Lead book review

Reading Norman Davies’s global history is like wading through porridge

2 December 2017

9:00 AM

2 December 2017

9:00 AM

For many of us, life has become global. Areas which were previously tranquil backwaters are now hives of international activity. Leisure travel has given us the possibility of first-hand exposure to once very remote places. You don’t have to be particularly privileged or adventurous to go on holiday in January to south-east Asia: two weeks in a western chain hotel plus flights to Thailand may only cost £1,000. The increase in migration to western countries since the 1940s means that many lives are bound up with previously distant cultures — we have spouses, in-laws, lovers, friends and connections of all sorts whose origins lie in different countries and continents.

And, of course, there is the internet, making foreign media and cultural productions available to us in the West, unedited and uncurated. It is quite touching, in this book about different global locations, that Norman Davies takes the trouble to sit down in the High Commissioner’s residence in Delhi with the Times of India and tell us all about the newspaper. But it’s not necessary any more. This morning, at home in Switzerland, I called up its website and spent a pleasant half hour reading about horrid domestic crimes:

‘Some youths, who are yet to be identified, beat Ahmad, 30, Israr, 25, and Bakr, 22, after a tiff,’ said Baghpat superintendent of police Jaiprakash Singh.

The subject of migration, trade, the journey of ideas and the breaking down of the national barriers which seek to prevent these things is a very rich one. Davies is an excellent historian, who has worked in the past both on a local scale, in first-rate books about Poland, and on a larger scale, in a substantial history of the whole of Europe. Beneath Another Sky goes on a whistle-stop tour of half the world: no Africa or South America, and Europe can be taken as read, but otherwise Davies’s curiosity takes him to Azerbaijan, the Emirates, India, Malaysia and Singapore, Mauritius, Tasmania, New Zealand, Tahiti, Texas, and Manhattan. In each of these he writes about his own, quite low-level, encounters and a few aspects of the place’s history or culture that take his fancy.

Some of the investigations are fresh and interesting. The transformation of the Emirates with the coming of oil money is vividly described by witnesses: an Arab recalls his childhood treat being camels’ milk, bread and honey, while an RAF sergeant remembers delivering petrol, oil and 14 untethered goats (‘peeing and crapping everywhere’) into the dunes in 1961. Six years later, Michael Frayn, in his novel Towards the End of the Morning, could treat a press trip to celebrate the opening of ‘Sharjah, the Pearl of the Trucial Riviera’ as a huge joke. But it wasn’t long before the UAE became a highly popular holiday destination whose resident population was only 20 per cent Emirati.

There are other interesting explorations. Many people are drawn to Baku in Azerbaijan by its riches — more oil — and, curiously enough, by its staging of the Eurovision song contest in 2012. Its history is worth unearthing, and Davies’s account of the way it fell to the Bolsheviks after the Revolution is unfamiliar territory, well covered. Similar, though better known material, is the fall of Singapore in 1942 and the atrocities committed by the Japanese. Strangely, perhaps the least familiar story is the book’s opening account of Cornish history — evidence of how very international our mindset has become.

Davies supplies some engaging larger thoughts — about maps and explorers, and ways of thinking about the world. No one now, he rightly says, considers themselves as living in the Far East or the Middle East, and some terms for neighbours to the immediate east — such as Nippon, Anatolia, le Levant — just refer to ‘the rising sun’.

There is plenty more that has caught Davies’s fancy, including transatlantic crossings, imperialism, disappearing aircraft and Frankfurt airport. Some of these form an ongoing playful and very personal narrative. His uncle Norman’s stamp collection crops up repeatedly, giving us an unexpected insight into several destinations, including Mauritius, the source of philatelist fantasy since it issued, in 1847, the first stamps in the empire outside Britain. (Out of 500, 27 survive: the Prince of Wales paid £1,450 for one in 1904.)

But it must be said that more incisive connections are frequently missed. Davies goes from Baku to the UAE without talking about the international transport of oil, on which so much depends and which has transformed so many backward places. And it’s odd to discuss immigrant labour in the UAE and then travel to India without exploring that particular journey. It would have been better to go from the UAE to Dhaka, a major source of UAE labour. The piquancy of the UAE and Bangladesh gaining their independence within days of each other, in December 1971, might have inspired some thoughts about the different fates of nations.

Similarities, too, are sometimes drawn where it’s more important to explain distinctions. In later chapters, the Australian aborigines — indigenous for tens of thousands of years before their annihilation in Tasmania by the British — are implausibly connected with the New Zealand Maoris —Pacific settlers a few hundred years before western arrivals, with elaborate courts, rulers and a culture that could be understood by Europeans.

Sadly, too many reflections on places show local inexperience. There are harmless comments on food (‘a barbecued stingray served on a banana leaf is very popular’). The sort of jokes saved for distinguished foreign visitors are retold guilelessly (‘People here have a very flexible view of punctuality. They call it “rubber time”’). Much of the chapter on India is a complete waste of time — the usual stuff about the caste system; the explanation that Davies didn’t go to the Taj Mahal ‘but decided to stay in Delhi to see another magnificent Mughal mausoleum’ (Humayun’s tomb, not much of a discovery). Embarrassingly, Davies turns out to be one of those English visitors, usually first-timers, who can’t distinguish between an untidy, crowded part of an Indian city and real deprivation. He manages to offend a rickshaw driver by describing Old Delhi as a slum.

On the plus side, he does eventually hit on a good piece of information by following Uncle Norman’s stamp collection to the princely state of Chamba — virtually; I don’t think he goes there — and telling us about the gun salutes to which rulers and officialdom were entitled under British rule. (The Raja of Chamba was allowed an 11-gun salute: below him were the rulers of 443 states who weren’t entitled to anything.)

This is a very long book, and I think Davies’s eminence has shielded him from some fairly brutal editorial input. It might have included such comments as ‘we know all this’ and ‘not very interesting’ and ‘needs more work’. The moment has surely passed when one’s prepared to buy a hardback in order to be told that it’s amusing when New Zealanders ‘order “Fush and Chups” and then ask for the “Bull”’. We might even ask for our money back when the author innocently advises that ‘anyone enquiring after the history of Mauritius could do worse’ than look at Wikipedia, recommending both French and English websites.

There’s quite a lot of interesting material here, but it’s bolstered by much stuff that can’t be news to anyone and barely connected at all. If the ultimate effect is to recreate the experience of sitting, mildly jet-lagged, in an air-conditioned coach from an air-conditioned airport to an air-conditioned hotel, drowsily listening to a rambling version of whatever comes into the guide’s mind, we can only say in Davies’s defence that that mind is a sprightly and well-filled one — and from time to time something with real pizzazz and narrative zing emerges from the porridge.

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