Posts tagged ‘The Birth of History’

Jul 1, 2021

Books on a shelf: a random miscellany blog number 6 – Facts, facts, big balloon, hard times, Ibn Khaldun to Charles Dickens

Books on a shelf Week 6

Hullo again. I have four books for you this time around. Next up along the shelf is Yves Lacoste’s Ibn Khaldun: The birth of History and The Past of the Third World.

Ibn Khaldun was an eminent Arab historian born into a wealthy Andalusian family in Tunis in 1332. He died in Cairo in 1406 and between these two dates he was an eminent diplomat, a distinguished soldier during a period of near-incessant wars and one of the greatest thinkers the world has ever known. Never heard of him? You’re not alone. We in the west inhabit a strange cocoon existence blissfully ignorant of so much that is important in terms of people, events and inventions outside of our cocoon – assuming whoever is out there simply isn’t as smart as us.

Who hasn’t heard of sociology – the study of society? No-one reading this, I would guess. And the person behind sociology was? … the French philosopher Comte is frequently named as the mind behind the social science but while he never used the term, sociology, it was the diplomat and soldier, Khaldun, whose work on civilisation and economics who created the groundwork for sociology a long time before Comte.

It has also been said of Ibn Khaldun that he was the father of History with a capital H. While his interests were mainly confined to North Africa his influence extended way beyond there. And in any case North Africa even during Khaldun’s time was no backwater but an area where extensive trading took place that –

… stretched from the Mediterranean coast to India, China and Japan and which also took in the eastern coasts of Africa and the Western Sudan.

Christian merchants met the Maghrebian traders who brought gold across the Sahara from the Sudan.”

I should mention the author of this book on Khaldun, Yves Lacoste, a French Moroccan geographer and geopolitician. He attracted criticism from the USA for calling out its bombing campaigns intended to cause widespread flooding with subsequent civilian deaths during the Vietnam War. In this book he settles some myths about Arab invasions of the Maghreb (northwest Africa) which emerged through historians’ misreading of Khaldun’s works.  

Such was Khaldun’s reputation that Tamerlane, the fearsome 14th century Turco-Mongol nomadic conqueror and emperor, asked him to become his historiographer and adviser.

In the 14th century the greatest political entity in the world stretched from the Danube to Annam. It was made up of the various Mongol principalities that had emerged from the empire forged a century earlier by Ghenghis Khan.”

Khaldun’s adopted Egypt enjoyed great prosperity from its pivotal role in the mercantile economy that went along with widespread trade between Asia and Europe. It also had a highly productive agricultural sector.  

… the Ottoman Turks drove Byzantines and crusaders out of Asia Minor and invaded Thrace, Serbia and Bulgaria.”

We can watch that happening in Netflix’s Resurrection – Ertugrul in real-time – or so it seems.

Noyan the Mongol leader and Ertugrul the Turkish bey

The Balkans remained under Turkish rule for 400 years. A tumultuous period of great political rivalries and frequent wars to establish political states – the Mongols driven out of China by the Ming dynasty which lasted into the 17th century; in India Mongols frequently battled Turkish Muslims and Hindus; Seljukian Turks resisted repeated onslaught from the Crusaders (Mongols killed one Caliph by rolling him up in a rug and riding their horses over him for they feared if they simply bludgeoned him to death and his blood touched the earth it would be offended.)

Hard Times. I could go on. Brutal and fascinating this period certainly is. And unfamiliar to many of us. And you’ll note I confined myself to history, not sociology. And while I might dip into the book again I’m more than content to pick up my Turkish history from Resurrection – Ertugrul.

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Did I mention Hard Times? Hang on in there for first up is Charles Dickens’ The Uncommercial Traveller, The Lamplighter to be read at Dusk, Sunday under three Heads, The Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices.

Opening this fine illustrated copy from 1906 I learn it contains a collection of literary sketches and reminiscences written by Dickens between 1860 and 1861, initially for his journal, All the Year Round. They comprise the writer’s impressions of life as found on his travels locally and internationally. Here was a man with itchy feet who was constantly on the road. It opens with a hint of mystery over who the person is that is being described. It is, of course, Dickens himself.

Charles Dickens was born in 1812 in Portsmouth. During his boyhood he came to know poverty and suffering; famously his father was jailed for debt when Dickens was twelve and the child taken out of school and sent to work at a boot-blacking factory to contribute to the family’s income. The privations suffered by his own family made him sensitive to that of others – and there were plenty others in Britain in the nineteenth century.

That said and however magnificent a writer Dickens was, and he was, his works express many of the prejudices of his time. There are racist asides and assumptions that grate with today’s readers (vast majority of) as well as much that is acutely observed and pertinent. I don’t dismiss or excuse his racism on grounds that British society was so steeped in it when Dickens was alive for not everyone then was racist so he is responsible for his own bigotry but neither will I reproduce passages that I regard as offensive to all good people.

I will quote the first few lines of the book –

Allow me to introduce myself – first negatively.

