Saturday, December 31, 2005

George MacGonald Fraser - Flashman on the March

The arrival of the latest Flashman novel has always been a source of some rejoicing in this reader’s heart. Flashman, as most of you will be aware, is the coward and bully from Tom Brown’s Schooldays who proceeds to become an unwitting hero of Victorian colonialism.

Flashman takes part in most of the glorious failures and momentous victories of that era, both for the British and various other governments. He rides with the Light Brigade, is the only survivor to escape the massacre of Custer’s troops at the Little Big Horn and serves in the Indian Mutiny, at Rorke’s Drift and just about every other engagement you can think of.

The last couple of novels that George McDonald Fraser has written have dealt with some of the smaller and less obscure campaigns of that period. Somewhat frustrating for those of us who are desperate to read about Flashman’s involvement in the US civil war (he fought on both sides) or the first Sikh War.

This one deals with the little remembered expedition that Britain sent to Abyssinia in 1867, to release the British captives of King Theodore.

King Theodore was mostly described by people who came into contact with him as “mad”. But this, as Fraser points out in the short appendix is probably an unfair description. The monarch was a brutal, murderous individual, who was given to flights of fancy, split personalities, drunkenness and massacring people. But whether this is enough to get him certified is a different question.

The expedition that Britain sent out, was a classic example of the mighty forces of Britian (colonial troops did most of the fighting though) crushing an upstart ruler.

Flashman’s role is peripheral to the main fighting (just as he would prefer!), though he has a significant background part.

It’s an enjoyable read, but I fear that the obscure nature of the event itself means that the work isn’t comparable to earlier stories. On the other hand, it’s the sort of novel that will inspire others to read more about this particular period, which in an era of armies being sent abroad to quell rulers who get out of line, is not necessarily a bad thing.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Steven Mithen - After the Ice – A Global Human History 20,000 – 5,000 BC

There are many “M” words to describe this work. Here are a few that I find particularly appropriate; Magnificent, Marvellous, Monumental.

Steven Mithen has created a masterpiece, to use a fourth. His history has a huge scope (and consequently it’s a big work, but it never reads like a cumbersome book, though it often feels like it while commuting around London). Covering the period from 20,000 BC a “time of global economic equality where everyone lived as hunter-gathers in a world of extensive ice-sheets, tundra and desert” to a period where many people lived as farmers, growing sometimes wheat and barley, but just as often rice or other foodstuffs. At the end of the period, not only had farming arrived, but the domestication of animals, trade and permanent towns and villages. What had also arrived of course, was the beginnings of inequality - the next thousands of years of human society would be dominated by class divisions.

But this is beyond the scope of the work. What Mithen does, is to take the reader on an odyssey through different parts of the world – the Middle East, Europe, the Americas, Asia and Africa to show the similarities and the differences of the people who first lived there. His method for doing this, I have seen described in other reviews as “Sci-Fi” like. But this isn’t fair. He transplants a modern traveller into the past, a traveller who can interact with the physical world, yet remains unseen by the people he is sharing time and geography with. This traveller visits the different campsites, caves and villages that have since been found, picks up their tools, helps gather berries and hunt with Polar Bear or Antelope and describes what archaeologists can best imagine life was like.

At times this is tremendously fascinating. Time and again I found myself thinking – “we can’t possibly know that” about some ancient activity, only to find on the next page, Mithen explaining how we do actually know quite a bit about 10,000 year old sandals from a cave in Arizona, or how much archaeologists have found out about the precise methods for making an spear head.

Occasionally though the approach annoyed me – not least because Mithen is unwilling to let his imagination run riot too much, so we often get descriptions of our traveller leaving before finding out exactly how something happens. It seems a strange thing to do – put a traveller back in time to describe the surroundings that we know about, but remove him when we get close to describing something we don’t know about. Such are the perils of the use of time-travel in a serious work of archaeology I suppose!

Nevertheless, I recommend this book unreservedly to anyone with an interest in the far past. You will be surprised to find out exactly how much we do know, and certainly the next time you see a collection of flint knives or spearheads in a dusty cabinet in some musty museum, you’ll be able to imagine a little bit more about the complex people who made them.

