THE GREAT EMPIRES OF ASIA edited by Jim Masselos THAMES AND HUDSON, HB, £24.95
Shah Sulayman and his Courtiers, a portrayal by Ali Quli Jabbadar of the Safavid court at Isfahan, Iran, c.1670
This winningly straightforward volume provides a gentle stroll through seven of the great civilisations of Asia: Mongol, Ming, Ottoman, Safavid, Mughal, Khmer and Japanese during the Meiji Restoration of 1868–1945.
The book quickly dispenses with any essentialist ideas of Asian-ness but, while stressing the diversity of the empires under discussion, it isn’t afraid to seek out commonalities: notably the crucial role played by dynamic individual rulers in creating and sustaining empire, and the rather obvious fact that empires always tend to do best when they are militarily and technologically superior to their neighbours and rivals. Each of the chapters looks at the social, economic, religious, political and ideological aspects of these mighty empires, and close attention is paid to their cultural achievements – a labour much enhanced by the book’s handsome selection of illustrations.
This isn’t a groundbreaking volume, but it isn’t intended as such. Rather, it’s a reliable and palatable introduction to a fascinating subject. It’s at its best when discussing empires with which most readers will be less familiar.
The chapter on the Khmer takes the laurels. Most of us have enjoyed looking at pictures of Angkor Wat, but we’re less likely to know about the detail of this unusual civilisation’s ‘hydraulic economy’. While others focused on conquest, the Khmer rulers put a lot of their energies into digging canals and reservoirs, and diverting rivers – a wise strategy in a society built on the cultivation of rice and always in need of irrigation. JONATHAN WRIGHT
McKIE’S GAZETTEER: A Local History of Britain by David McKie ATLANTIC BOOKS, PB, £16.99
There’s something irresistible about a history book whose contents were settled by whim: ‘Also chronicled here are places which I came across by accident while looking for something or somebody else,’ McKie explains.
Among the serendipitous titbits he has discovered are that the Brewer of Phrase and Fable fame produced a number of less enduring works, containing useful information such as the name by which London was formerly known (‘Sombragloomy’). Less likeable characters include the bounder Captain Andrew
Robinson Stoney, who kept his first wife locked in a closet on a diet of an egg a day before pushing her downstairs and inheriting her wealth, and went on to give her successor a much harder time (‘He had a devil in him that would have amazed ordinary villains,’ his biographer noted). His attempts to get his hands on her fortune, however, were as successful as one might expect from a man who’s memorialised in the term ‘stoney broke’.
McKie’s gentle stroll around our hidden histories uncovers plenty to celebrate, too, mostly of a quiet nature – rediscovering the trolleybuses of Sandtoft (which move with ‘a kind of bumpy serenity’); counting the locks at Neptune’s Staircase – although even in the sleepiest of places, history can pull a fast one: ‘It still has its own police station,’ McKie notes with unintentional irony of quiet little Rothbury, recently the focus of global attention as the backdrop to an armed manhunt.
A delightful collection, and lovely to read, too, with nice, clear print and charming illustrations. MICK HERRON
66 www.geog raphical.co.uk DECEMBER 2010