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The Eyes of God

On reading the encyclopedia.

It is a winter Sunday afternoon in 1960, and I am in the garage of our modest but comfortable house in a pleasant suburb of Portsmouth, arsenal of Empire and Britain’s premier naval station. It is raining heavily, but the doors are open. I can stand less than a foot from the gray curtain of falling water, but remain perfectly dry, a curiously pleasing sensation. Nobody knows where I am, and even if they did, nobody is going to pester me to go out and get any exercise. The sensation of order, peace and safety is so strong you can almost hear it. The sabbath peace of pre-revolutionary English suburbia is total. I know that, a few hundred yards away, reached through a nearby park, is the never-resting sea, patrolled by Her Majesty’s Navy. It is a moat, not—as it would be today—an open door to anyone with a rubber dinghy and a bit of nerve. Huge ocean liners pass along it, on their way in from unreachable destinations such as New York or Cape Town, journeys I never expect to take. The idea of foreign travel is, at this moment in my life, repulsive to me. Recently shown a picture of Saint Peter’s basilica in Rome I had at first clamored to be taken to see it, but then tearfully abandoned the idea, on learning that I would need to leave Britain to do so.

Yet this insularity does not mean I am not interested in the world beyond the sea. It just means I do not wish to go there, and hope that it stays safely where it is. As I enjoy the hiss of the rain, I leaf through a scuffed, weathered red volume of something called The Children’s Treasure House, an Edwardian compendium of facts, stories and pictures assembled by the late Arthur Mee, the man to whom I owe much of what I am, how I think, and what I know. We have only two books in this series. One is called Our World and the Others and contains a pre-1914 account of what we then knew of the Solar System and the greater universe beyond. The other is Immortal Heroes of Our Time which, from memory, included a range of great men and women from Horatio Nelson to Miguel de Cervantes. I have no idea where they had come from and have no clue what became of these books. They vanished in one of the many moves our family made in those days. I did once encounter a complete set of them decades later in a shop of old curiosities in a battered part of Liverpool, but had no way of carrying them home. Was it in one of these books that I first glimpsed a sepia reproduction of Raphael’s lovely painting La Fornarina? I cannot think where else it could have been. I was in love with her generous face for years afterwards, and still am. How astonished I was a few years ago, when the actual picture was exhibited in the National Gallery in London, to find that she also possessed rather generous breasts, a part of the picture the encyclopedia had understandably failed to include. The mixture of surprise, amusement and pleasure which I felt when I found out what had been withheld from me was well worth the wait.

But when I was an inquisitive child, Mr. Mee’s arrangement of knowledge and choice of pictures appealed to me far above anything else I had ever seen. Bad weather, and we had plenty of it in my childhood, was always an excuse to disappear into these winding highways of outdated ideas and suppositions, punctuated by blurry pictures. Later I came across his more ambitious and successful Children’s Encyclopaedia, sold in the United States as The Book of Knowledge. But it was the old, pre-1939 version of this work that I loved, not the breezier later editions. I liked especially knowing what people used to think, because I realized a very simple thing: that today would one day be a long time ago, and that what everyone now believed would seem laughable to those who came after.

I am just flicking through my Children’s Encyclopaedia and here is an article from the late 1930s entitled “The March of Man from the Age of Barbarism to the League of Nations.” A photograph taken “in the main street of Mombasa, Kenya” shows men holding up the tusks of slaughtered elephants for sale, without any obvious note of disapproval. Then there is an illustration of “the great canals and desert spaces that many people imagine to be on Mars,” complete with “vegetation” and oases. An article on “Keeping Ants as Pets” might provide some light relief to the child who has just read Tennyson’s “Ulysses”, absorbed a very learned explanation of the life and work of Robert Browning or been shown “What a Steam Turbine is Like Inside.” An illustrated feature on the Royal Mint depicts a world which is at once modern and wildly archaic. In this immense coin factory a young man is shown in a soundproof cubicle. His work is explained: “to detect any cracked money, men ring each coin on an anvil.” Oh, that they still did this. It reminds me of the scene in How Green Was My Valley in which a miner’s wife tests the golden Sovereigns of her husband’s wages when working men could earn real money, and real money was gold and silver.

