical trivia but it does also contain some thought-provoking material, for example, the article on conspiracy theories or the piece about the anti-Nazi resistance group The White Rose. There is also an excellent parody of Dan Brown’s "The Da Vinci Code" which captures perfectly the crass idiocy of the original.

Holland and Sandbrook have a roving eye which alights on a dazzling array of subjects: Babylon, the ancient Persians, Nero, Alfred the Great, Robin Hood, the Ashanti, the Battle of Trafalgar, the American Wild West, Jeremy Thorpe, Watergate and the mystery of Somerton Man to name but a few. Some of the pieces are cast in the image of popular TV culture: the Tudors are reimagined as a spin-off of "Succession" (in which the authors get their dates rather muddled) and the Vikings as an early iteration of "Mamma Mia!". The authors manage to shoehorn "Love Island" into the act by way of a bizarre interview between two imaginary winners of the show, Stanley Baldwin, the early 20th century British Prime Minister and the ancient Byzantine empress Theodora.

Likewise, the authors are unable to resist the laddish allure of extended football analogies: thus we have a Prime Ministers’ World Cup, a World Cup of Kings and Queens and one of the Gods for good measure. There are a good few lists: ‘Top 10 Eunuchs in History’, ‘Top 10 Dogs in History’, ‘Top Twelve Australian Prime Ministers’, ‘Top Five French Presidents of the Fifth Republic’ and so on.

"The Rest Is History" would be a terrific Christmas present for any history buff - teenage or older – providing hours of amusement and, along the way, increasing their fund of historical knowledge. The authors clearly understand that anything that popularises history and disseminates historical knowledge is, as Sellar and Yeatman might have said, a Good Thing

Richard Hopton


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