What is the first historical event you can recall?
The invasion of Egypt in 1956 during the Suez crisis. I was nine years old and I remember fervent discussions with other boys over the possibility of war with the Soviet Union. One of them, whose father commanded the Black Watch, claimed that at least this time we would have the Germans on our side!
What is the book you are most embarrassed you never read?
Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu. I have never got beyond halfway through the first volume because something has always distracted me. My wife bought the entire CD version read by French actors to play on long journeys in the car—fortunately when she was driving. The beautiful cadence of the sentences put me to sleep in a matter of minutes.
One piece of advice you’d give to your younger self?
Success when young is dangerous. Don’t panic. It is far better to be a late starter.
What is your favourite saying?
Intellectual honesty is the first casualty of moral outrage. (Copyright AB)
Where do you want to be buried or have your ashes scattered?
In our wood in Kent, south-east of Canterbury. I always love lying in bed listening to the hooting of the owls, and it will be nice to think they will be calling to each other above me when I’m gone.
If you were given £1m to spend on other people, what would you spend it on and why?
I would give it to a homeless charity to get vulnerable young people off the street.
The talent you wish you had?
Since my music master begged me to give up the piano after two weeks, I never had any illusions about my lack of talent in that direction. I would like to have been a better draughtsman, however. I attended life classes when I was at the University of Grenoble, and I wish I had followed it up even though I was realistic about my limitations.
What are the best and worst presents you’ve ever received?
Fortunately, bad presents have been eliminated within the family. We all choose our own presents and then the giver wraps them up.
What have you changed your mind about?
Lots of things too numerous to recount. In fact, when researching in archives, the most interesting items are those which challenge or change your assumptions, because then you know you have found something really new.
What is the biggest problem of all?
Globalisation is destroying the only justification for the capitalist system. In the past capitalism may have opened great gaps between rich and poor, but at least almost everyone was slightly better off as a result. That is definitely no longer the case with wages squeezed at one end and insane bonuses at the other.
Are people better off today than 100 years ago?
In comparison to a hundred years ago—the middle of the First World War—people are undoubtedly happier, but I suspect, partly for reasons mentioned just above and the threat of robotisation that people are far more insecure and anxious about the future for themselves and above all their children.
The last piece of music that brought you to tears?
Antonio Vivaldi’s Sacred Music, Laudate Pueri “Suscitans a terra inopem” sung by Carolyn Sampson. Composed for the court of Augustus the Strong of Saxony and Poland, the purity of the high notes gets me every time.