Our days of getting lost in far-flung cities are firmly on pause. But luckily there are books to tackle our Fernweh (a German expression to describe a longing for foreign lands). Going on a journey has long been a way of waking up our senses and challenging our preset notions. Think back to Goethe’s “school of seeing,” as he described his Italian Journey of 1816-1817. That idea of taking a trip with eyes wide open underpins the latest book by the veteran historian Norman Davies. Packed with evocative descriptions, Beneath Another Sky is a more than 700-page long tome with a very wide lens, as reflected in the sweeping scope of its subtitle: “a global journey into history”.
That title may sound hyperbolic but it holds up to scrutiny. This is an eclectic book with 15 stand-alone chapters that jump around the globe while taking deep dives into history. Those on the lookout for an overarching narrative or a sweeping conclusion will come away disappointed. Rather this is a meandering investigation, fuelled by curiosity and research in equal measure, an ageing historian’s grand tour. In the afterword the author explains the itinerary was “not based on any principle other than keeping on the move in the general direction of the sunrise”.
Davies, an internationally esteemed academic now aged 80, modestly describes himself as a "hardened historian”. He has penned a huge list of books, including the bestselling quests into European history “Vanished Kingdoms” and "Europe: A History”. But here he relaxes, leans back into his plane seat and follows his inquisitive urges around the globe.
And he is a personable guide, at times a bit like an old (well-educated) friend full of anecdotes after a work trip. The first person narrative delivers detail like the “fridge for dead body” label on the side of a van whizzing past in Delhi, or the T-shirt emblazoned with “Singapore: A fine city” before listing the four-digit fines levied for feeding the birds, dropping litter or picking flowers. But Davies never takes off the “hardened historian” hat. This book offers us a chance to join him on his journey, picking up his historical insight on the way, its narrative swinging between fact-filled historical chronologies and tourist’s impressions. Davies’ specific “school of seeing” is not confined to the present of the places he encounters but also the past: “Travelling had allowed me to think freely about the subject I have spent most of my life studying, history.”
He shakes up our assumptions, describing the shift of perception that happens if you ditch a modern atlas in favour of a sea map
His international adventures begin close to home. Chapter one is about Cornwall, charting the southwestern chunk of Britain and its long-standing zeal for independence. Here, as elsewhere in the book, he shakes up our assumptions, describing the shift of perception that happens if you ditch a modern atlas in favour of a sea map. Then, sea routes suddenly become the defining feature. Rather than being an outpost of the UK, Cornwall (or Kerno as it used to be known) emerges as a hub between Wales, Ireland, Brittany and the further flung Galicia. This leads to a starting block for one theme in the geographically jumpy narrative: “The early history of Kerno/Cornwall is a good example of the worldwide and continuing problem of indigenous peoples and of their struggles against rapacious conquerors, intruders, and exploiters.”
On his route, Davies takes the reader to places including Dubai, Delhi, Kuala Lumpur, Mauritius, New Zealand, Tahiti, Texas and New York. He also dwells on Frankfurt airport in a chapter entitled FRA which looks at flying in general, zooming in on missing planes and ill-fated journeys in particular. And the timing of the German translation of the book is poignant, plunging the contemporary reader back into a world of unquestioned mobility, habits which are both familiar but already somewhat alien. Here, streets and restaurants continue to bustle, lecture theatres are full, planes fly unimpeded.
But despite the limits of his bubble, the author narrates with humility and reflection
We travel alongside a man with an international reputation, a veteran academic who always has a set of lecture notes in his back pocket, following him to talk shows, university lectures and podium discussions around the globe. And this standing inevitably keeps him insulated: his is a world of experts, historians and ambassadors, like the one who swoops into an airport to rescue him from a stubborn bureaucrat when his visa has the wrong date. This means his exchanges and anecdotes are more likely to be with fellow academics over fine dinners than with locals on the street. We are far from backpackers’ travelogues, even further from the voices of the have-nots in the countries he visits. But despite the limits of his bubble, he narrates with humility and reflection, whether it is admitting to his elevated status, tracing the roots of the caste system in India, or dedicating a whole chapter of the book to imperialism.
Davies is also honest about how the journey upended his long-standing assumptions. For example, noting that his “orientational mindset was embarrassingly parochial” when he reached the Far East and found that for people living there, the far east was actually more likely to be found in Mexico or California. “Concepts of place are mobile, for the simple reason that the earth itself is both round and mobile”.
And Davies’ British heritage is never far away. And he choses to give the last word to the Indian politician Dr Shashi Tharoor: “No wonder that the sun never set on the [British] empire. Even God would never trust the English in the dark.”
Beneath Another Sky: A Global Journey into History. By Norman Davies. Penguin, London, 2018.
Translated by Jess Smee