Happy New Year!
This year, I resolve to work on my distractability.
I spent the last few months of 2015 reading a fair bit, and as usual, I read some fiction, some non-fiction.
But this year, it was the non-fiction that resonated.
In 2015 I read 2.75 books by Tom Holland, whose Persian Fire and Rubicon I read a few years back. Tom is my equal third favourite writer of history/archaeology – equal with Peter Ackroyd who mainly writes about London. (My second favourite is Francis Pryor, because not only are his books interesting but he uses them to settles scores with people/authorities/laws/countries he disagrees with, and my favourite is Paul Blinkhorn, who, though I’ve never read an actual book he’s written, writes a dozen interesting things a week on Facebook. Paul was also far and away the coolest guy on Time Team, pulling up on a motorbike to look at something that looks like a pebble to you or I, pronounce “yes, a fragment of a Samian-ware pot from the year 499AD give or take six months, probably used to store olive oil and bought to the UK by a one-armed Greek Hoplite called Spiro” before riding off into the gloomy English sunset.
Anyway, back to Mr Holland. This year I read “Millennium”, which is not about partying like it’s 1999, but, as the subtitle suggests (“The End of the World and the Forging of Christendom” ) is about the period 900AD to 1100AD, give or take a bit. A lot of it is about the Investiture Controversy, which really paved the way for the modern concept of the separation of church and state.
Incidentally, in the book he makes the point that followers of Islam never had a similar event, and so the separation concepts is alien in that religion. (Australian ex-Prime Minster Tony Abbot said exactly the same thing later in 2015, and got attacked by the Australian Human Rights commission for being ‘racist’. Tone and The AHRC have never played nicely together, though).
What struck me about that book was how many people met a gruesome end in it. The separation of church and state is a fine ideal, but it was born of much stabbing. It’s a bit like democracy: we have this romantic notion of Ancient Greeks sitting about discussing philosophy, but democracy was also born at the sharp end of a sword.
So, there’s my theme, if you missed it. Read a book and the reality in your head changes.
I also read Holland’s “Dynasty” which covered the five first Roman Emperors (Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero). We all know things about them, most notably that Nero fiddled while Rome burned (not true) whereas there are many more interesting things that are true. (e.g. Caligula got his nickname at a military camp at 4 years old when his parents dressed him as a tiny soldier – Caligula translates as “Military Bootikins”, several female members of the dynasty had a passion for dwarves, Claudius dribbled a lot).
Only my unshakeable belief that Captain James Tiberius Kirk of the USS Enterprise got his middle name from a Roman Emperor remained unscathed.
I’m now onto Holland’s “In The Shadow of The Sword” which challenges the notion that the Qu’ran was created ‘as is’ from nowhere, by showing the other sources it was drawn from. Again, reality is being impinged upon, most notably the history of the Samaritans. Turns out the Samaritans were bloodthirsty terrorists capable of appalling atrocities. So the biblical parable of the Good Samaritan, which seems to be interpreted these days as implying that Samaritans were lovely guys, is really about a bloke who went against type. Since I know my audience here is tea drinkers, and therefore almost entirely sci-fi fans, I humbly* submit if it was rewritten as “The Good Dalek” it would be a more accurate portrayal of the main points Jesus was reportedly sharing..
Prior to that, I read a book about the origins of Nursery Rhymes, and for me, that really altered my reality. In particular, Humpty Dumpty.
It seems that ever since Lewis Carroll decided to publish just the last verse of the poem within Through The Looking Glass, and his illustrator drew Humpty as an egg, well, Humpty has been an egg. But it seems, that if you read all three verses that’s just plain wrong.
In sixteen hundred and forty-eight
When England suffered pains of state
The Roundheads laid siege to Colchester town
Where the King’s men still fought for the crown.
There one-eyed Thompson stood on the wall
A gunner with the deadliest aim of all
From St Mary’s tower the cannon he fired
Humpty Dumpty was his name.
Humpty Dumpty sat on the wall
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall
All the King’s horses and all the King’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty together again!
Yes, a cannon, not an egg. It got blown off the wall, and with it, King Charlie’s chances.
So, is there a point here? Yes there is:
Reading alters your reality. And little side notes are often the most illuminating.When I read, I often sip tea.
So, if you thought my resolution was to work on my distractability in some vain effort to “fix’ it, think again.
I’m going to embrace distraction in 2016, drink a lot of tea and… look, is that a squirrel?
*’humbly’ is just one of those words writers use. Feel free to snigger when I use it.