General Knowledge

It’s May. At the end of the month, we could be heading into phase one of lifting lockdown. Had it not been for Coronavirus, the tourist season would be ramping up in Orkney and I’d be fulltime Skara Brae. As it stands my energies have been diverted. I can’t lay claim to anything close to productivity, but I’ve not been idle. Although I’ve not had any events to promote, my social media pages are still going, and I’ve been learning some foundational HTML and CSS online. My main focus over the past couple of weeks, however, has been to build up my own general knowledge on topics I’ve never really given a lot of thought to in the past.

This was triggered after my medical student sister complained that she felt she didn’t bring a lot to the pub quiz team. Her complaint was compounded by the abundance of Zoom call group activities along these lines of late. In real life, she was normally able to avoid embarrassment by using her social skills to select teammates wisely. Onscreen there wasn’t a place to hide.

My Zoom experience so far has been limited to one medieval chant meetup on St Magnus Day in lieu of the cancelled Cathedral event, and an AGM for the Orkney Pilgrimage committee (where I presented the IT and social media report). Not being able to nor having the desire to go much beyond changing my background from a tacky animation of the Northern Lights on the conference call app, I was, however, interested in upping my sibling’s general knowledge; particularly, of history.

This was not really something she was desperately keen to engage with, but following the absence of a firm negative, I set to work in creating a course designed to raise levels of historical awareness. I had done this not so long ago when my dad, who is a teacher, told me that he would be covering World War Two with his primary school class. As a graduate of German, I was very keen that he got the right points across and was able to convey nuance where necessary. My own experience of learning about the Holocaust at that age was definitely formative and drove me to seek to better understand the conditions and culture that had produced it. I, therefore, in a typically superfluous fashion, produced a twelve-part plan with recommended reading, both fiction and non-fiction for each week.

The impact of this I am not sure about, but if it had even a whisper of influence that would suffice. I don’t think he managed to finish his project, as the lockdown kicked in just before the term’s end. In any case, it was more a hypothetical exercise for me – a wish list of books and an intellectual exercise. I was determined that this whole General Knowledge thing wouldn’t go the same way. Creating something tangible with a definite effect was my goal this time, even if it failed to reach the original intended audience.

Thus, I began, dividing the history of humankind into twelve topics, which I would tackle, one by one, reading as I went and creating a maximum of five c. six-minute talks on each. As I type this, I realise that is six hours of content. But I suppose this is a general overview of all of man’s works.

Like with the Second World War project I also compiled a reading list, but this was more for myself than my audience. About one half of this comprised of books and plays I’d read, and the other half was new to me. This gave me a chance to revisit and recommend favourites and acquaint myself with stuff I’d missed out on. I ordered a couple of books on early humanity and filled in the delivery time by starting on Ancient Civilisations. My aim was to primarily cover Greece, Rome and the Americas.

There are some potential problems with that list. It’s pretty Western-centric. Where’s China? What about Egypt? Who gave you the authority to decide what civilisation is? All valid points. However, this is going to be geared towards pub knowledge. I’m also allowing for the fact that these societies didn’t exist in isolation and (with the obvious exception of the Americas) met each other repeatedly.

After studying fiction at university for four years, granted the odd historical text was semi-digested, non-fiction has been a breath of fresh air. Rapidly skim-reading isolated essays to glean the elusive key sentence in a mire of academic-speak is a soul-destroying exercise. Actually, having the time to sit with a decent writer and follow the broad sweep of an argument over several hundred pages is a joy. It’s so much better to read something divested of subject-specific jargon for an intelligent but not necessarily “initiated” audience.

I’m also reading for the first time and going back to some Shakespeare plays – revisiting Coriolanus and leafing through Julius Caesar and Antony & Cleopatra. The In Our Time episode for these three is particularly good. Our perception of historical events is almost always skewed by their reception and Shakespeare’s is, in turn, a firmly contemporary view of the Romans whereby the testimony of Coriolanus’s wounds is analogous to Christ’s and his swashbuckling derring-do an evocation of the Earl of Essex’s reluctance to be integrated into the new political status quo. As the play that Brecht infamously failed to stage, Coriolanus fascinates me. I’d love to put it on. There is so much political potential in it. The tribunes’, ostensible champions of the people, contempt for voters’ “ignorant election” is so interesting and seems to speak to Labour’s divisions over Brexit.

Anyway, ancient civilisations. It’s one of those projects you get at school, well if it’s a comprehensive school, where everything is kind of skimmed over and blended into one. Classical education is something I, and most people, missed out on, although its something you’re expected to have some sizable familiarity with, at least the Greeks and Romans, at uni.

I began with the latter, mainly looking at their cultural legacy. Drama, philosophy and sport were the three things I settled on initially, but I became increasingly interested in Greek political structures as I learnt more, in particular Athenian democracy.

Browsing around I came upon the lectures of Victor Hanson – a highly charismatic American who was passionate about asserting the value of the classics. He was also interested in the reception of classical Athens’ politics. Leftists have embraced Athenian democracy because it was egalitarian and sought to level out society by limiting private property.

There was, however, a catch, in that this was no meritocracy. Office bearers were selected by a random lot drawing from all eligible citizens without regard to ability. Public office was a duty of all free men and not a choice or aspiration.

Most philosophers of the time disliked this. They would rather have seen a technocracy of experts; the rulers as the ablest of the age. In concert with this system, Plato wanted to sow a noble lie that some were born of better stuff than the common man, so that the governed were placated.

The founders of the United States agreed with Plato, in part, that some are born better than others, no matter their “nobility” – therefore they should be entitled to achieve their destiny uninhibited by monarch or government. This model of democracy, that put liberty at its heart, was not that of the Greeks.

An America, but not that of the 1776 declaration does feature in my first series. The Americas before Columbus were unfamiliar to me, but I chose an excellent starting point in a book called 1491 by Charles Mann. In it, he systematically debunks dozens of myths and misconceptions about the pre-Columbian continents.

He starts off with the idea that the Europeans arrived on shores whose landscapes were empty of people and territory untouched by humanity. In fact, the Americas were home to tens of millions of people who had built cities larger than anything in Europe and who influenced their environment profoundly. The great plains had been cleared by Native Americans and the pristine ancient forests were, at least in part, only allowed to grow up because of a lack of controlled periodic burning, which had been disrupted by the dramatic population decline, thought to be as high as 90 per cent.

This happened before the first settlers decided to move inland from the coast because a vanguard of diseases had marched on ahead of them and caused a smallpox epidemic, of which they were totally unaware.

The reading becomes sobering as you learn of the collapse of sophisticated and organised cultures like the Inka at the hands of just a few selfish conquistadors. It seems sad to devote only seven minutes to the collective antiquity of North and South America.

I have made my first video public on YouTube on my personal channel, but I hope to create a new outlet for the series as a whole when I start on early humanity. As it stands, its more a podcast with visual accompaniment but, if anyone out there is an animator/graphic designer willing to work for free then get in touch!


About alasdairflett

German & English Literature graduate. From Orkney. Interested in alternative and indie music, language, writing and politics.
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