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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
April 11, 2013

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Cougar Town, England, Basques, Ghost, DNA

Sometimes I get so far behind in my reviewing that I despair of ever catching up.

The problem is that I'll read a book or see a movie and then, instead of reviewing it, I'll write a critical essay and so instead of reviewing three or four things, I review only the one and the pile of things on my desk keeps rising and rising.

For instance, I've been watching Cougar Town. I knew nothing about it except that I hated the original premise of middle-aged women pursuing younger men. That theme still persists in a shadowy way, and with one subplot (though the boy is now in college so it's almost not nauseating).

But what keeps me watching is the fact that underneath the style -- which is straight Scrubs comedy transplanted to a wine-bibbing Florida cul-de-sac -- there is some seriously good thinking about human nature.

And it's funny, more often than is usual with television comedy (though less often than the writers think). Part of what makes it funny is the unrealistic self-awareness that was also a hallmark of Scrubs.

These friends know how unbelievably limited their life is; the show makes fun of how small its cast is. Characters have self-awareness which, if they really had it, would make them behave differently. So the writers' voices constantly come out in the characters.

Courteney Cox is so face-lifted it hurts just to watch her talk -- but she's a wonderful performer. Christa Miller makes smug misanthropy weirdly likeable; Brian Van Holt and Josh Hopkins play opposite men whom we can believe both played an important role in Cox's character's life.

But the jewel of the cast is Dan Byrd, as Courteney Cox's round-headed son. Byrd plays the same role in this ensemble that Zach Braff played in Scrubs: the nearly normal person who never questions the insanity around him and manages to find love and happiness within it. He does a great job.

And there it is: A brief review. Who knew I could do that?

*

I've already mentioned Foundation: The History of England from Its Earliest Beginnings to the Tudors by Peter Ackroyd. A single volume covering such a vast amount of history is hard to write, but nobody has done it better than Ackroyd.

His most important contribution is to deal with the pre-Norman history -- and the pre-Roman and pre-Saxon history as well -- with astonishing clarity and usefulness.

He demonstrates that both archaeology and DNA show that regardless of who the ruling class was at any time, or what language the people spoke, the overwhelming theme is continuity.

The "great waves" of migration -- Celts, Germans, Scandinavians -- did not replace the indigenous population as I had been taught fifty years ago. Instead they merely supplemented it, and not by that much of a percentage. Change in the actual life of the people, as well as in their genetic makeup, was gradual and incremental through all those early millennia.

Throughout the book, Ackroyd interrupts the narrative to give us essays on the long continuities. But that doesn't detract from his narrative achievement: He makes the history of England sharp and clear, so that if you knew nothing about it, you would come away with an accurate picture of what happened and why.

Not only that, but you would be entertained every step along the way. Ackroyd is not a creator of original history -- that is, he is not the guy who pores over the ancient documents and archaeological reports and makes the first report of what the evidence seems to show.

But the kind of history he does write -- the overview, the big picture, the telling detail, and fascinating anecdote -- he does better than almost anyone. If you want to know English history, this is the book I would recommend as the starting point. (And I've read many, so I know what I'm talking about.)

*

On the other hand, Roger Collins's The Basques, part of the Peoples of Europe series of scholarly histories, is based on deep original research. The Peoples of Europe series is devoted to groups whose history is barely recorded, so everything is based on a scrap of writing here and an ancient inscription there.

The Basque-speaking people are among the most fascinating, anywhere. Theirs is the last surviving pre-Indo-European language of Europe (though this does not mean it is the original European language; it merely could be). And somehow it survived when all the others were swallowed up in the surrounding culture.

However, writing about Basque history is not only difficult because of lack of documents, it's dangerous because of Basque terrorist activity. If you say the wrong thing, you can be killed for it. Historians don't often face that possibility.

Collins is forced to piece together a coherent story from an amazing collection of tiny shreds of evidence -- complicated by the fact that many documents claiming to be ancient are actually much later (but still old) forgeries.

It was in the interest of a twelfth-century monastery to be able to produce a deed from the tenth century -- even though nobody was writing down property deeds at that time. So forgeries abounded.

The important questions, though, Collins is able to answer with clarity and authority. Basque inheritance was nonpartible and matrilineal: The family property was passed on, intact, to one heir -- preferably a nephew, a sister's son -- and the others fended for themselves.

In Roman times, this worked fine because the extra sons would join the Roman army. We have records of Basque legions serving in Britain, for example, at Hadrian's Wall.

But when the Roman system broke down, and trade was not safe, and there were no nations hiring mercenary soldiers, what did the extra sons do? They turned to brigandage, and then the inevitable progress from brigandage to overlordship happened.

Even though there was never a centralized Basque government, Basque raiding groups eventually became Basque settlers and overlords in a widening area.

Gascony in southern France takes its name from the Basques (a normal consonant progression: Vascon, Wascon, Guascon, Gascon), and Navarre and other provinces from the Biscay coast to the Ebro valley in Spain had, at times, a Basque-speaking majority.

But the heartland of Basque speech always was and remains today the rural pastoral mountain valleys of the Pyrenees mountains, on both the French and Spanish sides, and the shepherd Basques were never fully absorbed into any other culture.

The present Basque separatist movement began with the Carlist civil wars in 19th century Spain; only then did a sense of Basque nationhood begin to surface. Before that, Basque was simply the language of the common folk, and had nothing to do with nations or realms of any kind.

