Sweep­ing ap­proach to his­tory

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - PATRICK FREYNE - DIAR­MAID FER­RITER

Diar­maid Fer­riter on Nor­man Davies’s world



Allen Lane, 750pp, £30

Nor­man Davies has never suf­fered from lack of am­bi­tion in his his­tor­i­cal range, as wit­nessed in a num­ber of his pre­vi­ous books, in­clud­ing the whop­ping Europe: A His­tory (1996). Yet even by his stan­dards, the project un­der­pin­ning this book was daunt­ing and dar­ing; to travel around the world in the first half of 2012, to “test my pow­ers of ob­ser­va­tion, to spot the re­cur­ring themes and catch the fleet­ing de­tails. And then to tell the story.”

In the hands of a lesser his­to­rian this book could have been a mess, but Davies, now al­most 80 and hav­ing come through strokes and cancer, pulls it off. He has the depth and ex­pe­ri­ence to be con­fi­dent in his sweep­ing ap­proach – the book is just over 700 pages – and he has a hu­mour and wry­ness that sug­gest he is en­joy­ing him­self no end, though this can lead to oc­ca­sional loss of fo­cus. He also has power and com­fort on his trav­els: “I am for­tu­nate that I can count on diplo­matic sup­port dur­ing for­eign trips”. He spends much time “at the top end of the so­cial scene” and at des­ti­na­tion air­ports there was in­vari­ably a limou­sine wait­ing to pick him up.

He man­ages to weave an ab­sorb­ing mix of past and present, mak­ing the book both travel guide (he fre­quently quotes from in­flight mag­a­zines and lo­cal news­pa­pers and tourist pub­li­ca­tions) and his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tive. There are cen­tral themes, un­der­lined in how he in­tro­duces his foray into the his­tory of Corn­wall; its evo­lu­tion and the fate of its lan­guage Kerneweg, was “a good ex­am­ple of the world­wide and con­tin­u­ing prob­lem of in­dige­nous peo­ples and the strug­gles against ra­pa­cious con­querors and ex­ploiters”. He also cites this theme in re­la­tion to the an­cient king­dom of Cau­casian Al­ba­nia and the shadow of Rus­sian ex­pan­sion. He then trav­els to the United Arab Emi­rates, where seven men rule and 80 per cent of the pop­u­la­tion is de­nied ba­sic cit­i­zens’ rights, mean­ing the as­ser­tion that “Is­lamic bank­ing… pro­motes the con­cept of fi­nan­cial fair­ness” seems far-fetched.

In In­dia, he out­lines the his­tory of its caste sys­tem, vis­its mon­u­ments and mu­se­ums that are redo­lent of past glo­ries and re­flects on an In­dian rail­way sys­tem that “for the post-im­pe­ri­al­ist Bri­tish vis­i­tor is redo­lent of a sense of re­demp­tion”. Wo­ven into his var­i­ous his­tor­i­cal and ge­o­graph­i­cal nar­ra­tives are the many racist frames of mind over cen­turies that au­to­mat­i­cally den­i­grated colo­nial peo­ple to jus­tify colo­nial rule.

He delves in to the “ex­tra­or­di­nary lin­guis­tic con­coc­tion” that re­sults from mix­ing the var­i­ous lan­guages in Malaysia and de­lights, be­fore delv­ing into the his­tory, in high­light­ing con­tem­po­rary life in his host coun­tries, in­clud­ing Sin­ga­pore’s “all-en­com­pass­ing by­laws… one of­fence, ap­ply­ing mainly to men, bans uri­nat­ing from a stand­ing po­si­tion after 11pm”. He is also in­trigued by the “gas­tro­nomic cu­riosi­ties” still ex­tant that in­volve “mix­ing ori­en­tal dishes with ec­cen­tric Bri­tish food prod­ucts”.

He de­votes much at­ten­tion to the fall of Sin­ga­pore in 1942 which hu­mil­i­ated Bri­tain and moves on to dis­cuss the ori­gins of car­tog­ra­phy, the an­nals of East-bound nav­i­ga­tion in the 16th cen­tury and the re­jec­tion by Chi­nese, Kore­ans and Ja­panese of the Euro­cen­tric idea that they live in the “Far East”.

He is very strong on Tas­ma­nia and the 11 Euro­pean ex­pe­di­tions to Van Diemen’s Land from 1772-1803 as well as those who were trans­ported there, in­clud­ing many Ir­ish. In the 1830s Wil­liam Ul­lathorne, the Vicar Gen­eral of New South Wales, recorded that “fifty thou­sand souls are fes­ter­ing in bondage… we have taken a vast por­tion of God’s earth and we have made it a cess pool”.

