Natalie Solent

Politics, news, libertarianism, Science Fiction, religion, sewing. You got a problem, bud? I like sewing.

E-mail: nataliesolent-at-aol-dot-com (I assume it's OK to quote senders by name.)

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Friday, January 07, 2005
Talking of Alexander the Great... the book review I am about to present to you is slightly odd and has a slightly odd history. The Libertarian Alliance used to have a journal, originally on paper, latterly online, called Free Life, edited by Sean Gabb. I don't think a copy has gone out since late 2003, but that doesn't necessarily mean it has died just that Mr Gabb (always most affable to me despite some political disagreements) is short of time again. He often is. That's part of the story. Anyway Free Life ran book reviews. The books concerned didn't have to be recently issued, just books, or bundles of books, you'd read and wanted to write about. The general tone was such that it seemed entirely appropriate and sensible for me to combine a review of Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel with reviews of the Ladybird book of Alexander the Great and the Ladybird Book of Puppies and Kittens.

Google, I love you and want to bear your children.

My review was accepted but never appeared. Sean Gabb moved house and lost it. (It was on actual paper.) I gently reminded him of its existence via a post on the Libertarian Alliance Forum - quite a funny post actually. Oh yes, he said, send it in again. I did but... look, I don't hold this against him. No one with my record on email can afford to hold this sort of thing against anyone. He forgot again. So I reminded him again... on September 11, 2001.

For some reason it never got dealt with. Poor thing, I guess it will never have a better opportunity than this to see the world. So -

‘A Ladybird “Adventure from History” Book: Alexander the Great’
L. Du. Garde Peach, pub. Wills & Hepworth, 1963. 50pp. (Out of print.) Price 2’6 or 12p

‘Puppies and Kittens: A Ladybird Learning To Read Book’
M.E. Gagg, pub. Wills & Hepworth, 1956, 50pp. (Out of print.) Price unknown, due to a big black scribble probably put there circa 1971 by my brother, also guilty of numerous similar crimes.

‘Guns, Germs and Steel: A Short History of Everybody for the Last 13,000 Years’
Jared Diamond, pub. Vintage, 1998. 480pp. Price £8.90. ISBN 0-09-930278-0

SOME SMALL AND LOVEABLE comments on world unification may have crept into this review to share the warmth under the blanket of prose. But there's no denying that it is Puppies and Kittens, and its formative influence on my life and thought, that I really want to address.

First, A Ladybird 'Adventure from History' Book: Alexander the Great. I loved this book once. Once? No, I love it still. First there is the map on both inside covers tracing the great man’s absurdly convoluted campaigns through such intestinally named places as Bactria, Sogdiana and Ecbatana. Then there are the pictures, by John Kenney. These are full colour and classically composed. Alexander, the weary conqueror, proudly slumps in a manner perfected by James Dean, as two Egyptian priests bounce their foreheads on the dust to greet him as the son of Ammon. Boy, when I was little I sure knew what I meant by “Ladybird pictures.” (Indeed, let us not forget that Ladybird also gave us H. Wooley’s illustrations for Puppies and Kittens, including the unforgettable This Kitten Wants Some Dinner and the eerily disturbing This Puppy Has Broken the Doll.) In the current climate of political correctness it would be easy to mock some of the visual conventions unthinkingly used by the artist nearly four decades ago. And since it is easy, I shall do it. Alexander is prettily delineated from the surrounding black-haired minions and victims by giving him an improbable mop of blond hair. Jesus, if we are to believe the contemporaneous Ladybird Bible Stories, used the same hair colourist.

Turning to the text, I can just about remember nodding my eight year-old head wisely as I read this passage:

To make it easier for the peoples of different countries to trade together, Alexander issued money which was to be used everywhere. The only place which was still to be allowed to mint its own money was Babylon. Unfortunately, when Alexander died, each country went back to its own coinage. Trade between countries would be much simpler to-day if we used the same money all over the world.

So the Rastas had it right, mon! Britain is Babylon. I do in fact concede that trade would be simpler, but perhaps some of the consequent changes in a world that really had been welded into one empire might be less to our liking. London might have been named after Alexander’s dead pet rabbit, for a start, given that he really did name Bucephala after his dead horse, and indeed founded it on the very spot where said horse expired. Incidentally, what is the status of Bucephala now? Not exactly your world class metropolis, is it? I don’t even know if its in Pakistan, India or Afghanistan. Let us observe the futility of grand gestures and town planning and move on. I don’t think my eight-year old self raised any objection to this:

This had been Alexander’s great ambition, to unite all the different races of his new great empire into one people. As he had now conquered the whole of the known world, this meant he was trying to create a world state, in place of a number of countries, small and large, all competing and fighting with one another. This was a great design, but unfortunately Alexander did not succeed in achieving it.

However just possibly, dredging the swamp of memory, I may have been a little worried by this:

At this banquet Alexander made a great speech in which he prayed that all the peoples of the world might live together happily and peacefully.

