The thesis of this author is that we in the twenty-first century are similar is very many ways to our distant Roman and Greek forefathers of the classical world.
It started well. He showed that public baths had started in Swindon (or possibly Ireland, and the London Turkish baths, or indeed the ones in Turkey, he mentioned briefly and then moved on) and suggested that this was a rerun of the obsession with public bathing enjoyed by the Romans but virtually forbidden (on grounds of indecency) by mediaeval Christianity: "St Anthony boasted that he had never washed his feet in his life."
He is almost as successful when he suggests that the fitness gym is a direct descendant of the Greek enthusiasm for physical fitness, a descendant whose lineage has a two thousand year gap in it. And it has been regularly noted that in our attitude to sex (particularly homosexuality) we are as liberal as the Greeks and Romans if not even more so. But it is less clear cut when he talks about food. We may be obsessed with cookery ("'gourmet' ... probably derives from the same root as our 'groom'"), as were the Romans, but were not other generations, if we are to go by the record of feasts held in mediaeval and Georgian times: St Thomas Aqiuinas "was so gloriously fat that a segment had to be carved out of the refectory table to accommodate his massive paunch."
He can certainly write. I loved his description of the spa attendant that handed him his robe as "the attendant with her not-quite-smile". He describes a man on a treadmill as "carrying enough weight to stop a Gold Cup horse in its tracks" and says that "In the gym everyone is a solipsist."
But then he increasingly indulges in polemic. He claims that Science reflects the pre-Socratic philosophers such as Thales. Up to a point. He is vituperative about the militant atheists Dawkins etc and describes Voltaire's Candide as "still the ultimate and unanswerable polemic against scientific optimism" (whereas I thought it was written anti-religion; Voltaire was a notorious atheist). He talks dismissively about the multiple new age cults and compares them to the boom in pagan religions at the dawn of the first millennium; he really goes to town about Hadrian's gay lover Antinous.
The problem is that Mount has ascended his soapbox. As his passions rise, his rhetoric gets louder and his evidence decreases. He interprets so much in the light of his own prejudices and he uses rhetoric (very Socratic) to replace evidence, for example when he repeatedly labels Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens and Grayling as the 'anti-God-botherers'.
As Mount gets angrier and angrier the details from the classical world get thinner. This is a thesis drowning in emotion and starving from lack of evidence.
There were moments when I wondered how much research he had done. He claims: "It is in Swindon that Ricky Gervais sets his comedy of modern office life" although The Office is set in Slough (there is another branch of the company in Swindon). Since this was on the second page, it started me worrying.
And yet how can it not be proven? The classical world that Mount describes lasts from the pre-Socratics from before 500 BCE until the Emperor Hadrian about 138 CE; in other words a period of at least 600 years. Inevitably, the culture he describes went through a number of transformations. The culture since 1416 has scarcely been uniform. To shows that an aspect of modern life is similar or dissimilar to an aspect cherry-picked from a 600 year period is surely not a particularly impressive feat.
So in the end I was disappointed that a book that started so well should fizzle out so self-indulgently. December 2016; 385 pages
- Having reviewed over 1100 books on this blog, I have now written one myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. It is available on Kindle through Amazon. Read it and find out whether this critic can write. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57