In­dulges his senses

Davies is driven by a noble quest: “to un­der­stand the peo­ple who went be­fore… the abo­rig­ines, the colonists, the bushrangers, the con­victs” and he also in­dulges his senses: “I started with a chow­der, packed with su­per-fresh prawns, mus­sels, sea trout and gar­lic crous­tade… washed down with a bot­tle of Bay of Fires Ries­ling”. In New Zealand, he me­di­ates on the sur­vival of Maori cul­ture, pre­served by the me­chan­ics of a com­plex oral tra­di­tion. He is apt to con­trast tourist guff and pro­mo­tional web­sites with the com­plex­ity and bru­tal­ity he de­lin­eates. In do­ing so, he re­veals many lay­ers, in­clud­ing sci­en­tific ex­pe­di­tions to the Pa­cific, the im­por­ta­tion of dis­ease, the ig­no­rance of pa­cific cul­tures and the Chris­tian mis­sion­ar­ies who sought to con­vert the “noble sav­ages” of Poly­ne­sia: “Uniquely, the only Pa­cific is­land to es­cape the clutches of for­eign im­pe­ri­al­ists was Tonga”.

From the Pa­cific, he moves to Hous­ton, Texas, and ex­pands on the “vi­tu­per­a­tive dog­fights” that have be­set re­al­i­sa­tion of the “Amer­i­can dream”, as well as dig­ging into the “as­ton­ish­ing diver­sity of Na­tive Amer­i­can cul­tures” and the US in­va­sion of Mex­ico in 1846. He also out­lines in great de­tail the his­tory of New York, not­ing, “after 250 years of mass mi­gra­tion, NY is still the para­mount city for ar­rivals”. His ob­ser­va­tions on mi­gra­tion have a par­tic­u­lar res­o­nance given con­tem­po­rary de­bates, prej­u­dices and fears. Al­most half of New York­ers speak a lan­guage other than English at home, a re­minder of the rel­e­vance of the phrase “the melt­ing pot” in­vented about the US by the Bri­tish-born writer of Pol­ish-Jewish de­scent, Is­rael Zang­will (1864-1926).

As early as 1643 a vis­it­ing Dutch pas­tor re­ported that 18 lan­guages were spo­ken in what be­came New York; in­deed it “ac­quired some of its out­stand­ing present-day char­ac­ter­is­tics” from the Dutch and he notes point­edly that the Pil­grim Fa­thers were refugees, all of which re­minds us “that mi­gra­tion is a cen­tral fea­ture of hu­man ac­tiv­ity”. Davies then moves back to Europe and Frank­furt air­port, where he be­gan his jour­ney. Its main build­ing is “a tor­ture cham­ber of sen­sory bom­bard­ment”.

An­other chap­ter in­cludes a his­tory of avi­a­tion and un­solved air mys­ter­ies and he re­flects at length on the pos­si­ble causes of the downed Malaysian air­liner MH370 in 2014, which to my mind does not fit well into the over­all nar­ra­tive. Fi­nal reflections on the his­tory of im­pe­ri­al­ism in­volve a de­tailed re­view of how this sub­ject has been writ­ten about to date, and the dilemma of writ­ing “bal­anced” im­pe­rial his­tory, based on lec­tures he has de­liv­ered (and he delvers many in the course of his voyage).

Davies is keen to con­test the idea of a “bi­nary” view of the world – Euro­pean and non-Euro­pean – pro­moted by, among oth­ers, Niall Fer­gu­son. He ar­gues that the worst pages of Euro­pean his­tory were “writ­ten at home” and that “Euro­peans’ long record of in­hu­man­ity to each other dis­qual­i­fies them from any pre­ten­sions of su­pe­ri­or­ity over the peo­ples of other con­ti­nents”.

The scale of Davies jour­ney was never go­ing to pro­duce a short book and his sub­ject mat­ter mer­its con­sid­er­able length, but he is over-in­dulged by his edi­tor: do we re­ally need to know that his guide in Baku, Azer­bai­jan “has jet-black hair, jet black brows, jet black eyes, jet black lashes”? Nor is it nec­es­sary to re­mind us “there’s noth­ing like trav­el­ling around the world to sharpen one’s sense of ori­en­ta­tion”. But per­haps, at this stage, Davies has earned some in­dul­gences and he is also a good enough his­to­rian to ad­mit to his own ig­no­rance; thanks to his trav­els he “learned that my own ori­en­ta­tional mind­set was em­bar­rass­ingly parochial”.

In rec­ti­fy­ing that, he has de­liv­ered a pow­er­ful ge­og­ra­phy and his­tory les­son and im­bued it with style, verve, hu­mour and oc­ca­sional grumpi­ness. It is all un­der­pinned by im­pres­sive re­search and the man­u­script was first hand­writ­ten and then trans­formed “into dig­i­tal text” by his friend Magda Ra­b­iega. There are un­likely to be many more such tran­scrip­tion ar­range­ments.

Diar­maid Fer­riter is pro­fes­sor of mod­ern Ir­ish his­tory at U CD and an Ir­ish Times colum­nist. His next­book, On the Edge: Ire­land’s Off­shore Is­lands, A Mod­ern His­tory will be pub­lished in Septem­ber

Davies is driven by a noble quest: “to un­der­stand the peo­ple who went be­fore… the abo­rig­ines, the colonists, the bushrangers, the con­victs”

Nor­man Davies: ‘the depth and ex­pe­ri­ence to be con­fi­dent in his sweep­ing ap­proach’

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