No landlord is my friend and brother, no chambermaid loves me, no waiter worships me, no boots admires and envies me. No round of beef or tongue or ham is expressly cooked for me, no pigeon pie is especially made for me, no hotel-advertisement is personally addressed to me — I am both a town traveller and a country traveller, and am always on the road.”

Dickens visits a workhouse in London’s east end where he encounters –

… two old ladies in a condition of feeble dignity, which was surely the very last and lowest reduction of self-complacency to be found in this wonderful humanity of ours. They were evidently jealous of each other, and passed their whole time (as some people do, whose fires are not grated) in mentally disparaging each other, and contemptuously watching their neighbours. …they would fly at one another’s caps”

There he finds a young woman also incarcerated who is evidently depressed and who will never mix with outside society. Who will never be someone –

…who is courted, and caressed, and loved, and has a husband, and bears children, and lives in a home, and who never knows what it is to have this lashing and tearing coming upon her?”

There were many babies here, and more than one handsome young mother. There were ugly young mothers also, and sullen young mothers, and callous young mothers.”

He saw people who were forced to pick oakum.  Picking oakum involved inmates of workhouses (or prisons) splitting heavy tarry ropes, the sort used onboard wooden ships, to reclaim the oakum by hitting each strand with a heavy mallet. The oakum was then sold for caulking wooden ships, timber buildings, plumbing and so on.  

At Liverpool docks Dickens encountered Poor Mercantile Jack and the celebrated entertainer

Mr Banjo Bones, looking very hideous with his blackened face and limp sugar-loaf hat; beside him, sipping rum-and-water, Mrs Banjo Bones …”

Let’s move on.

Time and his wife from The Uncommercial Traveller

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Hard Times is set in the fictional Coketown in the north of England. This is a town where everyone is expected to work – everyone that isn’t rich that is – so that children must do their bit to add a few pennies to the abysmally low family incomes of the time. It’s not pretty and it’s not kind. This is brutal England where the very lifeblood and breath of the poor is sucked out for profit. There’s Josiah Bounderby – bumptious and lying scoundrel quick to take advantage of the vulnerable. And Gradgrind – facts, facts, Gradgrind. Hard Times – what it says on the cover is what we get.

The novel opens with my favourite Dicken’s lines that reflect the dullest of minds –

Now, what I want is, Facts.  Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts.  Facts alone are wanted in life.  Plant nothing else, and root out everything else.  You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them.  This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children.  Stick to Facts, sir!’

The speaker is Gradgrind the school board superintendent.

In this life we want nothing but facts, sir. Nothing but facts!”

Then there is Bounderby –

A man made out of a coarse material, which seemed to have been stretched to make so much of him. A man with a great puffed head and forehead, swelled veins in his temples, and such a strained skin to his face that it seemed to hold his eyes open, and lift his eyebrows up. A man with a pervading appearance on him of being inflated like a balloon, and ready to start. A man who could never sufficiently vaunt himself a self-made man. A man who was always proclaiming, through that brassy speaking-trumpet of a voice of his, his old ignorance and his old poverty. A man who was the Bully of humility.”

Tucked inside at page 51!! I found a note from my dentist – three dentists and three addresses ago, in 1994. It’s an actual written letter, begads, when patients were written to and not texted. On the back, because I don’t believe in wastage, is a phone number for Port Meirion that I can only think had something to do with arranging a visit there during my one and only Welsh holiday. You know the place where that weird TV series, The Prisoner starring Patrick McGoohan and a muckle white balloon, was set. Nowadays we employ a muckle white balloon as prime minister. And because I really don’t believe in waste on the paper is a list, quite a long list for fruit and veg. It’s so long I suspect it covered two weeks – or two months? and directions to the holding off the South Deeside Road where the organic veg box scheme was run from. And then the note became a bookmark.

The Dickens Picture Book says it all on the volume’s spine. Inside are 466 pages stuffed with 600 black and white illustrations from many familiar Dickens’ stories and characters. The author, J. A. Hammerton, a Scot, liked to create bold brushstroke narratives for publication – histories and geographies and so on. There’s also lots to read in it about all things Dickens – on the man, himself and his attitude towards his illustrators, the most famous, probably, being Boz, as well as the low-down on many Dickens’ novels.

Hammerton collaborated with Arthur Mee in producing the Children’s Encyclopedia early in the 20th century and he was behind the big-selling Harmsworth’s Universal Encyclopedia.

Harry Furniss was a hugely successful illustrator and caricaturist. Born to a Scottish mother and English father in Ireland he regarded himself as English. He contributed to the Illustrated London News, The Graphic and Punch as well as illustrating books for some of the 19th century’s major British writers, Dickens and Lewis Carroll.

Time, then, to draw this blog to a close. We’re getting there – to the end of the shelf. A couple of weeks should do it. A couple of weeks and how many more cases of government corruption? Lots and lots, I expect.What would Dickens have made of today’s Westminster bunch? A great deal – puncturing pomposity, exposing hypocrisy and sheer evil, I expect. He would have relished getting his pen stuck into them – today’s Bounderbys and Gradgrinds.

Take care till next time.