Perth Writers Festival: A Window into Our Past

Tom Holland (on left) and Jared Diamond (in red jacket)

Tom Holland (on left) and Jared Diamond (in red jacket)

Another writer I was really excited about seeing at the Perth Writers Festival was Jared Diamond, author of the best-selling popular science books Guns, Germs and Steel and Collapse: Civilisation. So it was with much anticipation that I went along to the Perth Writers Festival’s A Window into Our Past, featuring both Diamond and Tom Holland, British novelist and BBC writer.

A Window into Our Past was the first time I’ve heard about Tom Holland. He writes both fiction (books set in the past and often with a supernatural element) and non-fiction (books about the ancient world, mainly Ancient Rome and the Persian Empire). He’s also adapted Herodotus and Homer, among other ancient Greek writers, for BBC Radio and been involved in writing, producing and presenting documentaries that look at ancient cultures and myths. It’s definitely an incentive for me to look up his work.

The event was held at UWA’s Winthrop Hall, which is a great setting, almost like a cathedral with its stained-glass windows, vaulted ceilings and a massive pipe organ. For all its beauty though, it was rather hot, and took me back to childhood days of sitting in mass at church, nodding off to sleep and trying not to fall apart with the heat. And it made it that much harder to concentrate on Diamond and Holland, not to mention the fact that though both authors were on a stage raised above, the seating arrangement still made it difficult to have a good view of them, especially if you’re a shorty like me and everyone else in front of you is so much taller.

Holland and Diamond, checking out the stained glass window and pipe organ of Winthrop Hall behind them

Holland and Diamond, checking out the stained glass window and pipe organ of Winthrop Hall behind them (sorry, the picture didn’t take in the windows and the organ)

Holland seems to be the narrator of much of the conversation, almost like an interviewee for Diamond. He speaks in a polished British accent, enunciating his words beautifully, which made it easy to follow him – Diamond, on the other hand, had a typical American accent and sometimes his words do get rather lost in a mumble. However, it was interesting to hear them discourse on their various expert subjects (Diamond is an expert on Papua New Guinea and Holland is, as mentioned above, an expert on Ancient Rome and the Persian Empire.) Holland offers some interesting anecdotes about Ancient Rome and both writers comment on what we, as a modern society, could take away from these older cultures.

I was a little disappointed though that they didn’t really touch much on the controversy arising around Diamond’s latest book,  The World Until Yesterday, in which the organisation Survival International, took offence to Diamond’s portrayal of tribal societies as more violent than modern ones. Diamond himself has hotly responded to this, pointing out that his work has been reviewed by many anthropologists and scholars who found no problem with his assertions, and in turn accusing Survival International of reducing tribal societies to nothing more than ‘the noble savage.’ That would have made for a pretty good debate, and one whose topic wouldn’t skew too far off from the main issue of A Window into Our Past, on what modern society could take from the traditions of older cultures. However, it was still an interesting conversation, and what which would leave us thinking exactly how divorced we as a modern society are from that of our ancestors.


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