Daniel Snowman meets the historian of Poland, Europe and ‘The Isles’.
What led Norman Davies to his lifelong interest in Poland? An accident, it seems. At the height of the Cold War, he and a bunch of student friends decided to go by train to Moscow but the USSR embassy wouldn’t grant visas. Dejected, they checked the map to see how far their tickets would take them before reaching the Soviet border. The last stop would be Warsaw. Very well, they thought and went off to see the Poles. Would they give visas? Certainly, said a cheery official – adding sotto voce that it was a pleasure helping people who’d been rejected by the Russians!
Some forty-odd years on, OUP have just reissued a revised edition of Davies’ two-volume history of Poland, God’s Playground, bringing the story up to date. Or nearly up-to-date. We were meeting on the day of the Pope’s funeral and Davies had flown back the night before from an emotional, crowd-packed Krakow. If there’s ever a third edition, he would like to include an assessment of the impact and legacy of the ‘greatest Pole’ of modern times, John Paul II.
One of Davies’ earlier books is dedicated to the memory of a grandfather who, he says, was ‘English by birth, Welsh by conviction, Lancastrian by choice, British by chance’. It is a revealing formulation by a man whose writings constantly remind us of the surging cultural eddies and undercurrents that criss-cross the map of history (and in many ways his own history).