I was a history buff when I was a kid. World War 2 came first, of course. Troops, tanks and planes rampaged across my television, not only in dramas like The Longest Day and Battle of the Bulge but in countless documentaries narrated by deep-voiced Americans. In school, meanwhile, I held books on my knees and studied HMS Prince of Wales or the BL 8-inch howitzer.
My interests were broad, though. The books of authors like Michael Morpurgo transported me back to the lands of Roman soldiers, British tribesmen and Native Americans. Computer games of choice, of course, were Age of Empires. My mother was not a fan – she walked into the living room while I telling a sibling, “There’s a monk! Kill it!” – but I loved to immerse myself in the worlds of yesterday. She consoled herself with the thought that I would grow up to become a history professor.
Then came secondary school, and my enthusiasm for the subject was buried underneath mounds of sheets. I am not sure what we studied but I do recall that it came in the form of endless pieces of loose leaf paper. I am not sure how history should be taught in schools but it should not be in this forest-depleting style. It appealed to the imagination about as much as a wet weekend in Slough.
As this blog’s excursions into Leninist Russia, post-war Japan and the Belgian Congo prove, however, I can still be gripped by tales of bygone societies. Few books have recaptured the feelings of my childhood, though, as much as Tom Holland’s In the Shadow of the Sword. I bought it under the vague assumption that it was devoted to Islam. His revisionist approach to the origins of the Muslim faith represents the most controversial aspect of his book and praiseful or disapproving commentaries on these sections dominated its reviews.
About the claims regarding Mohammad, his teachings and his followers I reserve judgement. To stimulate discussion on such politically contentious subject is laudable but his arguments are so contentious in themselves that I have no wish to draw hasty conclusions. The chapters up to the emergence of the Muslims, though, are worth the price of admission before the main event has started. Its reviewers have done the book a disservice. It is a broad account of the rise of monotheism – guiding the reader through different places, ages, cultures. One might say that I went for the Islam and stayed for the shahs, the Zoroastrians, the Romans, the Jews, the Christians and the idolatrous Arabs.
The upheaval within these empires, and the conflicts between them, are portrayed in prose so rich and evocative that one almost hears the squeals of horses and the howls of kings; smells the incense in the temples; tastes the dryness of the sands. Its academic value I leave for others to assess but as a work to inspire the imagination and provoke one’s curiosity it is a fine success. This, of course, is and should not be enough to satisfy historians of the students. The facts are considerably more important than the fun. To sift through the details, though, people have to care about them, and to help people to care represents a good start.
James Palmer’s The Death of Mao tells of the consequences of two forces of chaos: one of nature; the other of man. The first is the Tanshang earthquake, which tore through Hebei as Mao was lying on his deathbed and took a quarter of a million people to graves of dust and stone. The second is Maoism, which spawned mob violence, famine and institutional dysfunctional and left tens of millions of people. Palmer’s book is of great relevance in its clear recounting of the ploys, the blunders and the flukes by which the more liberal Deng Xiaoping triumphed over the brutal ultraleftists of the Gang of Four after Mao’s death. His elegant prose also conveys the ruin and the waste of the destruction of lives, homes and infrastructure by forces of relentless upheaval, be it an earthquake or a band of the Red Guards.
David Walsh’s Seven Deadly Sins and Tyler Hamilton and Daniel Coyle’s The Secret Race tell different stories of the intricate conspiracy that was the Tour de France (and, yes, I use the past tense with reservations). One is told from the outside, by an investigator, and one from within, by an ashamed conspirator. The feats of deception portrayed in Hamilton’s book, and the accounts of dogged inquiry in Walsh’s, should appeal to anyone who is drawn to the thriller genre, while their differing depictions of the world of bikes and drugs are richly informative. (I had not known, for example – as obvious as it should have been – that EPO affects people in very different ways, which makes my claim that had Armstrong promptly ‘fessed up to his cheating he could still be thought of as the greatest of the time somewhat dubious.) They are most effective, though, in portraying the evils not of doping but of lying: of the rot that spreads through one’s soul and life as one tells mistruths, and of the people who can fall victim to their preservation. The abiding images are not so much Hamilton and Armstrong lying in hotel beds, being subjected to blood transfusions, or standing on the podium on the Champs-Élysées, but of a son telling the parents who had raised him to be honest that their pride in him had been fraudulent, and of a masseuse being harrassed along with her MS-suffering boyfriend for being so audacious as to tell the truth.