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Beneath Another Sky: a historian’s revisionist, global take on migration and identity

Norman Davies explainas how the places in which human beings fashion their identities are shaped by migration and the vagaries of power.

“For me, as a historian, the most fascinating realisation was that the Maoris’ traditional concept of time was completely different from our own. Europeans tend to imagine themselves as standing in the present and peering forwards into a murky future, with the past behind them. But Maoris adopted the opposite mental posture. They stood, as it were, with their face to the past, observing the doings of gods and ancestors while turning a cold shoulder on what was still to come. Their vocabulary reflects this stance. The past is ngaa raa o mua, ‘the days in front’, while the future is kei muri, ‘what is behind’. As one anthropologist has put it, the Maoris were ‘walking backwards into the future’. Their gaze was firmly fixed on the past. And the idea of progress was absent.”

Norman Davies came to this realisation during a six-month journey around the world, begun in the first half of 2012, which included a spell in New Zealand. During his stay he travelled from the southernmost tip of South Island to the northernmost tip of North Island. Using road, rail and ferry, it was a journey that took over a month and covered a thousand miles. The reward, he writes, was “enchantment”. It was not only the beauty of the country that Davies appreciated. One of the benefits associated with travel has been that the mind is opened to other ways of thinking, and there can be few more striking illustrations of this than the discovery that a forward-looking sense of time is not universal.

By itself, travel cannot produce such epiphanies. “In a world where travel has lost many of its mental and physical exertions,” Davies writes, “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… Some travellers travel enormous distances and keep all their preconceptions intact.” Having spent much of his career reassessing received narratives of the events that formed the world we live in, Davies wanted to do something quite different. He aimed to circumnavigate the world with a view to seeing its countries and cultures in new ways – an exercise that required close and deep knowledge of their histories.

Another motive for Davies’s journey may have been late-life wanderlust. Born in Bolton in 1939, he compares himself to the ageing Ulysses of Lord Tennyson, “one more ‘gray spirit’, who yearned for a last adventure”. So he set off on his round-the-world peregrination, accompanied during parts of the journey by his wife, the Polish scholar Maria Korzeniewicz. In the ensuing years “less memorable” travels followed – “by ambulance to the stroke department of the John Radcliffe Hospital (in Oxford), the operating theatre of the Churchill Hospital, and eventually the oncology unit of the Manor Hospital”. Memories of his global tour, he tells us, played a major part in his recovery. A rich, thought-stirring and deeply engaging blend of travelogue, memoir and historical investigation, Beneath Another Sky is the result.

A voyage that encompassed, among other places, Frankfurt, Azerbaijan, the United Arab Emirates, Delhi, Malaya, Singapore, Tasmania, New Zealand, Tahiti, Texas, Mauritius, Manhattan and finally Frankfurt again can produce a systematic derangement of the senses not unlike that which Rimbaud thought necessary for poetry, and the book is full of vignettes that express a liberating sense of disorientation. His impressions of Tahiti show this shift in perception at work. Davies’s first contact with the remote and supposedly paradisal island came from his uncle Norman’s stamp album, which included a “small battered and smudged stamp” that had somehow made its way around the world to Bolton. Uncle Norman’s album appears at several points in the book, and at times it is as if Davies’s odyssey began and ended not in Frankfurt but in his home town.

Recounting his voyage across the Pacific, he writes: “Peering at a map of the Pacific is akin to looking into the night sky. It starts with wonderment, and moves swiftly into disorientation… Like the stars of the Milky Way, the isles and atolls of Polynesia are overwhelming.” More than any other part of Polynesia – itself not a “Polynesian” word, but one invented by an 18th-century French philosopher – Tahiti has exercised a strong hold on the European imagination, acting as a magnet for “misfits, escapees and invalids. The island’s palpable melancholy suited them even more than the tropical climate.” Robert Louis Stevenson, Gauguin and the explorer Thor Heyerdahl were among many who travelled to the island to escape what they felt were the deadening constraints of civilisation.

Despite gorgeous sunsets in which the waters of the lagoons are “bathed in luminous orange light”, Davies finds the place “infinitely and insistently sad”, “a polluted paradise – the legacy of killer epidemics and all those foreign crewmen who loved and left, of political failures and, not too long ago, of bone-headed colonialism symbolised by nuclear radiation”. Ten thousand miles from Paris, the island continues to be dominated by the French, with the capital Papeete displaying “an inimitable mixture of the imposing and the nondescript”.

The overall effect is a pervasive lassitude. When Davies visited the Musée Gauguin he found a notice announcing that it was open every day; but the gate was locked. When I spent a few days on the island in the late Eighties my impressions were little different, though the museum was open (but it contained none of Gauguin’s original works, only an assortment of faded prints and dusty postcards) while sunset over the Pacific turned an exquisite silver once the flaming orange glow had dimmed.

Interspersed with vignettes of scenery and people are sections devoted to more general themes. One chapter considers the sense of orientation that normally governs our perceptions, and finds it embarrassingly parochial. The language of location, Davies insists, is relative, not absolute.

If you think about it, every spot on Earth lies to the east of somewhere, and to the west of somewhere else. There is no such thing as an “eastern country”, except in the minds of its inhabitants and neighbours.