Collins's book is tough sledding if you're not used to reading original scholarship. However, if you are familiar with it, then you'll recognize that Collins is an extraordinarily good writer, and his reasoning is always clear and well-justified.

He always includes contrary views, too, so that you can understand that others disagree with him on certain points. This is how true scholarship is done; may his tribe increase.

*

Then there's yet another kind of history, typified by James Romm's Ghost on the Throne: The Death of Alexander the Great and the War for Crown and Empire.

In most histories or biographies of Alexander the Great or his period, we are told of his death at elaborate length -- and then the writer says, "Alexander's heirs were too young or weak to rule, and so his generals fought among themselves until clear successors emerged."

They mention the three-part division of the empire that resulted -- the European, consisting of Macedonia and Greece; the African, consisting of Egypt and whatever the Ptolemies could grab from time to time; and the Asian, ruled by the Seleucids, descendants of Seleucus, who ruled essentially the old Persian Empire.

What Romm does is take us through the complicated history of the struggles, at first to keep the empire together for Alexander's heirs to inherit, and then, when all of them had been killed by various factions, to determine which general had the power to hold on against the others.

This is an extravagantly complicated story. By contrast, the English Wars of the Roses are a simple matter for schoolchildren.

Yet Romm is such an extraordinarily good writer -- and good organizer of his material -- that not for one moment is the story confusing, and never is it anything less than fascinating.

There are certain figures whose stories become emotionally important:

Alexander's niece, Adea, who eventually is married to Alexander's retarded son, and whose brave, bold, and brilliant actions brought her very close to ruling the empire herself, and definitely kept her alive and in the game for an astonishingly long time.

Alexander's mother, Olympias, the Medea-figure of the play, who ended up murdering practically everybody she felt threatened by, yet who for a time was one of the most important of Alexander's successors.

A Greek clerk named Eumenes, who rose by merit alone to be the finest of all of Alexander's generals; he outfought everyone who came against him, but ultimately lost because no matter how brilliantly he performed, no matter how worthy he was of Alexander's mantle, he was Greek and not Macedonian, and so other Macedonian generals would not follow him.

Any one of these is worthy of a great tragedy or opera or novel or feature film.

And they are just the most likeable and effective of the losers.

There is the pathetic figure of Alexander's son by his Bactrian wife, Roxanne, who lived to be seven or eight years old before he was finally murdered by a general who saw no further use for him. Think of the seven-year-olds you've known and realize that he reached a level where he could understand much or most of what was happening, but remained powerless to affect it.

But I'm only just touching on the huge cast of characters that Romm is working with. It is almost miraculous the way he structures the story so that every narrative thread remains alive, and we keep track of all the main characters, and we are never confused.

Unlike Collins as he writes of the Basques, Romm is working over territory that many scholars -- but very few ordinary readers -- are quite familiar with.

These stories were already controversial and argued over by Greek and Roman writers in ancient times. As Romm sorts truth from fantasy, he is dealing with almost too much material, too many alternate versions.

Yet he makes his choices openly, letting us see the alternatives. And he picks no real villains. While many people do truly dreadful things, Romm lets us understand what they were thinking and why they acted as they did.

There are stories where you can almost believe in Fate -- Perdiccas's failed attempt to invade Egypt, for instance, where he imitated Alexander's tactics but received none of Alexander's luck.

There are also figures who emerge from shadows, surfacing first as traitors and murderers, though we know they will eventually become the founders of dynasties.

Some are brave, some luckless, some too timid to survive, some honest and some dedicated to lying -- it is like the whole history of the human race caught in a deadly struggle for survival.

And, by the way, there really is a firm justification for the title Ghost on the Throne, as Eumenes, knowing that Macedonians won't follow a Greek like him, invokes the presence of Alexander by creating a throne for him and adding props from his reign, then bringing in soldiers and officers to swear allegiance to Alexander.

Never has empty symbolism accomplished so much, even if it was only for a relatively short time.

Even if you know nothing about Alexander or about the Hellenistic empires that followed him, Ghost on the Throne is great history, well written.

*

By the way, when I spoke of how DNA shows relatively little population change in Britain over the course of the centuries and migrations and invasions, I had in mind some rather personal DNA information to confirm it.

At Ancestry.com, you can spend $99 to take a personal DNA test. They send you a package that you swab, swirl, and return; then they analyze your DNA and tell you your genetic ancestry, in broad terms.

My wife, part Irish and part English by genealogy, took the test and learned that her genotype indicates this:

65% British Isles

19% Scandinavian

11% Finnish/Volga-Ural

5% unknown

For her, then, the Vikings made a definite contribution, and we're still a little puzzled over that Finnish/Volga-Ural percentage. Because that's kind of a lot.

My origins, on the other hand, are very simple: 99% British Isles, 1% unknown.

Folks, I am Brit to the core. Almost undiluted.

Except that "British Isles" can mean Irish, Pictish, Cornish, Welsh, Anglo-Saxon, or whoever was in Britain before the Celts crossed over.

In a way I was vaguely disappointed that there was nothing exotic in my ancestry.

I suspect it really means that I am descended from a long, long line of nobodies.

The way you get exotic bloodlines in Europe in that era was through intermarriages, and those usually happened in the upper reaches of society.

Common, ordinary people like my peasant ancestors just married folks from the neighboring village. But hey, whatever the process was, it produced me, and I'm the only self I've got, so I'm content.


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