A few pages into his wonderful new book, Norman Davies quotes Goethe on the joys of exploring new lands and cultures. Travel ought to be ‘a school of seeing,’ a way ‘to discover myself in the objects I see.’
Throughout his ‘global journey into history’ Davies follows Goethe’s sage advice. All of Davies’ customary scholarly rigour is on display but the tone is winningly intimate. Personal reminiscences, ambitious historical narratives, and analyses of the contemporary social and political landscapes of the places he visited are skilfully interlaced. He wonders if, ‘like the ageing Ulysses of Lord Tennyson’ he was ‘just another “gray spirit” who was yearning for one last adventure,’ but far more was achieved. To wit, the crowning glory of a remarkable scholarly career.
Davies begins close to home in Cornwall, a place whose poignant history introduces one of the book’s recurrent themes: the ‘struggles’ of indigenous people ‘against rapacious conquerors, intruders and exploiters.’ Next, it’s on to Baku with its ‘virulent forces of narrow nationalism’ and, after stopping off in Dubai, we reach Delhi and the ‘sheer savagery’ endured by the Dalits. All of which may sound a little bleak, but Davies injects a good deal of humour and his fascination with how all these places turned out as they did inspires a sense of wonder.
The book moves on, via Kuala Lumpur, to Singapore where we are reminded of the bizarre by-laws that make the chewing of gum such a perilous pursuit and, in the interests of noise-abatement, ban ‘urinating from a standing position after 11pm.’ Tasmania receives special attention. It is, in Oz, the butt of crude jokes and, as one local explained to Davies, is thought of ‘as we think of Britain... very remote, very wet and full of old-fashioned folk.’ It turns out that Tassie has much more to offer, though this should hardly be a shock, what with its ‘human history of 40,000 years or more.’
On the last leg, Davies touches down in Tahiti, then Houston with its soulless 20-lane highways, and then the ideal closing scene of New York City. Davies’ chronicle is brimful of potted histories that would put regional specialists to shame and compelling accounts of his encounters with customs officials, a fair few ambassadors, and a motley crew of fellow academics. He is very good on food: stuffed pike in Azerbaijan, barbecued stingray in Singapore and, in Texas, the perennial choice of ‘steak, steak, steak or steak’ served up on plates almost as wide as the table.
He is even better on local languages: from India’s ‘omnivorous language scene’ with its 122 major tongues and 1,599 minor ones, to the charms and pitfalls of Australian English. Davies is struck by the ‘colourful demonyms which Australians use to identify the inhabitants of their country.’ For those in Victoria, the residents of New South Wales are termed ‘cockroaches’ and South Australians are routinely dubbed as ‘croweaters’. The local argot, with its bludgers, chooks and drongos is, at the very least, inventive, so perhaps Churchill was being a tad harsh when he denounced Ozzie English as ‘the most brutal maltreatment that was ever inflicted on the mother tongue.’
There is something in these pages for aficionados of airports (they’ll enjoy tales of getting lost in Frankfurt) and even some musings on the history of sundial design. Big themes also find their place. Davies wonders what terms like East and West even mean, he strives to conceptualise and adjudicate imperialism, and there is no doubting his belief in the crucial role of geography in the course of human affairs. History, he writes, ‘is a tale not just of constant change but equally of perpetual locomotion.’
Our duty, then, is to explore other places with sensitivity but without being cowed by accusations of ‘cultural appropriation.’ In theory, this should be easier these days, but the opportunities are frequently missed. ‘In a world where travel has lost many of its mental and physical exertions, one meets people who fly thousands of miles to do a bit of shopping in Dubai, to lie on a beach in Bali, or to watch a cricket match in Adelaide.’ Goethe would be disappointed.