Related Reviews

Mithen - The Singing Neanderthals
Mithen - To the Islands

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Ian Shaw – Ancient Egypt, a Very Short introduction

The Very Short Introduction series perform exactly what it says on the tin – they are short (this comes to 192 pages including glossary, index and other goodies) but very comprehensive. Shaw’s work has managed to cram a complex subject into a tiny book, but retain both his enthusiasm for the subject together with plenty of fascinating facts and discussions.

Shaw’s avoided trying to tell the story of ancient Egypt and spend endless pages describing pyramids, temples and mummies. Instead he concentrates almost entirely on Egyptology as a subject for Archaeologists and discusses what we know (and how what we know has changed or developed).

So for instance, in his all too brief discussion of the life of the female Pharaoh Hatshepsut he takes on the commonly held belief that she was a “pacifist” queen, pointing out that this has more to do with the perceptions of later-day historians, particularly their sexist attitudes. Similarly Shaw discusses the most famous female monarchs, Cleopatra and Nefertiti, in the context of how their images have been appropriated by everyone from Hollywood filmmakers to Black Nationalists.

So in taking the long view of ancient Egyptian history, Shaw avoids one of the major problems that archaeologists have when studying this period. This is the problem of getting “into” the Egyptian mind. There is no doubt, for instance, that the ancient Egyptians did not have the same separation between “reality” and the “supernatural”. Their world was one where humans and Gods could interact. To understand their religious writings, practices and worship means entering that mindset.

Surprisingly then, by showing how everyone from Roman historians to the Victorians and modern-day archaeologists have viewed the Egyptians, Shaw has illuminated both their world, and ours.
I can best illustrate this by quoting Shaw’s description of the work of the Victorian “enthusiast”, Piazza Smyth, who described the Pyramids using the “pyramid inch” as a unit. Smyth went on to explain that this was also the unit of measurement used by those building Noah’s ark and Moses’ tabernacle.

Shaw writes that “Since the pyramid inch was conveniently virtually the same as the British inch, it was only a small step further to suggest that all this identifies the British as the lost tribe of Israel, which neatly adds rampant Victorian imperialism to Piazzi Smyth’s bundle of influences in his ruminations on pyramids.”

Sunday, December 04, 2005

T E Lawrence - Seven Pillars of Wisdom

This famous title “ranks with the greatest books ever written in the English language”, or it is according to the quote from no less a reviewer than Sir Winston Churchill, on the back cover.

I picked it up in one of those rambling second hand bookshops, somewhere near Charing Cross road. Picked it up really, because it’s one of those titles that everyone mentions and few had read. Picked it up, because current events in the Middle East are in part determined by the region’s history and the role of colonial powers like Britain (and in this case Turkey).

So I thought this would be an illuminating read, and give an insight into an important period for the Arabic people and the culture of the tribes that Lawrence worked with. Unfortunately, far from being the book that Churchill promises us, it is little more than a boys’ own adventure story. With Lawrence (carefully using his self-deprecating style) placing himself at the centre of an epic story of pitched battles, camel treks, food shortages, gallant Arabs and a ruthless, but comically inept enemy.

There are many problems with this (not least that it goes on for 600 pages), but Lawrence lies a lot. He lies to his Arab allays about Britain’s future plans after they have kicked out the Turkish invaders. He lies to his superior officers to get his own way and I suspect he stretches the truth to his readers.

So the only real insights from this book are those given to the mindset of your average British Colonial officer. His attitude– neatly summed up near the start of the book – when he says “the lousy rags and festering skins which we knew as Arabs”. His cod philosophising – which is little more than embarrassing, and (perhaps most interesting), his (unusual for the time) acceptance of the homosexuality of many Arabs.

But I don’t want to knock this book any further. I shall leave the last word on the whole matter to Lawrence himself:

“..the falsity of the Arab position had cured me of crude ambition: while it left me my craving for good repute among men….. Here were the Arabs believing me, Allenby and Clayton [his officers] trusting me, my bodyguard dying for me: and I began to wonder if all established reputations were founded, like mine, on fraud”