Tuesday, March 3, 2009


I have always been aware how fragile the veneer of civilisation is. It was my good fortune to be born in a country that has not known war, famine or tyranny. I was reminded of this by the two books I’m reading at present. One is This Is London Calling, Good Evening by George Angeloglou. The other is The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilisation by Bryan Ward-Perkins. The first is the story of the Greek Section of the BBC 1939-57. It was lent to us by our neighbours, the husband’s sister married Angelogloua. He was in control of the BBC Greek Section during the war and after. There are graphic accounts of the Blitz and broadcasting during Britain’s ‘finest hour’. I’ve always found it hard to reconcile the glories of Mozart and Beethoven with the horrors of Belsen.

The Ward-Perkins book reiterates the Gibbon argument, that the Barbarian invasions ushered in the Dark Ages. It ends:
‘There is a real danger for the present day in a vision of the past that explicitly sets out to eliminate all crisis and decline. The end of the Roman West witnessed horrors and dislocation of a kind I sincerely hope never to have to live through: and it destroyed a complex civilisation, throwing the inhabitants of the West back to a standard of living typical of prehistoric times. Romans before the fall were as certain as we are today that their world would continue for ever substantially unchanged. They were wrong. We would be wise not to repeat their complacency.’

In my second year teaching I bought at Pauls Book Arcade in Hamilton an abridged copy of Gibbons famous history of the decline of the Roman Empire. Magnificent prose! I’ve read it four times. It shaped my world-view – the Greek/Roman world overthrown by the invading hordes from the north in the west and the remaining empire in the east becoming decadent and no longer Roman. That idea has been challenged recently. The barbarians became Roman citizens and carried on the values. Ward-Perkins rebuts this, restoring the Gibbon thesis.

His is essentially a pessimistic view. I’ve been conscious all my adult life of the possibilities of a nuclear war that would wipe out much of our civilisation. It is easy to foresee water wars and more oil wars. But I never conceived an economic and fiscal meltdown of the magnitude we appear to be facing. It could destroy much of what we take for granted. Will some historian in several centuries time write of our civilisation as Gibbon did of Rome?

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