September 7th, 2015


The Twenty-Two Letters, by Clive King

Clive King is best known to my generation of readers for Stig of the Dump, in which a modern (ie 1963) boy makes friends with a caveman who has mysteriously appeared in the neighbourhood via a never-explained timeslip. It must be forty years since I last read it. It may be forty years also since I last read The Twenty-Two Letters, in which a family living in a city-state on the coast of what is now Lebanon about 3,500 years ago is torn apart by war and natural disaster, and start to rebuild their society by inventing the alphabet. The author worked for the British Council in Syria in 1951-55 and Lebanon from 1960 to 1966, when the book was published; and his fascination for the history of the region, and how it fed into world culture, is a warm underpinning for the slightly didactic themes of how three technological innovations (writing, celestial navigation and horse-riding) come together with the Thera eruption to create the foundations for Western civilisation.

It was a good book when I read it in the 1970s, and it's a good book now. There are some lovely asides, some of which I picked up at the time (the character who is obviously a Hebrew, without that word ever being used; the casual racist disdain of the sophisticated Mediterranean types for the incomprehensible pale-skinned northern Europeans) and some of which I was able to get only now with help from the Internet (the Serabit el-Khadim inscriptions). The copy I had as a child had some beautiful internal illustrations by Richard Kennedy; unfortunately the more recent reprint that I have now has only the cover and chapter headers. It would be worth getting an old paperback for the sake of the art.