Flight into history that’s slow to take off

Beneath Another Sky: A Global Journey into History
By Norman Davies
(Allen Lane, £30)

Every time Norman Davies boards an aeroplane, he says, he is reminded of an uncle, a pilot in the Royal Flying Corps who died on exercise during the First World War. And yet in 2010, at the age of 70, Davies, a distinguished chronicler of European history, set off on a round-the-world trip by plane that would take him to India, South-East Asia, Australia, New Zealand, Polynesia and the United States. Why? 

He is not entirely sure, though there was a yearning for a last adventure. Having been asked to give a speech in Melbourne, he determined to spend a year or so heading out and back, and see the world on the way. His goal was “to test my powers of observation, to spot the recurring themes and catch the fleeting details, and then to tell the story”.

The result is Beneath Another Sky, a work that is partly history, partly travelogue, partly memoir and wholly enormous. It runs to 750 pages, including afterword (in which he thanks those who have helped him in a subsequent journey through cancer), notes and index. It’s a timely book, but a flabby one.

One of his conclusions is that it makes no sense to separate, in our minds or in our studies, domestic European history and the history of the interaction of Europeans and non-Europeans: “Global history or the history of humanity is all that there really is.”

Another conclusion or, rather, a truth of which his travels have reminded him, is of more urgent importance in our times; times in which a British prime minister has had to rebuke an American president for spreading far-right propaganda. That truth is that migration has been a central feature of human history. Ending a chapter on New York, that traditional gateway to the United States from Europe, Davies writes: 

“[Migration] brought the Anglo-Saxons into Post-Roman Britain, including Cornwall. It propelled the Turkic tribes into Azerbaijan, the Moguls into India, the Chinese into Malaya and Singapore, the Africans and Indians into Mauritius, the British into Tasmania and New Zealand, the Polynesians into the Pacific, and the Americans into Texas. The Pilgrim Fathers were refugees. The teeming mass of steerage passengers arriving at Ellis Island were economic migrants. Migration built the world’s most powerful state and its ‘biggest Apple’. 

Go back far enough, he says, and you find that all indigenous inhabitants came from somewhere else — even those of his native Bolton: they belonged to Wales before they belonged to England or Lancashire.

If Davies’s book were a plane, one would say it’s slow to get airborne. The trouble: cannibalised parts. He used material written initially for other books, made trips to additional places (including Madeira, a waypoint from the Age of Discovery that remains a waypoint in the age of cruising). Thus, while his round-the-world flight began in Frankfurt, a fact revealed 600 pages in, the book opens with the history of Cornwall.

It’s a book in two voices — of far-seeing historian and sight-seeing tourist. The former shows brilliantly that maps aren’t just geographical creations but embody notions of which countries are at the centre of things and which at the periphery; they convey “power, pique, prestige and prejudice”. He writes briskly, vividly, on the fall of Singapore to the Japanese in 1942 and “the slough of complacency that… scuppered the British”. He is persuasive, even, when he speculates that the Malaysian Airlines plane MH370, which disappeared in 2014, was an object of cyber skyjacking.

The latter writer, the off-duty historian, has his moments: there’s a lovely passage in which, gazing at the undersides of jets from his airport hotel in Frankfurt, he’s reminded of “childhood under the family dining table, from where one once examined the shoes, shoelaces…  skirts and trouser bottoms of the eating adults…” More often, though, there’s the plodding prose of the guidebook (“Those who opt… to follow the religious circuit can start with the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, the Sri Mariamman Hindu Shrine, the Malabar Mosque, and St Andrew’s Cathedral.”), or brochurese (“A gentle walk home along the Corniche is not to be missed.”).

Davies jokes that he is “a relic of the British Empire” (and later refers to a professor at the UAE university as “a lady academic”). He is certainly not a typical 21st-century traveller. His passage through frontier, lecture-room and airport is eased by a succession of diplomats. In Baku, an ambassador fixes a problem with a visa; in Delhi, another ambassador collects him in a limousine and sends him on a tour of a Sikh temple with the writer of a thesis on Sikhism.

When you get accustomed to doors being opened, you can forget how it’s done. In Dubai and Abu Dhabi, he is shown round by expats but has no contact either with the migrant workers, “who [sic] one sees on every occasion”, or with ordinary Emirati families. “To discover their perspective”, he read reports by foreign correspondents and an online post by a New Zealand visitor who had chatted to ferrymen on the Dubai Creek. Why didn’t he chat to ferrymen and families himself?

Nearing page 600, he says that the memory of Madeira and its flowers “is enough to revive a tiring author, who is now approaching the end of his voyage and this book”. Clearly another joke: he goes on for almost 70 more pages. MK

This review appeared in The Daily Telegraph on December 30, 2017