The Personal and Political Ramblings of one guy in Texas.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Review: Sailing The Wine Dark Sea 

Sailing the Wine Dark Sea;
Why the Greeks Matter
Thomas Cahill

Cahill came to most people's attention a few years ago with his book "How the Irish Saved Civilization". However, that was just one of a serious of books he is writing called "the Hinges of History". Sea is his section on the Greeks.

There is a tendency to put the ancient Greeks on a (marble) pedestal, visualizing them standing around in togas engaging in philosophical Deep Thoughts and trying to figure out the universe by pure logic. We worship the Athenian development of democracy, and celebrate the hoplite warrior and naval seafarer in their victories over Persia.

These all existed, and Cahill makes proper note of them, but there was another side to the Greeks, and this is one that most people give short shrift to. The Greeks were also great fonts of dirty jokes, marathon wine drinking sessions, and amazing irreverence. And Cahill's playful prose doesn't let you forget it.

In what turns out to be all too short a time, he covers a vast area of time and space, touching necessarily briefly on Greek warfare, politics, culture, poetry, etc. We get an excellent sketch of the outlines of the Greek world, and why that world matters to us today.

The only real complaint to make about his treatment (other than its brevity) is that he sometimes presents as accepted fact things which are actually only the majority view of something still being debated. Still, a minor issue for the the audience these books are aimed at. Jammer-Bob sez check it out.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Review: To Rule The Waves 

To Rule The Waves;
How the British Navy Shaped the Modern World
Arthur Herman

This is a really good book. Herman traces the history of the Royal Navy from its origins as for-hire groups of merchant ships with a leavening of the King's personal flotilla to the force which kept Napolean and Hitler at bay and exerted British will across the entire world for almost two hundred years.

It makes for an excellent read, and Herman provides us a good combination of story-telling and technical detail in order to understand how events played out. For instance, the navy of Sir Francis Drake was little more than a bunch of merchants that engaged in periodic bouts of piracy (or perhaps pirates periodically posing as merchants), and the fortunes of its ships waxed and waned with the finances and interest of the current monarch for quite some time. Not until the time of James Stuart and William of Orange was the Navy truly becoming a professional force.

We read about the coppering of hulls, which cut down the growth of barnacles and other growths, made ships faster and last longer. There is the change in design from ships with high fore and after-decks, to the sleek, somewhat low-lying vessels we are used to seeing in pirate movies. Eventually we come to steam and the dreadnought. Its clear that Herman preferred the older age of sail to the age of coal that followed, but he doesn't spend pages bemoaning its end. We also learn how the navy seemed to find the innovative admirals it needed when it needed them, though occasionally their innovations would become a bit too encrusted with age before the next Nelson came along with a new breakthrough.

Part of Herman's thesis is that the Navy helped shape the modern world as we know it. Upon occasion he tosses out an observation that this or that act involving the navy had a particular effect. For example, he states that efforts to finance the Navy at some point led to a greater acceptance of trading paper (as opposed to actual commodities like wheat, gold, etc.) and this led to something of a revolution in government finance as well as forming the basis of stock trading. Perhaps, but he doesn't provide much to support these contentions (perhaps it is hiding in the footnotes), and we're left wondering how true they might be. I suspect its just as well he leaves out the details either way -- I can't imagine it would make for interesting reading for most people.

Another minor problem lies in his occasional attempt to suggest that the popular idea of unwilling pressed sailors, horrid food, regular (over) use of the lash, and Olympian detachment on the part of the commanders is mostly myth. He tries to back this up, but the point is undercut by periodic mentions of various incidents of unrest due to poor pay and bad food. Another time he states that William Bligh was not so…well, Bligh-like as popular lore states. He rather feels that Bligh's problem was his inconsistent treatment of problems. But to this reader, his examples show Bligh acting, if not like a slave-driver, then certainly like a twit.

In the end though, this sort of thing amounts to quibbling over quite minor points. To Rule The Waves is a very enjoyable read, and I recommend it to anyone interested in the sea.

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