1. i reviewed Jason Elliot’s The Network for the Dabbler recently; it’s an enjoyable spy thriller without too much depth. However, i moved on to An Unexpected Light, Elliot’s travel book about his time in Afghanistan, and found it far superior. A passage about Zahir-ud-din Muhammad Babur:

We know about Babur from his memoirs, collectively called the Bāburnāmeh. Written in Chagatay Turkish over a period of nearly forty years, they are a uniquely intimate portrait of the age. They are foremost a chronicle of his campaigns, both successful and unsuccessful, composed in a lucid and unpretentious language entirely free of the lushness of Persian prose of the period. He is a plain writer but for this his troubles and personal passions are all the more vivid. The descriptions of his early battles, when he was always outnumbered and on the run, are gripping.

[…]

The Bāburnāmeh is also a catalogue of the personalities that surrounded its author. Through Babur, and especially his account of time spent at the court of the Timurid Sultan Husain Baiqara in Herat, we know what they looked like, what they wore, what their hobbies were, the kinds of wine they liked to drink and even the jokes they made. The wealth of detail lends a human face to the empire-builder who weathered the upheavals of the era and opens a window onto the troubles and achievements of the age. Babur writes about politics, allegiances, his dealings with friends and enemies; he passes comment on the literature of the day, its poetry, music, architecture and the merits of different vintages.

Of all things natural he is a tireless and fastidious observer. There is an almost boyish enthusiasm to his observations. He records his fascination at seeing a rhinoceros for the first time, marvels at the configuration of leaves on fruit trees, and carefully compares the taste of pomegranates from different regions. On the hillsides around Kabul he counts thirty-three varieties of wild tulip, measures the distance frogs can jump, observes the migration patterns of birds, records the removal of a live mouse from the stomach of a snake killed during a picnic, and even details the characteristics of different types of firewood.

He devotes fifty pages to the flora and fauna of India and describes it as a place of natural wonders and fabulous wealth, but bemoans its lack of water and orchards, and overall judges it as a place ‘of few charms’:

“Its people have no good looks; of social intercourse, paying and receiving visits there is none; of genius and capacity none; of manners none; in handicraft and work there is no form or symmetry, method or quality; there are no good horses, no good dogs, grapes, musk-melons or first-rate fruits, no ice or cold water, no good bread or cooked food in the bazaars, no hot baths, no colleges.”

And between raising armies and quelling rebellions he draws on the models of high standards and love of civilization of his Timurid ancestors and commissions gardens and parks at every turn, the planting of trees and the construction of wells, reservoirs and watercourses.

As a personality it is obvious Babur is deeply scornful of excess, meanness, vanity, rudeness of speech, narrowness of learning and incompetence. He cherishes loyalty, order and excellence in any activity from the catching of fish to miniature-painting. In statecraft he shows restraint, is often admiring of the bravery of his enemies and generous with pardons and the bestowal of gifts and favours. When his son Homayoun offers him the Koh-e Nur diamond, the largest in the world, he hands it back.

2. Today i finished my second German book, Gabriele Beyerlein’s Das Feuer von Kreta. It’s fiction but vaguely based on the archaeological records; very well-written and only a children’s book in the sense of having relatively short sentences and no direct mention of boy-fucking.

About 3000 years ago, Ismene, a Mycenean girl, goes to Crete. Mycenae is a Sparta-like society where the free men learn to kill and the slaves and woman live in Muslim-like subordination and terror. There’s an excellent portrait of the First King of Mycenae, which reminds me a little of my father – a savage brute whose only possible relation to his family is one of threats, commands, and intimidation. Crete is more like some New Age community of freedom and artistry though Bayerlein manages to make it convincing and just about plausible (after all, we only see the aristocracy). There’s a good scene where Ismene, the Mycenaen heroine princess, is quizzed by the Minoan queen as to her abilities and education. My very approximate translation:

“What did you learn before coming here?”

“Learn?” Ismene asked, confused. “I don’t really know…”

“Why should it be so hard to tell what you have learnt? ” asked Minoa with a small smile.

What should she say? “I, um, I can spin well,” began Ismene hesitantly and then plunged on: “very regular and fine threads, and I can weave, already I can do advanced patterns, and I can sew, and I learn housekeeping and prepare meals and manage the slaves…”

“Of course, that is very good,” said Minoa good-naturedly, “but that is not all?”

“That is all,” stammered Ismene, the blood rising to her head, “I will be married soon and my aunt says there is nothing worse than when a young wife cannot cook, or can’t make good clothes, or her spouse is unsatisfied with her housekeeping.”

