A History of the World in 100 Objects – Neil MacGregor

In 2010 BBC Radio 4 ran a fascinating series where the then Director of the British Museum in London chose 99 objects from the museums collection to illustrate world history. Each object was described in its own radio programme over a period of several months and soon became addictive. By Christmas a book had been produced which not only included versions of each lecture but importantly had a really good photograph accompanying it. MacGregor had done a wonderful job describing each item for the radio but the inclusion of pictures completed the project.

20190730 A History of the World 1

The book is over seven hundred pages long to cover properly the 100 objects in the series and has an excellent index and bibliography which alone makes the book an invaluable companion to the series. The 100th object was chosen by MacGregor from suggestions by listeners to represent the modern day and was purchased by the museum to complete the collection. Fortunately both the BBC and the British Museum regard this as a milestone project so all 100 episodes are still available as downloadable podcasts from this BBC site. The museum also maintains a series of web pages dedicated to the project including a programme by programme set of pages which also tell you where the object can be found in the museum if it is currently on display (at the time of writing 21 of the 100 objects are not in a museum gallery).

20190730 A History of the World 2

The above mosaic shows all 100 objects and as you would probably guess this is not a book you can really just sit and read. Not only from its sheer length, but also from the way it was created from 100 separate lectures which were never intended to be listened to one after an other although it does make sense to hear or read them in sequence. Having loved the series from its inception I of course bought the book when it came out but still I tend to listen to Neil when I want to delve into the series, preferably with the book to hand so that I can admire the object as he talks about it.

We start with the mummy case of Hornedjitef and end with a Chinese made solar lamp and charger but I’m just going to pick out five of my favourites:-

  • 12 – Standard of Ur – A truly beautiful object which nobody knows what it was used for. It is inlaid with a mosaic of people coming to pay their taxes to the king so is clearly a demonstration of his power.
  • 17 – Rhind Mathematical Papyrus – Basically a primer in ‘all the mathematics that you need’ in order to work in the Egyptian civil service. How such a document came to survive the centuries is a miracle. I have a book on ancient Egyptian mathematics, maybe I should review that sometime?

  • 47 – Sutton Hoo Helmet – It was reading about the Sutton Hoo discoveries as a child that first gave me an interest in archaeology and history.
  • 76 – The Mechanical Galleon – It was this object that really made me want this book, listening to Neil’s description of this marvellously intricate device made me want to see it and there is a wonderful close up image of the stern with the beautifully detailed figures standing there.
  • 91 – Ships Chronometer from HMS Beagle – One of twenty two carried on the famous voyage where Charles Darwin was inspired in his great work on evolution. The chronometers were used to determine longitude and led to the first truly accurate maps of South America.

So this short article before I hit my planned August reading marathon for this year is yes a suggestion that you should obtain and read the book but really  a big hint to check out the podcasts available via the links I have included and enjoy a master at work.

Under the Frog – Tibor Fischer

a béka segge alatt

translation from Hungarian
Under the frogs arse – which indicates that things are really bad

20190723 Under the Frog

November 1955

It was true that at the age of twenty-five he had never left the country, that he had never got more than three days march from his birthplace, no more than a day and a half of horse and carting or one long afternoon’s locomoting. On the other hand, Gyuri mused, how many people could say they had travelled the length and breadth of Hungary naked?

The opening paragraph of Under the Frog  raises a few questions. I first read the book whilst working in Hungary in 1995 just six years after the fall of the Iron Curtain, and whilst Hungary then was a lot better than when I originally visited in 1987 when it was still very restricted, away from Budapest (which is where I was) it still felt very different. I have come to know and love the country over the decades both from working there and also visiting friends since that time but I haven’t picked this book up again in twenty four years. It will be interesting to see how my reactions to it have changed. Back then I didn’t know much Hungarian history and this was to be the first book that really awakened my interest in that subject. But what little I did know was that less than a year after that paragraph is set roughly two thousand five hundred Hungarians would have died in a failed revolution and many more than that had been imprisoned for their actions so just what is going on in that paragraph?

After the first chapter the book leaps back to 1944 and then progresses to the disasters of 1956. Tibor Fischer was born in England in 1959 to Hungarian parents that had managed to escape in 1956 and this, his first novel, takes his parents background as Hungarian basketball players as a means of informing his text. His mother was captain of the national team and his father was also a quality player, whilst Gyuri and his fellow misfits that we follow through the novel play for the Locomotive team in the Hungarian first division.

Like last week’s book, Lolly Willowes, the novel changes significantly about two thirds in although this time it is because there simply isn’t much funny that can be written about the Hungarian revolution of 1956 and Fischer wisely doesn’t try. Up until then however the book is full of often quite dark humour. As far as possible it also seems to be historically accurate, from the invasion of the country by the Russians in 1944 which pushed out the Germans, but did little to improve the conditions of the populace beyond that, to following the development of the communist state after the war. There are several mentions of the AVO secret police which a couple of the characters have unfortunate encounters with during the novel and the general malaise of life under the regime. The chapters headings are all dates as we trace the passage of time via significant events for either the country or more often the characters interaction with each other or the police state until we get back to November 1955 where if things are not actually going well at least they don’t appear to be getting any worse as long as you stay out of the clutches of the AVO.

The final, and longest, chapter is entitled 23rd October 1956 and it certainly starts then with the birth of the revolution but it continues until early November when the Russians totally crushed the nascent republic. Fischer is very good at inserting his characters into the significant moments of the revolution whilst keeping their being there entirely believable. Central Budapest is surprisingly small and easy to walk around so it is highly likely that people did follow Gyuri’s route around the city on the 23rd, being at both the Radio building and also around the fighting surrounding the Corvin cinema. As stated earlier the jokes largely stop here and indeed the tragic aftermath of the fighting is brought more into focus by the contrast with the considerably more jokey style (even when dealing with awful events) that characterises the first two thirds of the book.

I was in Budapest in October 2016 for the 60th anniversary of the revolution, the 23rd is now a national holiday and a few of my pictures can be seen at the end of this blog. Sadly it would be another thirty three years before the Russians went home as painted on the side of the car and the oppression would if anything be worse in the years immediately after 1956. It’s a very good book and it won’t be another twenty four years before I read it again. Under the Frog was, in 1993, the first debut novel ever to be nominated for the Booker Prize and made it to the shortlist of five before losing to Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle.

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