Archive for October 20th, 2010

Ian Morris: The man who has an answer for everything

Wednesday, October 20th, 2010
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Ian Morris has an answer for everything.  And you’ll be able to hear it all tonight at Kepler’s at 7 p.m.  Or, for the Cliffs Notes version, see my video interview above.

I wrote about Ian some time ago, well before the launch date of his new book, Why the West Rules — For Now — which is out this month.  In a world of cautious scholarship, Ian is going way, way out on a limb with his grand récit, a story about how everything came to be in the history of the world.  Remember crazy James Burke in The Day the Universe Changed, the man who could somehow connect the drift of continents with the invention of spaghetti?  Ian Morris grabs the other end of the telescope.

It’s an unusual publishing choice for Farrar, Straus & Giroux, who usually publishing premiere literary works.  I understand the top publishing house wants to expand its repertoire.

Friedrich Keyl's painting of Looty. The collar with bells in the foreground is the only remant of his earlier royal life.

When I wrote my own article, I began it with a small dog that has a big story:  a yapping Pekingese named Looty.  (It guaranteed me a readership among Pekingese fanciers.)

I wrote:

After the sacking and destruction of Beijing’s summer palace in 1860, the Chinese empress’ Pekingese – the appropriately named Looty – was whisked to the royal family at Balmoral, bringing the previously unknown breed to the West.

But why Looty to Balmoral, instead of the other way around, with Queen Victoria’s beloved Skye terrier, Islay, going to the emperor in Beijing?  Why was it the British, and not the Chinese, who dominated?

Stanford Classics and History Professor Ian Morris puts forth some bold answers in his ambitious new 750-page book, Why the West Rules – For Now (Farrar, Straus & Giroux).  And that places Looty in a longer story going back to the last ice age.

Looty’s story is sadder than I made it sound.  Though he lived a long and contented life in Victoria’s lap, after an initial period when he was beat up by the British dogs, here’s his unexpurgated story, as told in Jolee magazine:

One British soldier who arrived too late to share in the plunder of the Palace, discovered in a corner of the Garden of Clear Ripples four little dogs and their attendant, a lady of the Court who had committed suicide rather than be taken prisoner by the barbarians. Gathering up the four little dogs, he put them in his gunnysack and later whilst rejoining his regiment at muster prior to embarkation on Her Majesty’s ship “Odin” for the return to England, the four dogs would not stay still. One of the officers noticed movement in the soldier’s gunnysack, and was ordered to disgorge the contents of his sack – and out poured the four dogs which were immediately confiscated from the aberrant soldier by his officers.

The dogs should have been returned to the Summer Palace but were not.  One dog and a bitch were taken by Lord John Hay and later given to his sister the Duchess of Wellington. The other dog and bitch were taken by Sir George Fitzroy and given to his cousin the Duchess of Richmond. And of course “Lootie” was given to Queen Victoria by Captain Dunne.

After reviewing my own paragraphs, copyeditor Barb Egbert came back and cheerfully corrected me, “Shouldn’t we say the last ice age?”  Silly me.  I was confusing the last ice age with all those other ice ages.

Now that’s an editor.

Barb Egbert took away the 800-page book (with index) — otherwise I would include an excerpt.  Soon she will know everything about everything.  Sometimes I think she already does.