When I arrive (late) for lunch at St Antony’s College, Oxford, Professor Norman Davies is reading a fan letter. It is from someone who claims to have been at school with him and he shows me the first line: “Dear Dr Davies, Please don’t be unduly alarmed at receiving a letter from someone writing from HMP Wandsworth…” It is a long letter, and it turns out to be from an armed robber. “Plenty of time on his hands, then, I suppose,” Davies observes, tucking the letter away for later.
I’m in Oxford to talk to Davies about the potential disappearance of the Europe with which we’ve become familiar since the Treaty of Rome in 1957. His new book Vanished Kingdoms is a history of those various European states that have predeceased the EU and sunk beneath the waters of obscurity – states such as Etruria, Galicia, Eire or the Soviet Union. We are all so busy asking clueless economists what is next going to happen to the eurozone, but perhaps we ought to seek the lessons of history.
Davies is a short man who speaks in a voice enriched with a northern English accent. At the moment, while he’s recovering from a hip operation, he moves awkwardly. That is not the only thing that is awkward because when his gaze settles on me, I sense disappointment and suspicion. I suddenly feel like an undergraduate handing in work I know to be substandard. I reassure him of my credentials with the story that when my wife was in labour with our daughter, I read her long extracts from Davies’s A History of Europe. The birth took 18 hours so I got through quite a bit of it, and by a curious coincidence I am meeting Davies exactly 12 years later, on my daughter’s 12th birthday.
In a roundabout way the letter from the armed robber and the 12th anniversary of my reading A History of Europe both chime with one of the many themes that inform his new book. Vanished Kingdoms is a study of the events that led to the disappearance of various European states – states such as Alt Clud, which for 500 years stretched across southern Scotland, or that of Carpatho-Ukraine, which only lasted for a day. These disappearances are of a rather different magnitude to everyday events such as a man ending up in jail when his fellow pupil ends up as Honorary Fellow of an Oxford college, but they are prey to the same forces, which Davies describes as “contingency”.
“Why does a state last a thousand years? Why not 999? Why not a thousand and one? What are the events that finally bring the whole thing down? That is what I am asking.”
By contingency, he means more than mere coincidence, but it is by coincidence the day we meet, Mervyn King has been talking about the financial crisis: “Who knows what’s going to happen tomorrow, let alone next month?”
This is just the kind of uncertainty Davies is interested in and there is a distinct brightening of the glint in his eye when he imagines the break-up of the United Kingdom, something he says has become a possibility thanks to this crisis. “If the Tory Right manages to shift the blame for it onto the euro, they might be able to get a referendum to leave the European Union altogether. If that happens, then the Scots – who’ve always seen membership of the EU as a bulwark against English encroachment – will probably vote for independence. If they go, then Wales will go, and that will be the end of the United Kingdom. Vanished.”
It’s a shocking thought, but Davies talks about the Jagiellonians, once the ruling dynasty of the largest kingdom in 15th-century Europe. For centuries it was taken that the family would reign forever, but as Rousseau suggested, nothing made by mortal man can be immortal, and within a few years that which had seemed eternal was gone, and the Habsburgs had emerged “out of the crooked timbers of European history” to snap everything up.
He makes it clear that this is not necessarily a pessimistic view. “States seem to have a natural life cycle,” he says, “and anything can occur to change them into something else, and that something might be no bad thing.”
It is an unexpectedly cheering conclusion.
* Norman Davies is appearing at the Hay Winter Weekend, which runs from December 2-4. hayfestival.com/winterweekend
Vanished Kingdoms (Allen Lane) is available for T £26.
*Brecon Beacons Holiday Cottages offer over 300 holiday cottages in and around the National Park, with a good selection of properties in the Hay on Wye area including several conveniently located in the town centre.
The Brecon Beacons is less than three hours drive from London, two hours from Birmingham and only one hour from Bristol. As well as superb walking, it is famous for its world-class mountain biking and a range of outdoor activities.