The Jub Jub Bird

A literary blog with fantasy tendencies

A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters – Julian Barnes

A brilliant book, it works on any number of levels.  I liked the repeating motif of individuals cast adrift on large bodies of water (usually oceans), and the use of this as a metaphor for life: ‘We are all lost at sea, washed between hope and despair, hailing something that may never come to rescue us.’ Our own flailings in stormy seas, overlap and interact with everyone else’s in massively-multiplayer random sequences which, with the benefit of subjective hindsight, coalesce into something that looks like history.

Whole blogs could be devoted to the book but it’s outside the scope of this one.  So I’ll limit myself to quoting from a passage which really struck a chord….

‘She remembered a terrible thing she’d once read in a newspaper story about life on board a supertanker.  Nowadays the ships had got bigger and bigger, while the crew had got smaller and smaller, and everything was done by technology.  They just programmed a computer in the Gulf or wherever, and the ship practically sailed itself all the way to London or Sydney.  It was much nicer for the owners, who saved lots of money, and much nicer for the crew, who only had to worry about the boredom.  Most of the time, they sat around drinking beer like Greg, as far as she could make out.  Drinking beer and watching videos.

There was one thing she couldn’t ever forget from the article.  It said that in the old days there was always someone up in the crow’s nest, or on the bridge, watching for trouble.  But nowadays the ships don’t have a lookout any more, or at least the lookout was just a man staring from time to time at a screen with lots of blips on it.  In the old days if you were lost at sea in a raft or dinghy or something, and a boat came along, there was a pretty good chance of being rescued.  You waved and shouted and fired off any rockets you had; you ran your shirt up to the top of the mast; and there were always people keeping an eye out for you.  Nowadays you can drift in the ocean for weeks, and a supertanker finally comes along, and it goes right past.  The radar won’t pick you up because you’re too small, and it’s pure luck if anybody happens to be hanging over the rail being sick.  There had been lots of cases where castaways who would have been rescued in the old days simply weren’t picked up; and even some incidents of people being run down by the ships they thought were coming to rescue them.  She tried to imagine how awful it would be, the terrible wait, and then the feeling as the ship goes past and there’s nothing you can do, all your shouts drowned by the engines.  That’s what’s wrong with the world, she thought.  We’ve given up having lookouts.  We don’t think about saving other people, we just sail on by relying on our machines.  Everybody’s below deck, having a beer with Greg.’

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July 20, 2009 - Posted by | Notes in the Margin

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