Graham Reid | | 8 min read
The phone call is an hour late and
catches Felipe Fernandez-Armesto at dinner with his father-in-law.
Apologies are cheerfully rebutted by impossibly rounded vowels which
roll across the global link direct from Brideshead Revisited.
My apology includes how I relied on an
international telephone operator to calculate the time difference --
and assumed she would tell the truth.
He finds this enormously amusing. This
is encouraging because Felipe Fernandez-Armesto is an Oxford don, has
been a member of the Modern History Faculty at that venerable
institution since 1983, has his works translated in 20 languages and
is one of life's Big Thinkers.
His writing includes studies of
Columbus and the Spanish Armada, he has edited The Times Atlas of
World Exploration, The Times Guide to the Peoples of Europe and The
His recent books have been the
blockbuster 800-page history of the past 1000 years (entitled with
marketable simplicity, Millennium) and Truth: A History and a Guide
for the Perplexed.
Fernandez-Armesto expresses delight at
talking to someone from New Zealand because he‘s staying in a room
called Villa Maria (“do you know that wine?”) in Tunbridge Wells.
Fernandez-Armesto proves a witty,
self-deprecating and digressive speaker who rejoices in words and
ideas aplenty ideas to fill books and conversation, ideas which
offend in academia.
“I always try to give equal offense
all round because I think that’s fair” he says about Millennium
which reconfigures conventional Western historiography.
He expected to be assailed for his
thesis about China being the fulcrum of world history and a major
shaping influence on other cultures as the place from which the
historical concept he calls “initiative” radiates.
“I also expected to be assailed for
my dismissal of Marxist historiography and my claim Africans were
participants and collaborationists in their own colonisation, and
there were black empires every bit as ghastly as white ones.
“I was expecting people to challenge
me on those fronts but actually they focused more on the almost
minuscule and insignificant details.”
Fernandez-Armesto has global reach, but
likes local detail.
“One of the reasons people in New
Zealand like my book is there are many books on world history and New
Zealand is entirely overlooked. And relatively speaking I give it a
fair old billing with a long description of Dunedin - which, for all
I know, maybe entirely wrong,” he laughs.
New Zealand is mentioned in the context
of the rise of Pacific Rim culture which, along with the break-up of
the large federations (Britain and the United States included), the
decline of cities and other speculations, makes up the book's
Unlike his populist predecessors such
as Kenneth Clark, whose Civilisation embraced the notion of human
history as a progression, or H.G. Wells whose The Outline ofHistory
bannered the triumph of European civilisation, Fernandez-Armesto’s
view is more global and personal.
It opens with a recollection of
Prunier’s elegant restaurant in London (now a Japanese restaurant,
which he finds a metaphor for counter-colonisation among other
things) and concludes in the fictional Alice’s Restaurant where
“you can get anything you want,” as the song of the same name
Between these points, he looks at the
shifting tectonic plates of world history and how, at some distant
future, the accumulated detritus of our times would appear to some
galactic museum keeper.
He sees a Coke can-alongside artwork
and is delighted when told there is a museum not dissimilar to that
in this country, Te Papa.
The don likes the fact that those who
subscribe to a hierarchy of culture are miffed by such thinking, as
if a painting were more relevant than the radiator of a Ford Prefect.
"My father-in-law, with whom I’ve
just had dinner, would find the radiator of an old Ford Prefect very
uplifting. He’s a passionate engineer, his soul is ignited by
things which mean nothing to me.
“Whereas he can blink in indifference
at some arty artifact which will move me tremendously.
“The trouble with hierarchies of
taste is they are always this person’s taste or that person’s
taste. When we create a museum of the Bronze Age, if somebody from
the Bronze Age came back to life they’d be absolutely aghast. All
these belt buckles and bits of rotting old handles don't represent
what they thought was important and would claim our assortment of
artifacts is entirely unrepresentative of their culture.”
Yet these are the basis of our image of
what they were like.
