‘It’s rare for any one person to see one more than once or twice in their lifetime.“For me, as a historian, the most fascinating realisation was that the Maoris’ traditional concept of time was completely different from our own. As one anthropologist has put it, the Maoris were ‘walking backwards into the future’. 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.A rich, thought-stirring and deeply engaging blend of travelogue, memoir and historical investigation, is the result.
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, (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. 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.
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.
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 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”.
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”.