Holiday Food For Thought
Since many of us will be going off to different places to do different things in the next couple of weeks, I thought I would wrap up this term’s offerings with an eclectic mix of ideas from my reading as a way to stimulate debate around the dinner table or wherever your family may gather over the Easter period – through a brief trip to Egypt, a fictional library and a book of maps.
From the November 2022 edition of the BBC History Magazine, and following last week’s blog about the difficulty of separating truth from fiction, if you are looking for an example of how a falsehood can flourish for millennia, transforming popular perceptions of a historical event, then look no further than the ancient Greek historian Herodotus (c.484-c.420BC). Herodotus is considered the ‘father of history’, yet he passed on many dubious facts, and few of these have been more enduring than the idea that the pyramids of Giza in northern Egypt were built (c.2575-c.2465) by a vast army of maltreated slaves.
According to Book II of his Histories, in building the Great Pyramid the pharaoh Khufu (called Cheops by the Greeks) compelled all the Egyptians to work for him in gangs of a hundred thousand men, each gang for three months, for twenty years. This, we are told, ‘brought the people to utter misery’. Egyptologists now explain that such slave labour did not really exist in ancient Egypt. The pyramid builders were a mix of 4,000-5,000 permanent skilled workers and some 20,000 temporary labourers, who assisted for a few months at a time, probably during the annual Nile floods when agricultural work was on hiatus. All were paid in graded notional rations of bread and beer that were tradeable for other goods and services.
The article went on to say that the truth did not prevent Herodotus’s false description taking root, and his version of how the Great Pyramid came into being was repeated by later ancient writers. Some, like the Jewish historian Josephus (AD37-100), conflated his builders with those people of Israel held in slavery in Egypt described in the Old Testament book of Exodus, an idea echoed in 1977 by Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin that still persists in the popular consciousness of Christians in the west. Even if we ignore the questionable historical authenticity of biblical narratives, the supposed events of the book of Exodus are in any case cautiously dated to the 13th century BC, more than a thousand years after the pyramids of Giza were built.
If you prefer less complicated fiction, I can recommend Matt Haig’s thought-provoking ‘The Midnight Library’, a hugely positive and uplifting book that tells us that no one’s life is perfect, and that even people who appear richer and more successful than us nevertheless suffer the same insecurities that we do. There are different versions of the same life available, but not necessarily better ones. Haig uses his story to make the point that it is easy for us to mourn the lives we are not living; easy to wish we had developed other talents, said yes to different offers; easy to wish we had worked harder, loved better, handled our finances more astutely, been more popular, stayed in the band, gone to Australia, said yes to the coffee and done more yoga.
Through his characters in the story, Haig reminds us that it takes no effort to miss the friends we did not make and the work we did not do and the people we did not marry and the children we did not have. It is not difficult to see yourself through the lens of other people, and to wish you were all the different kaleidoscopic versions of you they wanted you to be. It is easy to regret, and keep regretting, ad infinitum, until our time runs out. But it is not the lives we regret not living that are the real problem. It is the regret itself that makes us shrivel and wither and feel like our own and other people’s worst enemy. We cannot tell if those other versions would have been better or worse. Those lives are happening, it is true, but you are happening as well, and that is the happening we have to focus on.
Of course, he continues, we cannot visit every place or meet every person or do every job, yet most of what we would feel in any life is still available. We do not have to play every game to know what winning feels like. We do not have to hear every piece of music in the world to understand what music is and why it moves us. We do not have to have tried every variety of grape from every vineyard to know the pleasure of wine. Love and laughter and fear and pain are universal currencies.
He concludes that we just have to close our eyes and savour the taste of the drink in front of us and listen to the song as it plays. We are as completely and utterly alive as we are in any other life and have access to the same emotional spectrum. We only need to be one person. We only need to feel one existence. We do not have to do everything in order to be everything, because we are already infinite. While we are alive, we always contain a future of multifarious possibility. So let us be kind to the people in our own existence. Let us occasionally look up from the spot in which we are, because, wherever we happen to be standing, the sky above goes on forever.
Back down to earth, as you might be able to imagine, it is not necessarily an easy task for my family to buy me books for my birthday or for Christmas, though they do a remarkably good job, and one for which I am most grateful. A recent example was when my daughter bought me an infographic book called ‘Brilliant Maps: An Atlas for Curious Minds’ by Ian Wright. This is not the ex-Arsenal footballer who is mates with Gary Lineker – at least, I am pretty sure it’s not – but maybe that will give you something else to talk about.
But all I think I need to do here is to list the facts from the maps that I found most interesting, which I offer as a conversation starter for nearly every day of the break.
• More than half of Australia’s population lives in just five cities – 21% in Sydney, 20% in Melbourne, 10% in Brisbane, 8% in Perth and 5% in Adelaide.
• The median age in Niger is 15.3 years, while in Japan it is 46.9 years.
• Only 64 countries have had a female head of government in the last fifty years.
• Only America, Germany, China and Japan have larger economies than California.
• Finland is the country that has by far the most heavy metal bands per 100,000 people.
• Coca-Cola is the most popular cola in 15 out of 16 states in Germany. The exception is Vita Cola, which is most popular in Thuringia, part of the former East Germany.
• Only three countries in the world normally hold election days on a Thursday.
• Fifteen current European countries have invaded Poland over the years.
• There are only 22 countries in the world (or their historical predecessors) that have not been fought or occupied by the United Kingdom (or its predecessors) at some point in history.
• Chile is 4,270km (2,653 miles) long, but only 350km (217 miles) wide at its widest point, and averages just 177km (110 miles) east to west.
• The Pacific Ocean is larger than all the land on Earth.
• Only nine countries in the world have a flag that does not contain red or blue.
• Humans killed by sharks per year – approximately 10; sharks killed by humans per year – approximately 100 million.