I wonder whether Roald Dahl toyed with different commodities before deciding that the only factory Willy Wonka could realistically own was a chocolate one. Perhaps somewhere there is an early draft in which Charlie wins a trip to the tobacco factory, or wherever it is they make hairbrushes, or a fantastical cereal packing paradise. Yet as much as children in adverts relish nothing more than a morning bowl of chippings, you can’t really imagine Augustus Gloop dipping his globular head down to a river of porridge to greedily shovel watery oats into his mouth. We just wouldn’t buy it. Only chocolate can rouse and excuse such excesses of gluttony. Sweet, delicious chocolate.
Or, in my case: chocolate and books.
For the moment, I can but dream of being admitted to rampage through a chocolate factory, but the bibliophile Gloop within me was last week at last given leave to indulge his basest desires: for for the sake of a book-signing, I found myself allowed into a bookshop after closing time.
My superlative preamble notwithstanding, this was less Night at the Museum, more cheeky pub drink after licensed hours – appropriate, given that I spend as many hours loitering around bookshop shelves as lonely men do in pubs. Which perhaps makes it odd that I’ve never attended a book signing before; an oddity that becomes remarkable when you consider that in the annals of my employment history there are spells spent working in a library and in book publishing. Given therefore this failure to ever previously find myself in a bookshop at night or to attend a book signing, in defiance rather than because of my past, you will perhaps forgive my response to the eventual occurrence of these occasions as being: Gloop-like glee; the thrill of transgression; and the fancy of a whiff of a clandestine sect – perhaps this is what it feels like to be a Freemason?
For my first book signing I chose an author none of whose books I have ever read. I had heard of them, which is a good start; and I even owned one, which is an even better one. Tom Holland’s Rubicon has been transported with me from bookshelf to bookshelf for years, but in spite of my best intentions, thus far something other than ancient Rome has always been top of my reading pile. Which is as baffling a fact to me as that I have never been to a book signing before: for I find the Romans fascinating. After all, they have done so much for us.
As interested as I am in the Romans though, it was not Holland’s renown for this popular work or even my guilt for neglecting it that prompted me to attend his talk in Oxford. Instead it was the subject of his newest book, In the Shadow of the Sword, Tom Holland’s history of the Near East during late Antiquity and the origins and rise of Islam.
The history and culture of the Middle East and of Islam are subjects that have come to interest me increasingly over the past two years or so. I have no clean explanation for why: to rationalise why you do or don’t become interested in a subject would be as impossible as bullet-pointing the steps by which you fell in love with a fool, or defining the deliciousness of chocolate. It probably has something to do with the fact that I have been drawn to the region repeatedly on my recent travels; though that may be as much consequence as cause. Suffice to say: I have been reading and listening and watching more and more on the Middle East past in order to better understand the Middle East present, and this talk therefore appeared timely.
Tom Holland’s book examines the Qur’an and the history of early Islam in the context of the Roman and Persian civilisations between which it emerged and the monotheistic religious traditions that preceded it. In his talk, he presented his theory that the Qur’an is the sophisticated product of many constituent elements – a mosaic of past cultures as it were – and furthermore, that this character suggests the Qur’an did not originate where Islamic tradition says it did, in Mecca. The history of early Islam was never going to be an easy subject to tackle – and to his credit this particular historian did not shy away from the size, the complexity, nor indeed the threat of controversy.
It is therefore, as the cover itself asserts, a “revisionist history”. I am often apprehensive of revisionist histories – history constantly needs reappraisal and occasionaly revision, but revision for sensationalists sake can be as one-sided and blinkered as the history it seeks to replace. This is but one reason why I find myself reading Niall Ferguson through gritted teeth. But, Tom Holland is not Niall Ferguson, and his talk on the Near East in the 6th and 7th centuries waylaid my apprehensions: his arguments were good and his talk interesting, and I am grateful to have come away with a few more pieces of the puzzle slotted in to my mental map of this world.
I will reserve final judgement on his arguments until I have actually read the book he signed for me; but by one I am convinced: historians – and by extension people – are too keen to neatly categorise our past and our present into exclusive periods and places, to declare our specialisms at the cost of a broader world view. The ancient world, the middle ages, the modern era; Europe, Islam, the Roman Empire. The fact that straying beyond our boundaries requires explanation was impressed upon me recently when I found myself justifying to a friend why I was reading a book on Islam when I myself was not a Muslim. But the truth is, this is a fluid world, and we are none of us confined to a single place or time or formed by a single cultural influence.
In proof of which, I defy anyone to tell me that reflecting on Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is not a suitable starting point for a blog that concludes with ruminations on religious history.