Surfing through the Time Net

Jan Morris is totally obnubilated by a fact-drenched, word-dazzled `designer history'; Millennium: A History of Our Last Thousand Years by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, Bantam Books, pounds 25
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"Awesome" seems a properly contemporary word for this 700-page evocation of our millennium, start to finish, because it is a kind of cyber-history. It surfs through the not of time. It is designer history too, very smart and assured and Armani. You may like it or you may loathe it, but there is no denying its terrific vitality, its originality, the immense range of its learning or its virtuoso self-confidence (it is to be published simultaneously, its author disarmingly lets us know, "in an unprecedented number of languages and countries"). Awesome is the word.

Fernandez-Armesto, who is an Oxford don, starts with the fancy that, some time in the remote future, the curators of a galactic museum set up an exhibition concerning the planet earth, and from time to time, in a lordly galactic way, consider its condition between the years 1000 and 2000 - in the earthly calendar, that is. Like many literary conceits, this one does not really stay the course, and the author returns to it only in a desultory way, when he remembers; but it does give him an imaginative standard of comparison, reducing to insignificance some apparently overwhelming world events, elevating others to unexpected importance.

The publishers call this "narrative history". I would call it zapping history, especially as our author mercifully does not deal in sententious abstracts like The Climax of Capitalism, but sees progress chiefly as a series of separate initiatives, sometimes from one part of the globe, sometimes from another, requiring his attention now in Guatemala, now in Timbuktu, now outside Banbury, where the conversion of a woollen mill into luxury flats gives him grist for his own mill, too.

He aims, he says, "to delight the reader with surprises", and he most certainly succeeds. Surprising no longer are some of his major disclosures - such as the well-worn fact that Europe is not the centre of the world after all, or that Africa has a history - but his asides, anecdotes and hundreds of illustrations are full of astonishments, at least for me.

Here a few of them:

At Ghazni in Afghanistan, in the 11th century, the emir Mahmud maintained a corps of 400 court poets.

Almost certainly the largest city in the world then was Kaifeng in China, whose Jewish community was to retain its identity until the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s.

In 1417 a papal legate, sheltering in the Castel Sant' Angelo, was bombarded with shit from siege catapults.

The younger Barbarossa, in the 16th century, sold his Christian captives at an onion a head.

In 1533, a papal fiat officially classified American Indians as human beings.

There was an Irish Catholic colony on the Amazon in the 17th century.

Marie Antoinette wore a dress decorated with potato flowers, to encourage the masses to eat tubers.

In the 18th century Mogul India was the world's greatest exporter of manufactured goods.

In 1895, King Koko of Brass apologised to the Niger Company for the "killing and eating of parts of its employees".

In Papua New Guinea in the 1970s, a cult believed that Agatha Christie would eventually rule the country.

In the 1990s, the Japanese proposed to establish huge geriatric colonies in nice warm places like Australia and the Mediterranean, disposing of their surplus aged and providing employment for the Indigenes.

I must not give the impression that this is a trivial book. It is an intensely serious work, displaying its scholarly intentions not least in its recondite vocabulary: phrenesis, carunculated, prosopographical, jollop, mythopoeic, obnubilation, fautors, cultigens (though I take it that "electic", which baffled me for a time on page 710, is a misprint). It has its silly moments: I don't believe that the ancient Greeks could have developed steam power if their economy had needed it, or that anybody sees the monuments of the eminent in Westminster Abbey as a declaration of British racial superiority, or that the commerce of the 18th-century Irish merchants of Tenerife was "primordial in importance". Occasionally, it suffers from its own slickness: "in a world where the bell tolls for all, people prefer to listen for only part of the peal". But it has moments of dazzling brilliance too: marvellous summings-up, for instance, of the causes of the Spanish Civil War or the historical significance of chocolate; glorious descriptions of Topkapi, the Aztec State; life in medieval Japan; startling and often witty speculations, brave generalisations.

The book is not helped by its remarkably unhelpful system of notes, but so far as I can check it is scrupulously accurate (the palatability of whale-meat is, after all, a subjective matter), and by and large it seems to me almost majestically fair. I think Felipe Fernandez-Armesto really has willed himself into the remote, impartial and un-compassionate viewpoint of those galactic curators. He puts the world in a new perspective, and only a dullard could fail to be intrigued by his genius for connections - Dutch imperialism with Johann Sebastian Bach, or St Teresa of Avila with the BBC.

It never occurred to me before that the 20th century has been a century of almost unremitting European civil wars. It is somehow reassuring to know that at the time of the American revolution most English people did not much care whether the 13 Colonies stayed or went; and salutary to learn that the Japanese, in their modern expansionist phase, were deliberately copying the Europeans and the Americans - even their cartoon heroes looked occidental. (And did you know, by the way, that far from being indoctrinated with baseball during MacArthur's occupation, they have been keen on the game since the early 1920s?) Fernandez-Armesto's most startling insight, perhaps, is the thought that our millennium is no more than a blip on the screen between programmes of Chinese supremacy; his frankest admission, as a historian, is that we live in an age where absolutely nothing is certain anyway.

His final chapter of prophecy is a carunculated, if not mythopeoic, mixture of the hopeful and the gloomy. Fascism and Communism, he thinks, will make come-backs. The Pacific will replace the Atlantic as the centre of progress. Over-population will be solved. South Africa will not survive in its Mandelan form. Big States will fragment, giving new life to places like Wales and Catalonia. The nuclear family will enjoy a revival, if only as the best and cheapest system of welfare. Cities will lose their present omnifunctions, and become specialised resorts of culture, entertainment, ritual or worship. And we are doomed once more, it seems, like the ancient world before us, to the hegemony of the Chinese.

I have reviewed this book inchoately not because it is itself inchoate, but because the scale and scope of it defies tidier criticism. I began it with distrust, read it with varying emotions of fascination, delight and impatience (it really could do with some cutting), and ended it, as I say, awestruck.