During a one-year sojourn in London in the 1970s, my secondary school O-level history curriculum covered about a century from mid-1700s on. A decade into a discussion of the Napoleonic Wars, the history master (for such he was called) mentioned, almost in passing (and, in retrospect, probably for my benefit), that after marching through a swamp, a detachment of British soldiers had burned down the White House. “That’s the War of 1812!”, I interjected, finally twigging to what we had been discussing. “That’s what you call it,” was the reply. The “war” that engendered the National Anthem was to the British a mere police action in a far more important conflict.

The Sino-Russian relationship is often seen by the West (for which, read the USA) as a sort of counterpoint to Sino-American relations with Russia ready to step in when the US takes a step back. Sören Ubansky’s recent book is one of the periodic but salutary reminders that China and Russia’s mutual dealings are not just centuries old but have also for the most part had little to do with third parties.

Back in the day, whenever one was in a waiting room or vestibule, one would likely come across a copy of “Reader’s Digest”, which would include a diverse selection of pieces, often abridged, often extracts from elsewhere: easy reading, something to interest anyone and everyone, thought-provoking but not enough to require too much mental exertion.

On 7 September 1695, just off Surat in Gujarat, an English pirate ship knocked off the Fath Mahmamadi, owned by an Indian trader who, according to a contemporary source, did as much trade alone as the East Indian Company all together. The pirates had been waiting for it at the Bab-el-Mandeb between Arabia and the Horn of Africa, but the Fath Mahmamadi had slipped by them in the dark of night. The pirates, whose ship the Fancy was one of the fastest afloat, beat the Indian vessel back to its home port and laid in wait again. The Fath Mahmamadi surrendered after a single broadside, yielding more gold and silver than the pirates had ever seen in one place.