Jason Goodwin – ‘The machine age has turned us upside down’
1. You walked from Poland to Istanbul just after the collapse of communism – how different did you find the experience of walking between ex-communist and non-communist countries, or did the national character of the place trump any ideological inheritance?
Funnily enough, all the countries we walked through were post-communist, apart from Turkey, where our arrival on the border was like dropping into a pinball machine – lights, colour, seemingly infinite choice! But in many of those countries – Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria – time had to some extent stood still: we were travelling slowly through an older, agrarian Europe, where people lived off the land, and could live well, too, if the politics allowed them to. Not much had changed since the 1930s: the Second World War, then the cold hand of a dictatorship, had pickled their practices and limited the pressures on them to change. And in Poland and Transylvania, for example, collectivisation had been very patchy, and successfully resisted.
That was always interesting – to try and gauge the strength of civil society, flourishing beyond, beneath, the dictates of the state. Poland, for one, was always relatively independent-minded, with a flourishing civil society, built around Polish history, a sense of national identity, language, and the church, which allowed people to maintain a certain freedom of manoeuvre. It was a level of mutual trust that let them cock a snook at the authorities, up to a point: not for nothing did the Polish trade union Solidarity become the spearhead of a movement, bringing people together, which ultimately overthrew communism. Other countries had fewer options: Romania, for instance, was very atomised and trust between the people was at a premium. There are historical reasons for that, but I do remember that people were always uncertain there, and believed that every other person was an informer or member of the Securitate, the secret police. The overthrow of communism in Romania and Bulgaria was much less clear-cut, messier.
2. You are the author of the leading history of the Ottoman Empire – what was the secret of its longevity as an empire do you think?
No empire can survive without consent. The Ottomans brought peace, and mild prosperity, to regions that had been marred by instability. The Balkan tapestry was woven and maintained under them, for instance; a medley of languages, faiths and races which developed over five hundred years and fell apart in five, in our own time. So we needn’t think that our empires are so much cleverer. The Ottoman Empire provided outlets for talent, a stage for ambition. And in general it didn’t interfere with the rights and usages of its people. Its collapse was only inevitable when it could no longer provide peace and security. It was genuinely supra-national, and it floundered in an age of liberal nationalism.
3. You’re a great cook and have published a cook book. How does food help us to cross cultures nowadays?
Can we cross cultures? And what does that mean? Empathy? A shared sense of our humanity?
Food is primal, like language. Not many of us learn languages all that well, so probably food is a good way to visit other cultures, and get a taste of their geographies, histories, weather patterns, tastes, social structures… Unlike travelling, we can do it without leaving big footprints all over the host country. All it takes is a trip to the shops, some thought and sufficient greed.
But I wouldn’t overdo it. The business of sharing a meal is primal and exemplary, all over the world; it is lovely, and the traditions that have arisen are fascinating, but no-one should reduce it to thinking that an Englishman is roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, or that India is found in a curry. The wisdom of the East, like the wisdom of the West, lies in hospitality and generosity, not in some hard-to-find ingredient. And that, incidentally, is the zen of good cooking.
4. Your father was the well-known and highly regarded Earth mysteries author John Michell and you live in a place rich in standing stones – is this a field that holds any answers for humans living in the 21st century?
Whoever set up the standing stones comprehended the value of ritual, understanding and perhaps of mystery, too. Many of us moderns would be flummoxed to reproduce the knowledge and skill of those early builders – what do we really know individually of the movement of the stars and planets, the rising of the sun, the lie of the land? And does it matter?
I suspect that it does. We have evolved a system where we owe everything to others, shaped by processes we not only don’t understand but are actually unaware of; everything is specialised and complex. Computers and globalisation are symptoms of this.
Those people we met in eastern Europe thirty years ago, living quiet rural lives, shared a way of thinking and living that hadn’t changed too much in essentials since the dawn of settlement and farming in Mesopotamia ten thousand years ago. The machine age has turned us upside down, and we have to think about that. Of course, it has upsides. John Michell always used to say that we are living in the Last Days, and that our overwrought civilisation was on the point of collapse, as all mankind’s civilisations have collapsed before. He thought that when it fell, we would inevitably rediscover that sense of order and harmony that is innate in Creation. He also pointed out that in the Last Days you tended to meet lots of very interesting people, so although it was rather nerve-wracking it could also be quite fun. He adduced that from ancient Greece, Rome, Egypt and, I think, reading the Bible.
So if the stones can teach us anything it is the value of silence, which they have so nobly maintained for so many millennia; respect, for the environment, for the imagination and industry of our forefathers; and the elemental importance of a ritualised communion.
They may prompt us into the countryside, which is a good thing. I am keen on pilgrimage, where people step out of their daily lives to pursue a goal across a landscape which is also, inevitably, a way of entering something larger than themselves. That’s a paraphrase of what the previous Pope said about pilgrimage, and he called it God.