Favourites in a race apart


NOTHING MUCH doing today apart from some stuff on race, civilisation the book buying public, gardening and ideology.

Get on with it then.

All right. A new study in England shows that people are buying less fiction, and more self improvement books. The latter category apparently includes quiz/ puzzle books, dictionaries and gardening manuals.

A peculiar mixture.

Quite. How the soul destroying business of gardening can be thought of as self improving in any way is not explained. The idea that you can improve yourself with the creation of a herb border of a rhododendron grove and disimprove yourself - because there is no middle ground here with Jude the Obscure, is very strange.

I don't mind the odd bit of weeding myself but I wouldn't want to ever snag turnips again.

No one could blame you. But I read that a book yet to be published, and by an author who has recently died, is set to become a major seller. Shortly after correcting the proofs of his book, Race. The History of an Idea in the West, Ivan Hannaford died earlier this month.

What does it say? - briefly, if you don't mind.

I don't. The book is said to prove that the whole concept of race is a modern invention of pseudo science unknown to the older world.

Tell us more.

The book contends that the use of the word "race" in translations of old texts is wholly a mistake of 19th century scholars driven by ideology, in this case a mistaken theory that human behaviour is a product of biological determination, and that human beings are classifiable by physical attributes in the same way that plants and animals were classified by the 18th century botanists and biologists.

I get nervous when I hear the word ideology.

You are not alone. Hannaford discovered to his surprise that where translators rendered "race" for human groups, contemporaries believed that recognisable differences were a product of climate, religion or different ideas of culture - including those of voluntary civic association.

He's an academic himself I suppose?

Hannaford was 13 years in the ordinary world of work before going to the LSE as a mature student. An obituarist says the book "has its human interest in being the solitary work of an old fashioned private scholar." The author worked on his book for over 30 years.

Maybe a lot of important writers have it all wrong a boat race then.

Quite probably. Rudyard Kipling, to name one, described the defeated Boers (whom he loathed) as "a race without a background...largely tainted with native blood, lacking history, arts, crafts, cookery, architecture - literally everything that connotes civilisation."

I don't like the bit about tainted blood.

Nor I.

Though I am all for good cooking. Listen I suppose you have some useful comparative idea at hand now?

Comparative is the word. David Ehrenfeld, biology professor at Rutgers University, recently wrote of a problem he was asked to help with. It involved comparative biochemistry but none of his graduate students had even heard of such a discipline. He realised the entire scientific discipline had disappeared.

Was he upset?

His words were as follows:

"Gone! Not outdated. Not superseded. Not scientifically or politically controversial. Not even merely frivolous. A whole continent of important human knowledge simply gone, like Atlantis beneath the waves."

And your own reaction?

There is something quite moving about the notion of vast tracts, whole continents of knowledge, lost, floating about God knows where, perhaps alongside other entire continents of data not yet discovered, and close to those Just about to surface, like Hannaford's glittering discoveries on race.

Artie O'Shaughnessy was right all along, each age is a dream that is dying. or one that is coming to birth.

Yes. We Irish, born into that ancient sect, but thrown upon this filthy modern tide, and by its formless spawning fury wrecked, climb to our proper dark, that we may trace the lineaments of a plummet measured face.


Oh. Willie B. Our proper dark indeed. The cheek of him. Listen.


No jokes today at all?

I am afraid not.