“I think if that museum in New
Zealand is preserved intact for the inspection of future scholars at
a time when New Zealand no longer exists, it will be a fascinating
source of study. They will be able to form an image of the
diversities of the country.
“I'm sure it won’t be the same as
we have of ourselves, but that doesn't mean that it’s wrong. If we
think we know ourselves better than someone looking at us objectively
is going to know us then we’re deluded.”
When Fernandez-Armesto laughs wickedly,
he seems well aware that he can wind people up. He certainly wound
some up with Millennium in which he wrote that Western liberalism
“enfeebled by its inconsistencies, seems bound to be wish-washed
away by a new wave of fascism.”
“One of the signs of the loss of
confidence of the Left is they’ve abandoned that air of moral
superiority, the old puritanical Left which owed as much to Methodism
as to Marx and was always wagging its finger at people reprovingly
and telling them how socialism would make them better in a moral
“I think socialism should recover its
old confidence. I think the worldwide eclipse of the Left is probably
going to appear like a very a brief phenomenon in our history.”
In the past 100 years, despite the
recent battering taken by socialism, the Right has absorbed far more
in the way of influence and readjustment of scales of values, and
social and political priorities.
Fernandez-Armesto warns against
religious fundamentalism which he sees, along with secular fascism,
as being inflexible prescriptions of society, “the hectoring of
noisy little men.”
“Christian fundamentalism has the
potential to warp world history probably even more menacingly than
Islamic fundamentalism. But I don’t want this to sound too
pessimistic – although pessimism is a very good thing for people to
cultivate. It indemnifies you from disappointment. I recommend it to
He predicts broad Christian, Buddhist
and Muslim faiths will continue to be the major world religions, “and
people who’ve been lost to fundamentalist directions and weird
crackpot sects and cults will return to a more rational, moderate and
mainstream tradition. Crackpot sects and cults, religious extremism
and millenarian fanaticisms have come and gone throughout our history
-- but they’ve always gone and the mainstream persists.”
As much as he is an observer of
historical trends, Fernandez-Armesto reads the character of nations
and peoples. American language is direct, he says, because in the
great melting pot it has had to be. That means you can’t be oblique
“and the case people always use is irony, Americans just don’t
get the tangential approach to meaning.
“So there’s this compulsion to be
direct. And on the other hand you have this elite in America which is
extraordinarily over-educated, a mandarin-age which wants to play
word games and is overcharged with currents from Europe.
“It takes relativism,
post-structuralism and deconstructionism with a degree of seriousness
which those rather jokey schools of thought don’t merit. You have
got a huge mandarin-age churning out manipulative formulations and
“So there are those two mutually
contradictory tendencies in America. There is a great gulf of
misunderstanding opening up between the elite and the rest in
Not that there will be a United States
of America. The Pacific coast states will become increasingly allied
to Pacific Rim nations and “there’s this extraordinary phenomenon
of a state’s rights which will surely grow as America matures.”
“American states look like purely
artificial constructions but many have already acquired, or are in
the process of acquiring, strong identities of their own.”
There is a dark side to his
speculations, however. In Millennium he also writes well-meaning
liberals will continue to advocate abortion and euthanasia without
realising they are forerunners of death camps and eugenics.
Big states will effectively repress the
aspirations of smaller peoples and “decision makers will go on
winking at warnings, as they have always done and the world, I feel
tempted to conclude, will go on getting worse.”
“This is meant to be a comforting
glumness,” he writes, “which reduces prospective cataclysm to the
dimensions of mere disaster."
And so this is it, our known world
fragmenting, no great prospect for humanity?
“Well, you don’t need to read my
books to tell you that!” laughs Official Big Thinker Felipe
Fernandez-Armesto. “Just look around and see what’s happening.
It’s ridiculous to say we haven’t made progress in a technical
sense, but the paradox is that it hasn’t delivered one iota more of
happiness or solved much. Progress is always, in part, progress in
the multiplication of problems.”
And on that rather cheery note?
“That is cheering, isn’t it?
Imagine what life would be like without problems - and those of us
lucky enough to go to heaven will have quite enough of that when