The world in your pocket

17th September 2004 at 01:00
A condensed guide to the story of humanity delivers exactly what it says on the cover, writes Sean Lang

A Very Short History of the World

By Geoffrey Blainey

Penguin pound;10

The whole history of the world for a tenner - at least that tiny part of its history during which human beings have populated it - has to be a bargain. A Very Short History of the World is an abridged version of Blainey's earlier Short History of the World, which raises the intriguing image of him gradually refining these books until they reach A Little Book of Calm proportions. It's a remarkable achievement to put all of human history into a book that will fit into the pocket; Blainey has produced a remarkable work of condensed erudition.

Blainey is not the first to tackle the history of the world. Sir Waler Raleigh started one, though he needed something to keep him occupied in the Tower. More recently, the late John Roberts published his own History of the World with Penguin in the 1970s. Roberts was an unashamed believer that world history demonstrated the triumphant rise of Western values and Western technology; he went on to make a successful television series, The Triumph of the West.

By contrast, Felipe Fern ndez-Armesto welcomed the third millennium with a less conventional one-volume global history of the past 1,000 years from a decidedly non-Western perspective, giving heavy prominence to African and Asian history, and the French Revolution only a passing reference.

This highlights the dilemma facing anyone who wants to write a history of the world: it's one thing to sweep over the centuries, but how do you ensure that your world history is world history? For the early centuries the various parts of the world had such limited contact with each other that it is debatable whether there is such a thing as a single world history. Once the Europeans start sailing to other continents - Blainey is at one with Roberts in seeing this as the pivotal moment in global history - the many regional stories become so intertwined that it is difficult to separate them, and it is easy to fall into the trap of telling the story of the West with occasional guest appearances by the rest of the world.

As an Australian who has written a history of Aboriginal Australia, Blainey is better placed than many Western academics to put Western history in its wider context. He begins well. The familiar tales of early civilisation in the Indus Valley and Mesopotamia are nicely balanced by the less familiar story of how people set out across the Pacific from Asia in their outriggers and populated the islands of Polynesia and New Guinea. The reason the language on Madagascar bears no relation to any African languages, even though the island appears to "belong" to east Africa, is that it was settled by people from Indonesia.

The striking modern parallels Blainey employs to put across the magnitude of past events often have an Australian touch that British readers will need a moment to think about. The Great Wall of China would still have equalled a wall built across Australia at its widest point, going east to west. But he can also bring his imagery to (our) home. To comprehend the Europeans' conquering of imperial China in the 19th century, imagine the 15th-century Chinese sending Buddhist missionaries to Dublin, operating the customs houses of Hamburg and Constantinople, and threatening to partition Europe if the Europeans did not sort themselves out.

It is clear that Blainey is setting out to give the non-Western world its due. He goes into detail on Aztecs and Incas, pointing out the scale of their achievement in constructing empires, roads and temples in the geography of central America and the Andes. He draws a rare lyrical individual portrait of the Aztec emperor Montezuma II, describing his "dark features and aquiline nose and courtesy and eloquence". He admires the Mongols, noting the prominent role they accorded to women. They were the first to bring order to the silk road, which didn't just carry silk: female slaves were brought along it and sold in the market in Florence. Not that prominent, then.

He points out that Islam is a puzzle to the West, which has long seen it as a rural faith whereas it arose and flourished in the cities.

The kingdoms of Africa don't feature much, nor do South America or the Caribbean once the Spaniards have conquered them. It is noticeable that once the Europeans have started to trade around the world, they come to dominate the narrative. By the time we hit the 19th and 20th centuries, this starts to read more like a traditional history of Europe. How much does that matter? That depends on the nature of Blainey's readership. He clearly has a general, non-academic reader in sight: there are no footnotes and only 11 titles for further reading; if you want more you have to go to his earlier book. His tone is easy without becoming chatty, in the style of the new "history-lite" genre.

This is a fine style for a first reading, but it can make the book difficult to navigate as a work of reference. The section headings are eye-catching but give little away. You know what to expect with "The Mongols are coming!" but "A supermarket crosses the Atlantic" and "The bottles of equality" had me foxed. (The first is about new influences on cultivation and diet arising from European settlement in North America; the second is about anti-semitism.) There are no pictures, presumably for reasons of space, and the few maps are dull. Oddly, for a history of the world, only one map is of the world, and that shows the rising of the seas and the formation of the continents.

How well suited is it to schools? At a time when the biggest criticism of school history is that it is too narrow, an easy-to-read survey of world history has to be welcome. It should be in the school library, and it would make good extension reading to broaden the horizons of A-level or bright GCSE students, but it will enlighten many others who are not studying history in any formal way. Even allowing for its increasingly Western focus - probably inevitable - it helps put familiar events into a wider context.

Covering the war years in a couple of pages helps to focus on the essentials, and makes it much easier to carry the story forward to the new global conflict over the future of the environment, and to the possibilities - for good or ill - of a world government.

But Blainey is at his best when he leaves the politics and the rise and fall of civilisations behind him and focuses on the smaller but just as significant aspects of human life. So we get a consideration of the carrying power of the human voice before microphones, or on the marvel of people confronted with the first clocks. Linen cloth was so important in the 17th century that a linen bleaching field features in one of Rembrandt's paintings. There are unusual tide patterns in the Red Sea that could have allowed the Israelites to get away and then drowned the Egyptians.

Above all, with his heart in the outback, Blainey considers our changing relationship with the sky, especially the night sky, from its domination of the old religions - a star over Bethlehem and a crescent moon on the flag of the Prophet - to the world of the 247 superstore, which has virtually abolished night, and the seasons. Where once the year was punctuated by changing types of work, now we mark the passage of the seasons by changing types of leisure - Christmas trees in winter, Wimbledon in the summer. We don't even need our arms and legs as much as we used to: our technology is literally at our fingertips. The world has got much smaller, and this history has followed suit.

Se n Lang is research fellow in history at Anglia Polytechnic University and honorary secretary of the Historical Association

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