the guardian Fri 17 October 2008
The true symbol of the British empire is the moustache, says Piers Brendon in this lively history, reaching its "apotheosis in the crossed scimitars of Lord Kitchener". The last British prime minister to sport a tache was Macmillan ("Dorothy Macmillan also had a faint moustache," observes Brendon). But the moustache vanished as rapidly as the empire itself, becoming at best a joke (Chaplin), at worst a symbol of villainy (Hitler/Stalin). This extended riff on facial hair is a good example of Brendon's irreverence, but if his default mode is to debunk, there is serious scholarship behind the jokes. The British empire was inspired by the loss of the American colonies, says Brendon (the book starts with the British defeat at Yorktown in 1781) and it ended with the Hong Kong handover of 1997. The British saw themselves as the "spiritual heirs of Rome", which gave them abundant confidence, but also made them anxious: would their empire decline and fall? In the end the simple rule that brings down all empires came into play: occupiers are never welcome.