Before describing the sack of the city Gibbon treats us to a portrait of the city that is about to be destroyed.
Surviving documents enabled Gibbon to paint a very full and revealing picture of just what Rome was like in the reign of Theodosius, just before the final collapse of the western empire. We have just ploughed through thirty chapters largely composed of one military disaster after another accompanied with a relentless increase in authoritarian government, religious intolerance and the rise of what was in effect a police state. So it is quite surprising to find that in Rome itself quite a lot of people were doing rather nicely, thank you.
My review of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire has reached Chapter 31. If you have read the book you will recall that this is the chapter in which Rome is sacked, but the story has some involved twists and turns. It will take some hard podcasting before we get there, so let’s get started.
Here is quick recap of where the pieces are on the chess board.
It is normal when talking about Philip.K.Dick to start by mentioning he wrote Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep on which the film Bladerunner was based. So lets not do that. Ubik is much less well known and I doubt very much will ever get made into a film. It clearly falls into the science fiction category being set in the nineties, which at the time it was written were thirty years in the future.
So with the passage of time Ubik has now become an historical artefact. It gives us an idea about what people in the sixties thought was going to happen in the future. As such it now merits the attention of historians.
I love banking bail outs, and so should you. What would life be like without them? Without bail outs bankers would have to behave like the rest of us, and where is the fun in that? Of course, banking could be a pretty straight forward job. You look after people’s savings by investing them in profitable enterprises. The savers get a return on their money, the enterprises thrive and a little way down the road society as a whole is richer. It is not very different to laying bricks or running a shop really. A bit of common sense and some hard work; you make a nice living and do your bit to improve life for everyone else.
But be honest, wouldn’t that just be so dull! It is a lot more fun to lend out more money than you actually have to lots of very risky projects which pay a good return.
Divine delight of men, Mother of Aeneas, Beneath the gliding signs of heaven, Holy Venus
Who fills the fruitful lands and navigable seas
With all the types of creatures that your conceptions please
For you from now, and still forever
They welcome the rising Sun together
Lucretius opens the epic latin poem On The Nature of Things praising Venus for creating the multitude of life on Earth. He goes on to recount how she conquered the warlike Mars with the overwhelming power of love. It is beautiful. I love the rich symbolism of ancient paganism, and this is a superb example from the First Century BC. Praising a deity is a cliche ridden business, and not something that many writers can do without embarrassing both themselves and the reader. Lucretius in contrast handles the task superbly. But the opening lines of the Nature of Things belie what it is about and give no clue as to what is coming next.
Easter Island is famously one of the remotest places in the world. It is also famous for its huge statues. They are both relics of and key components of one of the most haunting of tales of environmental destruction. The inhabitants of Easter Island arrived by boat and created a unique culture, of which the erection of their statues was a key part. But this culture was not sustainable. It required the use of large quantities of wood, and over a few centuries all the wood was used up.
I was 3 when Telstar came out, so I probably don’t remember it when it was actually a hit record. But I heard it often enough as a small boy that it formed part of my experience of growing up. It was always my favourite. It was just so space age. This was what the future was going to be about. Rockets and music without any singing. I just loved it all so much. I acquired then and have never lost a profound belief that the future is going to be better, people are going to sort things out and that technological progress is a good thing.
Pussy Riot are the only Russian punk group I have heard of. I think I am in good company on that, as they seem to be a lot more interested in getting publicity for their political protests than their art. On the whole I don’t approve of either religion or authoritarian tendencies in nominally democratic governments. So I am sympathetic in a general sort of way to what Pussy Riot seem to be doing. On the other hand, religious people are entitled to hold whatever beliefs they have and to practice those beliefs. And those rights ought to include not having a punk band set up without permission in a cathedral. So I am not sure that Pussy Riot have got their tactics quite right.
In tackling the Second World War Antony Beevor was picking a big subject. I had reservations. I love his accounts of Stalingrad and the fall of Berlin. But it wasn’t obvious to me that the same formula would work. Usually he gives enough background to understand what was at stake and then looks at how individuals caught up in these big events coped with them. Would this work on a larger scale?
And in fact I was right to be worried to some extent. It doesn’t work as well, but it still works well enough to produce a really splendid and readable book. If you are looking for a book on World War 2 there are plenty to choose from. But I can’t think of a better one than this, particularly if you want to know what it was like to take part in it.It is easy to forget one of the most obvious facts about World War 2, which is that a very common experience of it as a participant was to simply get killed straight away. Millions of people’s lives were abruptly, un-heroically and completely pointlessly brought to a sudden violent end. No war has taken a greater toll on innocent bystanders.And you were no better off if you were involved officially.
I still find it slightly astonishing that entire operas can be posted on YouTube. But there they are, and as far as I can tell they are there with the blessing of the producers. If they objected YouTube would have taken them down straight away. I suppose the advertising revenue that they generate is a bonus, though I can’t imagine it amounts to very much. Still the economics of opera has never made any more sense than the plots. But it does mean that what used to be the ultimate in elitist entertainment is now available for anyone. In the comfort of their own home. Or you can even watch opera on your phone while wandering about. I wonder if this ready supply will entice people who might not otherwise have considered it to give it a go? I’d like to think so.