Arts: Laugh? They were almost civilised

The week on radio
  • @RobertHanks
Gandhi said, when asked about Western civilisation, that it would be a good idea. Presumably he was just being sniffy about the West, but you could say the same thing about any civilisation. Once you've settled down and started tilling the fields, embracing monotheism and telling barbarian jokes, you can give it five days before somebody starts moaning about the good old days ("I miss when we used to be a horde") and celebrating the nobility and decency of uncivilised folk. But, however dull and oppressive it turns out in practice, civilisation always looks good on paper.

More to the point, it looks good on clay tablets, which is what Michael Diamond took as a starting-point for his 15-part history of Civilisation on the World Service last Sunday. (No apologies for reviewing another World Service programme, even if most readers find reception difficult; the World Service deserves all the support we can give it.) Diamond placed the beginnings of civilisation in Mesopotamia 5,000 years ago, with the invention of cuneiform - wedge-shaped writing on clay - to assist the processes of Sumerian bureaucracy.

Civilisation is potentially a war-zone, and Diamond approaches it slowly and deliberately, with a factual presentation, refusing to get drawn into debates. In particular, he sidesteps defining what civilisation is. But his picture of ancient Mesopotamia identified some features that are, if not necessary to civilisation, certainly typical of it: cultivation of crops (irrigation), cities, abstract nouns, charging interest on loans, literature.

Interestingly, money is not on the list. Compare and contrast Rob Long's Conversations with My Agent, read by Rob Morrow as last week's Late Book on Radio 4. The book is based on Long's experiences as a television scriptwriter in Los Angeles, where money is more than a central feature, even in the way that a sunflower is a central feature of a Van Gogh. Money is the paint.

But Long's beef with Hollywood is not the commodification of creativity - though he has a fine riff on the way that the local argot reduces any project to "a piece of business". Money, which washes around the place like water in a toilet, is abstracted in a way it never is in the real world, where scarcity makes it seem more concrete. How much money you have bears no relation to your success: a sitcom Long has written faces cancellation, but he has his contract renewed at a vastly favourable rate.

This isn't quite a morality play, then, but a nervous, earthling view of a planet where terrestrial morality is out of place. Nor does Long try to draw it as a primitive, philistine society, which it clearly is not. During the filming of Long's sitcom, some dogs run riot, and the studio audience roars. Long's agent congratulates him. "But they're not laughing at what we want them to laugh at," Long points out. "They never are," says the agent. This is a good working definition of life; and a society that has achieved this depth and simplicity is surely civilised in the profoundest sense.