Vanished Kingdoms: the History of Half-forgotten Europe -  Norman Davies So this turned out to be waaaay more WTF than expected. While also being really fucking boring.

Now, i’m the escapee graduate of a Marxist cult that hasn’t incorporated a new idea since Warsaw Ghetto fell. I am perfectly at home with the notion that all accounts of history are an ideological construct - including the ones you *(yes, you) hold dear. Since history can never be known, but only abused, you might as well shrug and move on with the brainwashing. So the question then becomes, what is this book arguing for, since we know what it’s arguing against?

Oh, yes, what is it arguing against? Why, other people’s historical memory! This includes, but is by no means limited to: library catalogues, school curricula, folk music festivals, museum exhibits, the official websites of French villages, German towns, Italian cities, Spanish provinces and Belarus. Wikipedia, Google’s search algoriths and hobbyist geneaologists, (lets just say the whole of the internet.) Video games, random maudlin memoirists, tours, brochures, guidebooks, tourist information in fifteen countries, Orhan Pamuk, Voltaire, Isaac Asimov and possibly the Irish.

So what does the book have in it? Each chapter, detailing a poorly remembered, or at least dead, European polity, has three parts. One is a sort of travelogue of the modern region, looking for signs of the past. The second bit, most of the book by volume, is an account of the history of said polity, and the third part is a kind of historical reckoning.

Part one is more interesting as geography than as history and is moderately tolerable if you’re into that sort of thing. Part three is rants at everyone in the universe for failing to remember the exact nomenclature of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.

Part two is unreadable. I know, becuase I mostly didn’t. It a dust dry, super old school, dynastic history thing. All about who married who and when she died. It gets slightly livelier as move on from dimly chronicled Medieval Angevins or Burgundians or someone and on to more solidly accounted for Habsburgs, Bonapartes and Brabant’s. Then we get a better account of their amusingly inbred degeneracies, idiotic deaths and general inevitable fuckupedness. There’s lots of maps, excerpts, lots and lots and lots of family trees and...oh, yes, theres songs.

Oh, god, not the songs. Provided typically in two or three different languages, we get the nostalgic-nationalist nuttery of every anthen in central Europe since the Vikings invaded. I thought I had seen it all...but then we got to the chapter about Irish republicanism, complete with “Danny Boy” and “Tipperary.”

Wait! You may be saying (yet are probably not,) Ireland?!? The Republic of Ireland? What is a lengthy chapter about a country that appears to be alive and well as of this writing, doing in a book about the obscurely departed? A chapter that covers, no less, that fog shrouded and distant period from 1916 to...2011.

I’ll tell you what it’s doing there. It’s allowing us all to witness a truly glorious, feverish, morbidly gleeful, sweaty rant on the inevitable fall of the United Kingdom. The Irish, y’see, were just the start. Davies cacklingly fantasizes about Scotland taking off, and the Northern Ireland uniting with them (which i’ve never heard before but think is a delightful notion) and then theres a whole new level of pain reserved for the Welsh who’s latent burning nationalism will inevitably arise due to being left alone with the English under a single roof. It’s great.

I might have thought that bit was a bit odd, but it was after the chapter about Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. Or, to follow it’s main trajectory, which only skims central Germany in passing, it’s a soliloqy on the wholly un-English un-Englishness of those totally un-English tossers who call themselves the Windsors but are really the Saxe-Coburg-Gotha-Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glukburg’s. Not content with pointing this out, we then get an entire page or so of a list of all the German aristos the not-Windsors are more closely related to than they are to the Plantagenets or Alfred the Great or possibly Arthur Pendragon or something. Reading it is rather like trying to read a Berlin yellow pages, which is upside down, and someone is whacking you hard on the head with it.

So what can we learn from this book, except that school children need to think about death more more for a well rounded education and to avoid the fall of western civilization (again)? Monarchies are swell, but only the right sorts of monarchies? The Irish are not to be trusted? Small kindgoms are funny? I have no idea, but I know Norman Davies is no more free from history than the rest of us.

The best single bit is a vintage WW1 Galician joke:

A German officer on the Eastern Front: “The situation is serious, but it is not hopeless.”
His Austro-Hungarian comrade, “No, it is hopeless. But it is not serious.”