Friday 24 February 2023

Now, I realize that accounts differ... My account you can trust

A History of the World in 10½  Chapters Did you know that Macbeth was a real Scottish king who died nine years before William the Conqueror fought the battle of Hastings? Shakespeare put his own spin on the real man to big-up the ancestry of James Sixth of Scotland (and First of England). The playwright relied on an English chronicle, but there are at least four alternative Scottish histories. And have you seen Braveheart, Mel Gibson's kilt-clad, woad-faced portrayal of the 13th century struggle for Scottish independence? One historian said of the movie that it was "one of the most historically inaccurate films I have ever seen. It bears almost no relation to historical fact". Now I'm not suggesting that everything we think we know about Scotland might be made-up for some nefarious purpose, but maybe we should take a step back and reconsider what we've been told, especially if it's based on the work of a couple of blokes in the entertainment industry, both of whom had businesses to run. Our knowledge of history is coloured by the stories we read, the movies and TV programs we watch, even the artworks we admire. Sometimes these are questionable. Witness the recent attempt to rid Ann Boleyn of her wicked reputation, and the discussion about whether to attach a "fiction" warning to Netflix's The Crown.

What then are we to make of a book entitled A History of the World in 10 and a Half Chapters? Forget about the half-chapter for now and focus on the scale of Julian Barnes's ambition. A history of the world is a huge project. It will have to be selective, and how will we know what is fact, fiction, or something in-between?

Barnes begins with Noah. If you believe Moses's version in Genesis, the Hebrew God obliterated his first batch of humans in the Flood, and therefore our history starts when the waters receded. We're all descended from Noah and his sons. However, as ChatGPT just told me, these days scholars believe the Old Testament version is just one of several which have been re-written over centuries to suit an editor's chosen audience. So Barnes gives an account as told by a stowaway on the Ark. We readers want something entertaining, maybe not too serious, and that's what we get.

Each following chapter is a short story, or history, linked to an earlier one. For instance, the descendants of Chapter 1's narrator crop up in Chapters 3 and 6. Noah and ships regularly reappear, and we come across tall tales that surprisingly may be based on historical facts. Sometimes there's only one witness who may be unreliable, self-serving, or delusional. Even when there are many witnesses, such as in Shipwreck (Ch 5), the re-telling is manipulated for edification and inspiration, just like Braveheart.

And what of the half chapter, titled Parenthesis? It's placed between Chapters 8 and 9, and by now we might be wondering just what Barnes is trying to say about his own life. Does it matter? Of course we can question what is truth or what is history, and clearer minds than mine have done so. I feel I'm on solid ground tho', in asserting that when William Wallace (aka Mel Gibson) suggests he might be able to consume the English with bolts of lightning from his arse, it's definitely historically inaccurate.

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