One has to admire his timing. He might so easily have prayed that all the peoples of the world would live together in peace before he embarked on a military campaign of universal conquest, and then where would he have been? Alexander the Nice But Not Famous? It’s like St Augustine’s prayer that he might be made chaste and continent, only not yet. St Augustine was joking.

Now, I’m not eight any more. I can read grown-up books. They tell me that Alexander was not always a “wise and just ruler of men”. In a drunken rage he murdered his friend Cleitus (who had saved his life at the battle of the river Granacus seven years earlier) because Cleitus objected to the new practice for royal audiences. The new rule, copied from the custom of Persia, and no doubt billed as a merely technical modernisation, was called proskynesis. (Spellcheck that, baby!) It meant you had to approach Alexander crawling on your belly. To be fair to Alexander, once he had sobered up and realised what he had done, he was very sorry that he had killed Cleitus. So sorry that he hid in his tent for three days, until his army stopped worrying which one of them he would stab next and started to worry that he might stab himself and leave them stranded among enemies. They then begged him to come out and lead them again. Which he did, while leaving the proskynesis rule in place. Mr Blair should take note.

Alexander wasn’t all bad. He was brave, obviously. Having established what you might call a Bill Gates brand name in the war & world conquest field, his head was less turned by deification than many Roman heads were. He repudiated rape and pederasty. He was comparatively merciful to those he conquered, except when he wasn’t, as at Thebes. It is likely that really was mind-blowingly good looking.

In fact, given the great wall of incomprehension that divides us from the ancients, I shall leave off insulting Alexander and admit what really bugs me is the convention, as strong now as when I first thrilled to that book, that the correct direction of history is towards political unity, and that we would all be better off if we had it.

No, we wouldn’t. Stuff the “this was a great design but unfortunately Alexander did not succeed in achieving it” bit. If he had achieved it, his descendants, biological and cultural, would be poorer, more ignorant and probably ruled by China. Now, I don’t care what genes the rulers of the world have. (I’d rather have no rulers, thank you very much, but they seem to have left that option off the ballot paper.) I do care that such ideas as liberty and scientific inquiry have survived and flourished into our time. One major reason that the modern dominant class may share some of Alexander’s genes and certainly do share some of his Greek political vocabulary is precisely that Alexander’s empire did break up.

Which takes us to the third book I mentioned, Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel. It asks the question “why are the white races on top of the heap right now?” and gives, after peeling away onion layers of technology, sociology, epidemiology, agriculture, biodiversity and evolution, the answer “because the major axis of Europe runs from east to west, not north to south like the other continents.” Yes, really. Makes a good (if not utterly watertight) case for it, too.

Along the way he writes some dreadful statist tush such as (on p.287) “Goods in excess of an individual’s needs must be transferred from the individual to a centralized authority, which then redistributes the goods to individuals with deficits.” To which I say, This kitten knows about shops.

That little oversight is not typical. Among the many subjects Jared Diamond really does know something about, I will home in for the purposes of this article on just one: the way “each society on a continent represents one more opportunity to invent and adopt a technology, because societies vary greatly in their innovativeness for many separate reasons.” He discusses (on pages 412 –417) the fact that, because China was a unified empire, just one lousy decision, the result of a forgotten power struggle between two court factions, was enough to scrap China’s ocean–going fleets. Contrast that with the way that Columbus, living in a Europe of competing nations, could importune king after king until he hit on someone to back his voyage over the ocean.

Diamond writes:

“Europe’s barriers were sufficient to prevent political unification, but insufficient to halt the spread of technology and ideas. There has never been one despot who could turn off the tap for all of Europe, as of China.”

“The real problem in understanding China’s loss of political and technological pre-eminence to Europe is to understand China’s chronic unity and Europe’s chronic disunity.”

I fell in love with that one insouciant phrase, “chronic unity”. It turns on their heads a hundred Ladybird books, a thousand editions of Blue Peter and a million billion trillion historicist books and newspaper columns.

Yet my Ladybird Alexander cannot be wholly blamed for being of its time. After all in 1963 world unity still looked like the leading horse. The UN was considered an important organisation. The European Economic Community looked like a really neat idea.

Some attitudes really were different, though. Ah me, who today would dare produce, reckless of animal welfare inspectors, that sublime union of text and image, that all-time favourite of me, my sister, my brother (he of the scribble), my husband (despite pretending to be a grown up), my daughter and my son? I refer, of course, to This Kitten Is In A Sock. The sock concerned is suspended from a washing line on wooden pegs. There is a kitten in it. It is not, alas, possible to convince oneself that the kitten got there entirely of its own free will. Nonetheless, our feline friend (look, it doesn’t look actively uncomfortable, OK?) stares stoically out at a chaotic world. Long may it remain so. The world remain chaotic, I mean, not the kitten remain in the sock.

Death to all empires!
Goodnight kittens.
Goodnight puppies.