Britain and Western Europe, and then the other parts of the world where English is the dominant language, have mostly been blessed with a degree of geographically conferred freedom of manoeuvre that is denied to the inhabitants of pretty much all other nations. That is why these places got rich first. And it also now means that we Euros and Anglos are able to believe, as a matter of practical political policy rather than merely as privately pious aspiration, in a wide range of idealistic things of very variable value – things like freedom, democracy, equality, human rights, freedom for women, “social justice”. and so on and so forth – things that geographically more constrained people can only, as yet, dream of, and which they often regard as more as a threat to their own ways of doing things than as any kind of promise.
The word “maps” being in its subtitle, along with the bombastic claim that these maps tell you all you need to know about the world, these maps ought to be really, really well done, from the graphic point of view. But to my admittedly fading eye, they seemed to be not that good. On their own, they tell you nothing like everything about the world, which is why you actually need to read the book to get the points of all the maps. I was particularly disappointed by how the mountains look in these maps. Along with rivers, mountains are a big deal in this book, as you would expect them to be. But, in these maps, the mountains often scarcely register. It doesn’t help that the maps are done only with black ink on white paper. Colour would have helped. But even black ink could have been used, I feel, with somewhat greater clarity. I had to look quite hard to work out where these various mountains were. But, as I say, maybe that’s just me. My eyesight is definitely not what it was.
The mountainous insight I recall with particular pleasure is Marshall’s observation that the hostility between India and China would have been and would now be far greater, were it not for the most impenetrably formidable mountains on earth being at the boundary between these two civilisations. Contrast those impenetrable Asian mountains with that famous gap in the mountains in northern Europe, which results in a gigantic military parade ground with no natural barriers stretching from the Pyrenees to the Urals.
In addition to knowing better about Europe’s mountains, I now sort of know a whole lot more than I did about the mountains of South America. South America is, for me, one of the less fascinating places in the world, because, being so geographically cut off from the rest of the world and being of significance mostly only to their northern neighbours, South American mistakes count for a lot less than mistakes can elsewhere, especially mistakes made by the USA and Europe of course. South America, you might say, is basically just a big clutch of European mistakes.
Speaking of European mistakes, Marshall is very good on the habit of late nineteenth century Europeans of drawing straight lines upon maps of foreign parts, in defiance of geographical and consequent social and cultural and now “national” realities on the ground. The USA gets along fine despite all the straight lines that it contains dividing its states, because these states are, fundamentally, still very united, at least in the sense that everyone in them is quarrelling about the same things within the same political institutions. But the Middle East is still trying to shake free of its baleful legacy of fake states, which Europeans and now also Americans, all motivated by the need for oil, have expended so much of their own treasure and so much Middle Eastern blood trying to keep in being.