“So? She said that? Phaidra told me this. That was very instructive for her. But tell me more – what did you specialise in? In foreign languages?”

“No! Why?” asked Ismene, bewildered.

“In sport?”

“Oh no, that is for boys, my cousin Telemachos…”

“In music?”

“Music? No! Telemachos must learn war songs – “

“Dancing?” interrupted Minoa, irritated.

It continues in this vein. On Crete, Ismene learns the language, dancing, painting, etc. As a princess she is expected to have skills, knowledge. The blood does not merely guarantee privilege; it demands performance, accomplishment, responsibility.

3. One advantage of history – either reading or memory – is having different standards, norms. In many ways, the England of my last life (late 19th c to mid 20th) was more civilised than 21st C England, as was my Egyptian life long ago. The moderns are bedazzled by sparkly devices. Jack showed me his ipad and showed off its features. i thought it would be very useful to have a means of checking for alternate transport when the s-bahns are delayed (which happens every couple of weeks in Munich), or finding where X-Straße is when i’m lost (which happens about once a week), but for the most part these technologies are just ways of transmitting human thought and expression to the user. You could have a ultra-ipad, with a gazillion gigabites per microsecond, but if the rest of the human race were dead or effectively zombified it would only be useful for consulting Google maps, local transport connections, and the weather. There would be no new blogs to read, no youtube videos to watch, no one interesting on Facebook. You could save a great deal of money by carrying a lightweight map and bus timetable.

If Zahir-ud-din Muhammad Babur came forward in time, and moved a few thousand miles west, to see the bloated mass of useless and very well-paid public sector workers (Senior Diversity Managers etc.), the demeaning and tedious bollocks on television, the millions of scum whose dream is to live off Jobseeker’s Allowance for the rest of their lives, or to be famous for being themselves like Jade Goody, the schools, which function solely as camps to keep children off the streets, the universities teaching virtually nothing since most school leavers are incapable of learning, the squalid, violent scenes on most English streets every evening, would he think us civilised? Or merely technology-addled cavemen, grunting and belching and beating each other with thigh bones?

4. Behind every culture there are largely unexamined values. They usually just arise. Any attempt to impose them is, generally, a grotesque failure. They are so basic, so central, that to call them ‘values’ invites bemusement and ridicule. It would sound prissy to say to Joseph Stalin “we value human freedom”. You would only call them ‘values’ from the outside, if you don’t share them; they are simply the way we are. To quote another recent read, Howard Jacobson (‘Human Values’ from Whatever It Is, I Don’t Like It):

When we use the word human in an attempt to confer dignity on ourselves, I suspect we are actually alluding to an idea of something not human at all. Something ethereal. Soaring up and away, as far as we can get from ourselves. God, as we used to say. Or spirituality, if God’s coming it a bit thick. Some art critics, worn out by Tate triviality, have resurrected the word spirituality. What we’re looking for, they say, are ‘spiritual values’ in art, and you know the game’s up with them as soon as they say it. It’s too futile a gesture towards gravitas in a feather-light universe. Maybe it’s the ‘values’ part of the phrase, in both instances, that lets us down. You only use the word values when you don’t have any.

4. It is part of human nature to adjoin onto the non-human. In the past, religion – and art – was a way of brushing against a higher order. Our peculiar culture is human-centred, denying allegiance to, or interest in, anything else. Within this scope we give authority only to the manmade, to human inventions – ipads, and money most of all; and celebrity – the acknowledgement of others. Even appreciation of art tends to be somewhat self-satisfied, as if to say “look at me, I appreciate art, I’m wonderful.” Part of the older order was veneration, awe – the sense of being both infinitely small before the vastness of a god, and of being exalted by this relation (it’s something if a god deigns to notice you). In the Old Testament, this is known as “the fear of God” – knowing there is a power and a judgement. To quote Jacobson again (‘Dying Like A Gentleman’):

Increasingly, as the censors and maulers and butchers of our culture assume more power, it will be to art – if we can save it – that we turn in order to remember who we once were and what we once believed.

To perceive something you must be it, in some measure. Hence, the difficulty in really attending to certain music or books, where we no longer share the originating culture’s understanding of the world: the work is just noise and words to us. But as it is possible to go from total incomprehension to a full inhabiting (Messiah, Hamlet, in my case) so it is possible to rediscover the ancient powers. The gods, as Vergil wrote of Charon, are old and strong (cruda deo viridisque senectus). i am on a weird path but i came here via art – it was the experience of, for example, learning to perceive Messiah, which brought me here. As long as these survive there is a way; not, perhaps the path, but indicators to the path, a feeling that Big Brother and ipads and tedium and oppression are not all; that they are, in fact, almost nothing:

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