Norman Davies takes the reader on a journey that highlights the contrast between now and then, exploring the workings of historical memory on the way. He reveals how many important aspects of the past are lost to us, simply because the states in question no longer exist.
Davies is fiercely critical of the ultra-specialisation of historians, and sceptical of the narrow focus implicit in this approach. He intriguingly illustrates this through his concise subversion of the traditional lens of tales of success and great power. Some of these tales are indeed completely made up, designed to mislead.
Take Mount Everest. Sir George Everest never went there, as the peak in question is in Nepal and English explorers were denied entry. Instead, they decided to measure the mountain from afar, bungling the data in the process. In fact, Sir George passionately protested against his name being used, to no avail. As Davies points out, things are never quite what they seem.
Davies ponders the next vanished states: will it be Belgium, desperately dysfunctional? Or has Berlusconi led Italy down the road of doom? Who knows? But, as he aptly puts it: ‘Dead kingdoms have almost no advocates at all. Our mental maps are thus inevitably deformed.’
Vanished Kingdoms by Norman Davies (Allen Lane) £30