Books: Pop goes the historian

With his timely attack on the notion of `Britishness', Norman Davies is laying claim to membership of the band of superstar history- writers.

W hile successful novelists often generate a following - fans who will eagerly buy up their every new book regardless of subject matter - non-fiction writers, as a rule, do not. There are, however, exceptions to this rule, all of them historians who can guarantee an appearance in the bestseller charts whatever their chosen period. Antonia Fraser is the doyenne of this charmed circle, Peter Ackroyd the heir-apparent, Simon Schama his rival, and Andrew Roberts the young pretender.

With the publication of The Isles: A History, Norman Davies is staking his claim to a place at this particular round table. You need at least two headline-grabbing books to be considered, and his last offering, Europe: A History, a broad-brush, narrative survey of the Continent, certainly put him on course. It was so acclaimed when it appeared in 1996 that admiring letters arrived from both Tony Blair and John Major.

The Isles is, in one sense, a companion volume to Europe: A History. It has the same easy-to-read style, a similarly healthy proportion of people, stories, prejudices and information, and essentially the same theme - that Europe can only be seen as a whole from the Atlantic to the Urals, that we island people, whatever our foibles, are part of a European civilisation, and that the history of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland must be studied in relation to that of the rest of the Continent.

For Davies, a blunt Boltonian without airs and graces who spent much of his working life as an admired but relatively obscure academic at London University, the decision to follow up his book on Europe with another deliberately ambitious bestseller-in-waiting marks a decisive break with the past. He could have gone back to the more geographically and historically focused topics - Poland is his specialist subject - that had hitherto made up his career in print. Instead, at the age of 60, he has given up teaching to devote himself full-time to writing in the same popular vein as the Fraser-Ackroyd coterie.

Already he is finding doors closing behind him in the academic world, though he shows little regret at such a turn of events. "I must choose my words carefully here," he says of the reaction of colleagues to his success, clearly intending to do the opposite. "They are, generally speaking, very generous about it. With one or two exceptions. And those are the sort of pedants who insist on reading the footnotes before they look at the text." Aware of his own lack of expertise in many of the periods covered in such a wide-ranging book as The Isles, Davies sent out drafts of its 10 chapters to various sages in the university world for their comments. "One person came back to say that he couldn't read the draft without seeing the footnotes. When I questioned this, he said that without them he wouldn't know where I had got my ideas from. It clearly never occurred to him that I could have got them from anywhere else than someone else's book."

It is Davies' approach and the polemical, iconoclastic thread with which he stitches together his themes that set both books apart. In The Isles, he muses on details past and present to show what a confused idea of our own identity and island history we have, such as what our kings have actually called themselves (Edward I was Edouard, William of Orange Willem van Oranje) and the behaviour of England football fans, waving the Union flag at the 1966 World Cup final, but today preferring the flag of St George.

These are, he states with relish, examples of the "myths of British history", the first of which is that there is any such thing as British history at all. Hence the title of Davies's book - The Isles, not "The British Isles". Second in the list of myths to debunk is the idea that nothing here changes much. Davies delights in blowing any concept of continuity out of the water, charting, for example, the rise and fall of empire as an aberration in otherwise eurocentric British foreign policy. Then he turns upon insularity - the idea that we can regard our past in isolation from Europe - with devastating results; finally, he attacks what he calls "the Anglocentric myth". Here he quotes the tradition, still alive in some universities, of teaching only "English history". Until very recently Oxford University explained in a footnote that the subject "included the histories of Scotland, Ireland and Wales, and of British India and of British colonies and dependencies, in so far as they are connected with the history of England".

Davies laughs out loud as he quotes this to me. In part, it is his dislike of Oxford as a university - although he lives in the city with his Polish- born wife and children. He studied as an undergraduate at Magdalen College under A J P Taylor, to whom he refers as "my mentor", but Davies did not glide effortlessly into academia next to the Cherwell. Instead, he first served a five-year apprenticeship as a schoolteacher. His personal style would, I can imagine, ruffle a few feathers in the senior common rooms of Oxbridge. He evidently found London University a more congenial environment.

Yet his disdain for all things English carries more of a sting than can simply be put down to academic oneupmanship. "The problem," he says, "is that we have confused nationality with citizenship. They used to have it sorted out in the old Soviet Union. When you applied for a visa there, you were asked your citizenship - and there was only one answer, Soviet. Then you were also asked for your nationality and that could be any one of 70 or so different answers. Here the only concept we have to sort things out for us is that of being a subject of the king or queen, and that doesn't help a great deal".

One of the joys of Davies' writing style is that he can be both passionate and coldly analytical at the same time. So in The Isles, he can examine in detail the role of the monarchy in contributing to what he shows is an entirely artificially constructed sense of "Britishness" without ever giving away his own feelings about the Windsor clan. Yet in conversation he exhibits little similar caution and delights in telling me about how he pursued Prince Philip by letter to get the Queen's consort to admit he was neither Greek nor Danish, but German. Even under such onslaught, the Duke refused to buckle.

Norman Davies in full flight can be a little frightening, particularly since so much of what he says makes such good sense. He clearly loves being a maverick who says challenging things. He is certainly unafraid of an argument. To publish a book arguing so fiercely that England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland are bound up, past, present and future, with continental Europe at a time when membership of the European Union is such a political hot potato, will inevitably pitch him into a debate that most people would prefer to avoid.

Throughout his publishing career Davies' timing has been impeccable. His history of Poland came out in 1981 on the very day that the Solidarity uprising was crushed. His book on Europe was the first to cover the changes brought about by the fall of the Iron Curtain. And now he is writing at a crucial moment about Britain's place in Europe. "I must have some instinct somewhere," he says, though he - convert Catholic that he is - doesn't rule out a guardian angel.

Until Europe: A History, Davies had belonged to another exclusive group of British historians - those who had written what became the seminal history of another foreign country. His account of Polish history, God's Playground, is regarded as definitive in Warsaw. Despite his new-found taste for populist excursions into the mass market, Davies is not quite ready to turn his back on this academic world altogether. He is trying to keep a foot in both camps. After The Isles, his next book will be a return to Poland, with a scholarly history of the city of Breslau.

In his introduction to The Isles, Davies recalls spending a summer in the mid-1960s in a house that once belonged to G M Trevelyan, the celebrated academic whose own popular history of England appeared in the 1940s. When challenged by colleagues about letting the side down, Trevelyan described himself as a man of letters disguised as a don. In the continuing debate about how history should be presented to a wider audience, Trevelyan's is a form of words that Norman Davies is happy to adopt as his motto.

`The Isles: A History' is published by Macmillan (pounds 30)

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