‘Travelling’ historian Norman Davies writes near the end of this enthralling book, ‘had allowed me to think freely about the subject I have spent most of my life studying.’ From the journeys described in these pages he has confected a fragrant stew of history, literature and travel spiced with digression, detective work and dabs of humour.
A distinguished academic whose many books include the bestselling Europe: a History, Davies’ itinerary ‘was not dictated by any principle other than keeping on the move in the general direction of the sunrise.’ Twelve of sixteen chapters focus on a place – they range from Baku in Azerbaijan, where Asia and Europe overlap, to Cornwall. Four chapters are thematic. Davies’ goal, he said, was roughly akin to that of Goethe’s ‘school of seeing’: ‘to test my powers of observation, to spot the recurring themes and catch the fleeting details. And then to tell the story’.
Those themes include the history, and subsequent marginalisation, of indigenous peoples. The sections on the first inhabitants of Tasmania are particularly gripping. Linguistic revival and language in general fascinate this author. He uses Chinese characters and Japanese kanji to illuminate toponyms of those countries and includes a section on Tahitian nature words as well as a list of the vocabulary of the seventeenth-century Lenape who farmed and hunted across what is now the north-eastern US. There is even a glossary of Strine, or Australian English (I’ve always liked ‘strides’, which means trousers).
The author is a literary man, and quotes widely from sources from Dante through Aphra Beyn to Alexander Blok. Bunyan, that master of allegorical travel, provides a kind of leitmotif. The passages of straightforward history in Beneath Another Sky (though history is never straightforward) are excellent, as one might expect: I’ve never read such a concise account of the ethnic, regional and international problems that dogged the Federation of Malaya. It’s not surprising that it only lasted nineteen years. Demographics receive close analysis. The reader learns that Auckland residents of European descent made up 68 per cent of the total just twelve years ago, and that the figure is now 55 per cent. Davies extrapolates on this.
Of course, given the subject matter, parts of the book are gruelling, whether viewed through a long lens (war) or in close-up (a nine-year-old destitute British boy is transported for stealing toys). The chapter on Mauritius relates the unedifying episodes of Chagossian forcible deportation and Britain’s secrecy over the leasing of Diego Garcia in return for aircraft discounts. On a jollier note, Mauritius issued the first stamps in the British Empire outside Britain, and Dr Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam, the son of an illiterate Indian immigrant, rose to become his country’s first prime minister. Davies casts a wide cultural net throughout. ‘In many ways,’ he reckons, ‘the most deeply rooted and thrilling branch of Mauritian culture is Sega, a unique combination of song and dance that developed in the era of slavery.’ According to Democracy Index, Mauritius is the only country on its African list to qualify as a ‘full democracy’.
The author’s sensitivity to the sweep of history binds the disparate parts of this book. He has spent a lifetime thinking about his craft, and applies what he calls the daily task of orientation, or ‘finding one’s way’ to historians. ‘Whatever their subject or period of interest, they have to navigate through Time and Space, establishing what happened in particular moments and places, and create a chronological narrative.’
Amusing cultural comparisons enliven proceedings. ‘By sending Abel Tasman in search of the “Southland”, the lords of the Dutch East India Company were investigating a category of knowledge that the great epistemologist Donald Rumsfeld would have classified as a “known unknown”’. In Tasmania the author visits a Museum of Old and New Art which turns out to be ‘a temple of nihilist brainwashing’.
He has let his opinions seep into this book more than he did in his previous ones – after all, he has earned the right to a little subjectivity. He writes plainly, for example, about the ‘horrible racist nonsense that underlay Hitler’s policy of Lebensraum.’
In a long chapter on the history of aviation, Davies deploys his meticulous research skills to set out the probabilities and possibilities of what happened to downed airliner MH370. After many pages he concludes, ‘It must be a near-certainty that someone in the world knows more about MH370 than they have chosen to reveal.’ But who? He gives clues. Maritime disasters also hove into view. Know the worst sea disaster in European history? It was during the First Punic War in the third century BC, when 90,000 Roman soldiers drowned after a transport fleet sank off Carthage. Davies has an eye for the arresting detail, that all-important specificity. In the polar regions, a schooner captain is found frozen solid to his desk, his crew mummified in ice in their hammocks. ‘No food for 71 days’, the captain’s last diary entry read. ‘I’m the only one left.’
The prose is crisp and clear, notwithstanding the occasional infelicity – an interlocutor ‘bends my ear’ – and truism: a chapter on Texas begins, ‘The United States of America is a big country . . .’ On the whole the style is chatty, even playful, and Davies is an amiable companion on the road. He often tells us what he eats. Hesse’s Handkäse mit Musik, for example, ‘is famed for its flatulent counterpoint’.
Beneath Another Sky is a plum pudding of a book. Davies includes squibs, anecdotes and what he calls ‘items of interesting irrelevance’, sometimes for sheer fun. Anthony Burgess’ tutor at Oxford, A. J. P. Taylor, wrote on one of Burgess’ essays, ‘Full of bright ideas insufficient to conceal a lack of knowledge.’ In Singapore we learn that the island’s last tiger was shot from the balcony of Raffles hotel in 1902. This kind of detail lightens the statistics and data – though Davies never deploys either without a purpose. Most books are too long, but even at 742 pages this is not. Approaching eighty, with strokes and cancer behind him, Davies has allowed himself to spread his wings.
The final chapter, ‘Imperium’, is based on a lecture he delivered at various institutes while he was on his journeys. In it, he challenges the arguments of for example Niall Ferguson and Jared Diamond who ‘rely on a binary . . . view of the world’ – by which he means European and non-European. Davies’ pages on this topic will become essential reading for students of imperialism. He gives the last word to Indian politician Dr Sashi Tharoor. ‘No wonder that the sun never set on the [British] Empire. Even God would never trust the English in the dark.’