Andrew Marr’s History of the World – a (belated) review

22 Oct

Almost exactly a year ago, I wrote a review of Andrew Marr’s A History of the World which ended up not seeing the light of day. I felt it was a bit of a shame to leave it at that, so I reproduce it below as it was written the first time around. Thoughts and comments, as ever, very welcome.  

***

Andrew Marr, A History of the World. Macmillan, 2012. 614 pp, £25 

The art historian Ernst Gombrich, in his global history for children, wrote that ‘The history of the world is, sadly, not a pretty poem. It offers little variety, and it is nearly always the unpleasant things that are repeated, over and over again.’ Any author hoping to take on so vast a story is faced with some pressing questions: whose stories to tell? Whose world to portray? And in these days of information overload, one question poses itself ever more urgently: is a history of the world something we can still try to write? 

These questions animate Andrew Marr’s new book, a companion piece to his BBC television series on our planet’s history, from creation to the computer. He acknowledges bluntly that ‘Writing a history of the world is a ridiculous thing to do’, but argues that ‘[the] case for doing it, and for reading it, is that not having a sense of world history is even more ridiculous’. This ‘sense’ of history, for Marr, is grounded in narrative, and the narrative he chooses is a traditional one. He offers no apologies for choosing ‘a kind of history-writing that is currently very unfashionable, the ‘great man/great woman’ school of history, albeit twisted into new shapes by environmental, economic and social histories.’

There’s already a tension here, between the great men – some of whom, Marr hastens to add, have been among ‘the biggest bastards alive’ – and these other histories, tacked on at the end. Of course we can’t understand some great changes in history without learning about Jesus, say, or Tamerlane, or Henry Ford. These figures have been at the heart of historical narrative for generations. But what to do when the actions of individuals are so frequently dwarfed by the vagaries of the natural world? In these pages, we see the sudden cooling of the earth after 200 AD, which led to famines, plagues, migration, and upheaval in the Roman Empire and in Han China, neither of which would survive the end of the warmer days intact. It was not a pope or emperor but the Black Death which utterly recast European society on the eve of the Renaissance. Marr’s narrative even gives the last word not to the computer, but to climate change – the result of myriad developments in economy and society which are nigh-on impossible to trace back to any one of the greats.

It would be absurd to expect any history of the world to provide whole new swathes of source material: instead, Marr’s aim is to provide a synthesis that draws together specialist work into a larger narrative structure. Where a book like this can innovate is in the way its story is put across – great works of historical synthesis can make us question the grand narratives we grew up accepting. They can make the familiar strange. Unfortunately, Marr’s history baulks at a rethink on this scale, instead peppering familiar tales of empires and religions vying for supremacy with some less familiar material – the fourteenth-century African empire of Mansa Musa, for example, or the bloodthirsty conquests and sudden Buddhist conversion of the emperor Ashoka in India. There are details here that will delight –  the Roman army covering pigs in fat, setting them on fire, and driving them at the enemy, to frighten their elephants; the Dutch seaman turned Muslim pirate who raided Cork and Reykjavik, and whose descendants reportedly included a handful of Churchills, Humphrey Bogart, and JFK. Unsurprisingly for a journalist whose historical output has included histories of Britain in the twentieth century, Marr is at his very best in the recent past. Here, far more comfortable with the sources and narratives than he is in, say, the middle ages; the journalist’s sharp analysis and questioning of accepted wisdom shines through.

One great problem faced by Marr’s book – and one he openly recognises – is that, as a global narrative, it can’t help but be compared to Neil MacGregor’s magisterial History of the World in 100 Objects. This combined radio series, website, and book used materials from the British Museum to present a history that was radically decentred, wrested away from kings and councillors, and placed in the hands of craftspeople, of factory workers, of tailors, hunters, soldiers, and thieves. It presented a view of history at one remove from Marr’s ‘characters, dates, actions’; and its parade of things, from stone tools to credit cards, suggested beguiling and affecting answers to that most basic of historical questions – what was it really like?

There are moments here when you sense that Marr might have written a totally different book. One paragraph offers a potted history of methods of contraception, from wet tea-leaves and sheep-gut condoms to the pill. Another gripping segment pans away from the majesty of ancient Egyptian royal power to consider the places inhabited by the pharaohs’ craftsmen and their families – still preserved, complete with the funeral monuments these pyramid-builders erected for themselves. Their writings, surviving on pottery shards, ‘record popular stories, legal complaints, love poems, books of dreams, gossip, feuds, wise sayings, the angry disinheriting of children by a woman who feels they did not look after her well enough in her old age, laundry lists, problems with defective donkeys, and even a cure for piles’. Marr argues in the introduction that ‘History is about change, and it makes sense to concentrate on the biggest change-makers’, but the spectre of MacGregor and his hundred objects looms large over this work, always making the reader ask whether this narrative, leaping from Genghis to Gandhi to Gorbachev, but rarely looking too far beyond them, is really the most revealing one there is. 

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