Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Norman Davies and his readers' perceptions

All historians interpret events in the light of their own perceptions and experiences. This applies as much to Norman Davies as it does to his readers, including myself.

I make this point because Davies' strengths lie in his outside perspective, leading him to ask new questions and to generate new insights. His weaknesses lie in his sometimes partisanship. The latter parts of the book are, to a degree, commentary as much as history.

In his review of the book in the Australian historian David Day wrote:

Davies has marched in from the margins to knock over those blustering mythologists who have held such a tight grip on our collective imagination....

I suspect that my interpretation of the book is very different from David Day's. To a degree, I too write as an outsider. For many years now I have argued that current approaches to Australian historiography distort Australia's history in just the way that Davies complains about in his history of the Isles.

Whereas many Australians might read Davies as validating the positions they have adopted on certain issues, I read him a very different way. He validates my complaint about the almost complete disappearance of the history I am interested in. Substitute country or Northern NSW for North England or Scotland, Sydney and the other metro centres for London, and you will see what I mean.

The issues that Davies writes about are certainly germane to today: the tyranny of the majority, the exercise of state power, the blindness of central authority, the creation of national identity, conflicts over faith, even language policy are all there. One of the strengths of the book is the way in which the sheer passage of time covered, twelve thousand years, allows us to see things play out over time in a complicated and sometimes chaotic environment.

Davies is not blind to the strengths of the things he criticise, nor is he blind to the sometimes short-sighted stupidities on the other side. He is partisan, but usually fair. I will look at some of these things in later posts.

Note to Readers: for a full list of posts in this series see Train Reading - Norman Davies The Isles: a history 1.

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