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James Bond and the Great Wall of China

It seems like a good time to update you on some of the reading I’ve been doing in recent weeks, not least because one of the news headlines this morning was that people are reading more during this period of self-isolation – who would have thought it, eh?!  For me, the usual pattern of doing very little reading in term time and lots in the holidays has been replaced by a more balanced approach of finding time to do a little each day, probably because all the days have tended to feel the same in recent weeks, for all the obvious reasons. 

Reading has provided a particularly valuable escape mechanism, both from the grim realities of the day to day and from the tyranny of the computer keyboard.  Half an hour at lunchtime and an hour in the late afternoon still allows the work to get done but also gives room for reflection and stimulates the little grey cells.  I would thoroughly recommend it. 

I started with a book by Simon Winder called The Man Who Saved Britain, which combines two of my favourite topics – history and James Bond.  This was Winder’s first book, written back in 2006, and I have to say it is not his best.  He has subsequently produced three books about European history and travel – GermaniaDanubia and Lotharingia – the first two of which I really enjoyed, while the third may well be the next on my list.   

Winder is a couple of years older than me, so we share many cultural memories of growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, but his attempt to stretch a detailed analysis of just a handful of Ian Fleming novels into a few hundred pages led to a lot of repetition and a sense of making a little go a long way.  The date of the book’s publication also meant he was unable to comment on the Daniel Craig years, which may or may not have given more hope that the Bond genre still had something to offer. 

It was nevertheless enjoyable to be able to reminisce, and there were some lovely moments, for example when he was thinking about the past and the future, saying that at some level history really is useless: to comment on history is as pointless an activity as yelling at the players in a televised football game: they can’t hear you, they don’t care and it’s already too late, which I know some of my colleagues would enjoy as summary of the subject I love, particularly when I am being rude about their own subject’s contribution to the curriculum.  There was also little comfort for those of us whose glory years may be behind us, when Winder observed that presumably we are all fated in the end to suffer the crushing derision of the future: with every passed-over generation slumped in impotent rage as its grandchildren laugh at its steam-operated calculators and turnip-powered cars.  

Bobby Duffy’s The Perils of Perception was a Christmas present from my daughter, who clearly knows exactly the sort of book I like.  On the one hand, as often argued by my family, such books may not have much to say beyond the blindingly obvious, but there are always gems of wisdom and this book did not disappoint as far as I am concerned. 

For example, before you read on, just take a moment to consider this simple question - can you see the Great Wall of China from space?  Apparently, about half of the people asked this question say yes, me included, but we are wrong.  At its widest, the Great Wall is only nine metres across, about the size of a small house.  It is also built of rock that is similar in colour to the surrounding mountains, so it blends in with the landscape.  As Duffy rather deflatingly puts it, when you take a bit if time to think about it, the idea that the Great Wall is visible from space is actually slightly ridiculous.  However, all is not lost for those of us who got it wrong because there are some very good reasons why we might have thought it. 

Firstly, it is not likely to be something we have pondered on a lot, so we don’t have the pertinent facts to hand.  Secondly, we may have vaguely heard someone say it when we weren’t paying much attention.  We may even have seen it in print or heard it on the television.  For years, Trivial Pursuit, the go-to game of my late teens and early twenties, had it as an (incorrect) answer.  We are less likely to have seen it in Chinese school textbooks, but it is still noted as a fact in those.  However, the chances are we have seen it somewhere, probably more than once, and have not seen anything to contradict the assertion, so it has settled in our head.   

Thirdly, we almost certainly answered the question quickly, wanting to get on with something else, the sort of ‘fast-thinking’ popularised by behavioural scientist Daniel Kahneman that relies on mental shortcuts.  We may therefore have confused different measures of scale.  We know that the Great Wall is extremely big – in fact, it is one of the largest man-made structures on earth.  But that is mainly due to its length, which, of course now we think about it more carefully, is not the property that will make it visible from space.

Duffy adds that we also bring an emotional response to this question.  We want to believe that astronauts could see it from space because we want them – and aliens and gods – to see our handiwork.  We want it to be true because it’s impressive, and this emotional response alters our perception of reality.   

At a time when all our perceptions or reality are in danger of being altered, whether temporarily or for the longer term, and when we need to believe more than ever that we have the power to conquer all, from the very big to the very small, the answer to the question about the Great Wall of China may well be one that is worthy of further thought and reflection to make sure we get it right – or at least to understand why we got it wrong. 

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