I will not quote the opening words of the entry on “Prayer” for fear it will get me into trouble. But at the foot of the page, the following words are inscribed, without embarrassment, in black capitals: “Justice. Will. Faith. Beauty. Righteousness. Truth.” Where foreign lands are mentioned, which is quite a lot, they are either imperial allies forging onwards into modernity with the aid of colossal hydroelectric dams, or remote and exotic. There are Chinese Mandarins in their robes, and coolies in conical hats, paddy fields plowed by water buffalo, ancient vessels with eyes painted on their bows and colored sails. The world beyond Britain shown here is a pungent one of beasts of burden, tremendous spaces, terrific mountain ranges, brigands, tribesmen, mud huts, igloos and caves. Every country in the world is portrayed in lovely panoramas, seen from far above with the eyes of God (these images always come into my mind when I hear the words “who dost from thy throne behold all the dwellers upon earth” in the “Prayer for the King’s Majesty”). Modernity appears in the shape of steamers with tall funnels and railway locomotives rushing through bush and scrubland, scaring away lions and giraffes.

How I loved this depiction of the vast foreign lands stretching east and south beyond the English Channel. At first they were not so dissimilar to our own country. But as they moved into hotter and more mountainous regions, they softened and blurred into a sort of myth. Years later when I actually saw Jerusalem, Jericho, the Jordan, Tigris, and Euphrates rivers, Baghdad, Samarkand, the Caucasus, and the Himalayas, a part of me was confused that these legendary cities also existed in twenty-first century reality, with drains, bus stations and traffic lights. I felt and still feel that I was not really supposed to be there, that they existed in another dimension for other sorts of people. As I sat rapt with my old encyclopedias, I had feared to visit them, but I was comforted that they were immensely far away and that they were very strange. They would not come near me, if I left them alone. But they were already growing nearer and nearer, as I grew older.

Years later I became the most unlikely foreign correspondent in the history of newspapers (for I hated leaving home every time I did it, and longed to be back at home all the time I was away). I found myself traveling to many of the lands I had studied through the pages of Arthur Mee. In almost all cases the profound peace depicted in the soft gray photographs of the encyclopedia had been obliterated by the usual scour and screech of motor vehicles and the squawk and thump of electronic music. The evocative smells I had imagined, of strong dark coffee and cigars, of spices and firewood, of bison, camels or donkeys, were gone, replaced by the rasping odor of two-stroke exhausts and the nauseating stench of American cigarettes. The crumbling drum towers had been replaced by concrete slabs, and the local style of dress replaced by denims and sneakers. Very occasionally, as among the serene mountain temples of Bhutan, or in the unmodernised rice fields of North Korea, and the chiseled, ancient faces of those who worked in them, did I find what I had sought. The trouble was that the people who actually lived there yearned for the very modernity I hated, and who was I to deny it to them?

And only in the lawless, desolate streets of post-modern Mogadishu did I experience the terrifying remoteness from all modern help which I had always feared and not especially wanted to meet. For most of my childhood a Somali spear, simple and cruel, had hung on the wall of one room or another of my home. It seemed a pathetic weapon when set against the guns of the British Empire my father had served. But as I walked trembling and unarmed through the heart of the Somali capital, it was the Somalis who had the guns, while the Empire was long in its grave. That was where I also ate camel stew, because there was nothing else to eat just then, and the smell of that, and of fear in general, was exotic enough to last me a lifetime. How I yearned, as I ate my stew, to be back in southern England, warm and dry, with the rain pouring down, and all the frightening things on the planet tidily contained in an obsolete encyclopedia.