As in many of his books, he complains that the pivotal role of “eastern” countries has been passed over in mainstream histories of Europe. The difference between “east” and “west” has a political as well as geographical dimension, one example of which is the recent rise in Russia of a “Eurasian” ideology, first formulated in the early 20th century and developed by the ethnologist and anthropologist Lev Gumilev (1912-92). Here Europe is seen as “the ancestral foe, the source of enmity, deceit and corruption”.

Among other damaging effects, Davies believes a conventional east-west orientation has led to academic neglect of the long history of Poland, where in 2014 he was awarded citizenship in recognition of his history of the country, God’s Playground (1979). As part of his championing of Poland’s history, he has suggested that the country’s contribution to the fight against Nazism has not been given its proper due – a view that has led to some controversy, with critics claiming he has underestimated the involvement of some Poles in collaborating with German forces in massacring Jews.

Near the end of the book, Davies examines empire and imperialism and their relations with capitalism and race, making the point that European empires were first constructed at home and only then exported to other parts of the world. Two sections of the book digress to consider the unsolved mystery of the Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, which Davies thinks was most likely a target of cyber-skyjacking.

If Beneath Another Sky has an animating theme, it is how the places in which human beings fashion their identities are shaped by migration and the vagaries of power. In his wonderful Vanished Kingdoms: the History of Half-Forgotten Europe (2010), Davies recounted the story of the continent’s many failed states, concluding: “Successful statehood is, in fact, a rare blessing.” Beneath Another Sky confirms that salutary observation. Digging into American history, he shows how the city of New York emerged from Dutch origins in a process that involved wars against indigenous peoples (many of whom died by contracting smallpox), slave-trading, the “Great Migration” of black Americans from the South after the Civil War, and the growth of the city as a place where minorities from Europe could find a haven. One of the most successful experiments in modern state-building, the US has been forged from unremitting conflict.

Along with many examples of the ephemeral nature of human institutions, Beneath Another Sky contains some extraordinary cases of continuity and survival. Not all of them concern states. Browsing in the forlorn and unvisited antique shops of Baku, his only find was a framed share certificate, “finely printed on green and white paper”. Dating from 1919, when the city was the centre of an oil boom, the share gave its owner a stake in Baku Consolidated Oilfields Limited (BCO), which operated from offices in Cannon Street from 1908 onwards. In 1919, fearful of the increasing Bolshevik threat, the company merged with Russian Imperial Petrol Limited. The resulting corporation had assets estimated at £85 million, far more than those of Royal Dutch Shell (£20 million).

When the Red Army arrived in Baku in 1920 and the company’s physical assets were nationalised, BCO retained its vast financial resources and remained free to trade outside the Soviet Union. The company, never ceasing to demand compensation for the assets it had lost, was the subject of a question in the House of Commons regarding its “properties, tanks, plant and oil”. BCO was wound up only in August, 1997, having outlasted Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev, Gorbachev and the USSR itself. The share Davies bought was practically worthless, but the company that issued it proved more enduring than a state that was supposed to abolish capitalism and usher in an entirely new stage in history.

Another postage stamp from Uncle Norman’s album tells a story of far greater longevity. Coming from Chamba, a Himalayan principality lying between Kashmir and Zanskar, and with a black overprint in capital letters, “Chamba State”, the stamp was “a worthy herald of the peace and order that Chamba enjoyed”. The ruling house of Chamba governed its dominion from AD 500, when the dynasty was founded, until 1948, when it was absorbed into the Republic of India, and today forms part of the state of Himachal Pradesh. As Davies notes, the dynasty “puts Queen Victoria’s Saxe-Coburg Gothas (later, the Windsors) completely in the shade”. Surviving all the empires that came and went in the region – Afghan, Moghul, Sikh and British – the former state was recognised in ceremonial gun salutes until Lakshman Singh, the then Raja of Chamba, died in 1971.

Such examples should give pause to those who assume that forward-looking institutions have the best prospect of surviving into the future. Contemporary thought can understand such survivals only as instances of atavism, which will inevitably be consigned to the past. For those who think like this, it was self-evident that the Soviet Union belonged in the future; nothing remotely like tsarism would ever be seen again. When the USSR collapsed, it was bound to be replaced by some version of liberal democracy – another system that believed itself to be at the forefront of history. From this point of view, the rise of Putin can only be an almost inexplicable step backwards. Similarly, liberals who are aghast at Xi Jinping’s neo-Confucian authoritarianism cannot help believing that it is an attempt to roll back what they imagine are the irresistible forces of modernity.

Closer to home, those who believe that history flows forwards are adamant that the institutions of the European Union will long outlast the nation states that exist on the continent today (many of which are themselves not very old). The prospect of the prevailing European order fragmenting under pressure from older allegiances and identities – which have surfaced in the crisis in Catalonia, a country with a thousand-year-long history, and more malignly in the return of ethnic nationalism in central and eastern Europe, now including Germany – is too disturbing to be contemplated. Such regressive developments can only be pauses in an ongoing forward movement. But what if these supposed reversions to the past are actually glimpses of the future?

For anyone who wants to understand our situation, a Maori-style concept of time of the kind Norman Davies describes may prove a better guide to events. The new dispensation that so many still expect shows no more sign of arriving than at any point in history. Rather than leaving the past behind, the world is walking backwards into the future. 

John Gray’s next book, “Seven Types of Atheism”, will be published in April 2018

Beneath Another Sky: A Global Journey into History
Norman Davies
Allen Lane, 768pp, £30

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 07 December 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special