Ian Sansom

Dreaming of wide open spaces

His paean to plains, plateaus, deserts, steppes and fens is certainly original — and actually fascinating

On the website of the Australian National University in Canberra, emeritus professor of history Barry Higman lists his research interests as food sciences, cultural studies and historical studies, with a particular interest in

The world history of food over the last 5,000 years; the global history of domestic servants in the modern world; the history of the Jamaican landscape; the history of Australia as a flat place; and the history of islands and insularity.

This rather unusual breadth of interests suggests either that Professor Higman is a very curious man indeed or a complete academic fraud. Fortunately, for the sake of the future of higher education in south-eastern Australia, it’s the former. Flatness is the uneven, fascinating work of a true scholar enthusiast. Flatness: effervescent.

‘I cannot see a plain without a shudder:/ O God, please, please don’t ever make me live there,’ wrote Auden in one of his ‘Bucolics’. (Auden of course famously preferred a limestone landscape, with its ‘rounded slopes’ and ‘secret system of caves and conduits’. Take from that what you will.) Higman is the opposite of Auden. He loves plains of every kind: Flatness is an investigation of what he calls ‘pervasive planarity’, from naturally occurring plateaus to engineered plane surfaces.

There is, for example, an entire chapter on ‘Level Playing Fields’, which describes and analyses the level surfaces required for running, riding, table tennis, chess and football, etc., in which he usefully identifies an aspect of most modern sports which explains exactly why they’re all so bloody boring:

Standardisation stemmed both from a political desire for social control and from a growing impulse to measure and compare … Modern sports are … highly repetitive in their elements, taking the spectator to the edge of monotony by requiring that the fundamental conditions be the same in each iteration.

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