Tuesday, 3 November 2009


“If you want to understand today, you have to search yesterday.” - Pearl S. Buck

Today was the Melbourne Cup, and hence a public holiday in Melbourne. Our neighbours had a party last night, which kept us awake until after midnight and then it was a stop-and-start fitful sleep for the rest of the night. I did a great deal of work in the garden and house, and did not even bother to turn the TV on for the “Big Race”, as gambling a horses are not our thing. However, in the afternoon I had a little self-indulgence and read a little bit.

I have just finished reading Tom Standage’s book “A History of the World in Six Glasses”. This is a delightful book written in a way that is engaging and examines 10,000 years of human history in six representative drinks that have marked great historical changes:

1) Beer – Marked the change from hunting/gathering existence to a farming/civilised existence
2) Wine - The drink of civilised Greece and Rome
4) Tea - The import from the East, the life sustainer and improver
3) Hard liquor – Slavery and the American Revolution
5) Coffee - The drink that marked the Enlightenment and made possible the coffehouses
6) Cola - Especially Coca Cola and the expression of cultural dominance of the USA.

Interestingly, all of the above drinks made water safe to drink in times when the water supply was often tainted. The epilogue is worthy of being included as the seventh drink and a return to our origins, as it is water. Future wars will not be fought over land and territory, but rather over a ready supply of fresh water. Already people are paying large sums of money for water in first world countries, an in the developing world a supply of safe, clean water is often lacking.

Standage makes history entertaining and fascinating, and by concentrating on events surrounding his “six glasses” (a pun on six classes, I guess) he manages to give us the big picture of history, with interesting vignettes of the “small bits” here and there. Standage does not pretend to be all-inclusive in his world history and he omits some important “glasses” (for example gin in England and Holland in the early 18th century) because they are out of his orderly and logical timeline and interfere with the way he has laid out his premise.

I enjoyed the book quite a lot, not as a history book, but almost like a thriller. It’s a documentary and a biographical drama rolled into one. It is written in a style that is easy to read without being condescending or stooping to the lowest common denominator. It is a good introduction to the way that society shapes history and vice versa. I recommend it as it informative, entertaining and enjoyable reading. It will also serve as a good springboard for further reading (and Standage does provide an extensive list of further reading!).


  1. This sounds like a book I would enjoy reading. Thanks for the recommendation, Nicholas.

  2. I saw Barry Jones predict that in the future would be fighting over water.
    I trust his brain.
    The book sounds great - thanks for the tip.
    and I am proud to say I ignored the big race.
    There is some great Victorian History reading on our racing past.
    J.W.T 'Big' Clarke's biog, and the 19thC journals of James Bonwick describe drunken racegoers at Warrnambool in particular.

  3. How interesting. I wish they had taught us history like that.