Like many LitFest devotees I’m a sucker for speakers who carry their erudition lightly, are engagingly articulate, and write books about historical subjects threaded through with mystery, romance and geo-politics.
Enter Dr Peter Frankopan, Director of Oxford University’s Centre for Byzantine Research and his new book The Silk Roads – A New History of the World, speaking today at the Oxford Literary Festival. I say ‘new’ book as if I have read the old one The First Crusade: The Call from the East, which was published in 2012. I haven’t, but I probably will… well I might, or possibly I won’t.
That’s the trouble with literary festivals, you end up convinced you should buy the new book, and determined to read the previous one. You rush forward to buy but the queue is too long. So you head off to drink coffee, chat to other devotees and as the afterglow of enthusiasm fades you decide not to spend £25.00 after all.
But make no mistake – this is an alpha male historian of the new kind, smoulderingly good-looking, in complete command of his material, never stumbling over a word or reference and capable of delivering a fifty minute-long tour-de-force which leaves the audience’s collective brain spinning.
‘We haven’t got much time,’ says the author impatiently at the end, hurrying the audience questions along, ‘so I’ll take three at a time.’ We sit amazed, humbled, feeling a little wiser and for a brief few moments absolutely determined to be better human beings.
Frankopan’s thesis is that the ‘Silk Roads’ region (ie central Asia, India and across into China) is now taking center stage in international politics, commerce and culture and so shaping the modern world. This is where the major religions were born and the area’s on the rise again. But our elitist imperial history and eurocentric/classicist education system and culture has left us woefully ignorant of this old-new world. Frankopan flatters his Oxford audience as being learned, cultured and informed and then, with an alligator’s smile, challenges anyone – anyone – to name a famous Bollywood movie, an Iranian singer, a Chinese novelist. Which no-one is able to. He rests his case.
It’s a bit of a cheap trick I realize over my coffee later but at the time I fell for it, I even loved it. But now… well… I’ve had time to read Anthony Sattin’s recent critical review of The Silk Roads in The Guardian and I’m happy to have kept my £25.00 in my pocket.
But Peter Frankopan’s essential point was very well made: we need to understand that to many in the East, Europe is unimportant and irrelevant and it’s high time we ‘de-coupled ourselves from our comfortable world view’ that we are more important than we actually are.