The historian and author answers Prospect's questions on favourite quotations, most embarrassing moments—and why he'd like to have a go at being a real manby Prospect Team / April 4, 2019 / Leave a comment
First news event you can recall?
Neil Armstrong landing on the Moon in July 1969. I was five at the time. I was delighted his name was Neil, disappointed that he had the boring spelling.
The book you are most embarrassed you have never read?
Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu. I can never get past the tedious opening, in French or in English.
If you could spend a day in one place at one moment in history, where and when would that be?
I’d quite like to pop up in the cabinet room on 2nd August 1914, and give a brief but shocking presentation on the consequences of what they were about to decide to do. Churchill would take some persuading, but I think the rest of them would get the message.
What is your favourite quotation?
“As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport.” (Gloucester in King Lear, Act IV)
Which person would you most like to spend a day in the shoes of?
I have always found the thought of wearing other people’s shoes repugnant.
The best and worst presents you’ve ever received?
Presents are enormously significant to children who are not spoiled. As a child, I received them only on my birthday and at Christmas. The one that gave me the greatest satisfaction was either my first Action Man (my sons find this baffling) or a paperback edition of The Lord of the Rings. The worst present—which I received as an adult—was an outrageously expensive Swiss watch made by IWC that caused me anxiety for years until, eventually and predictably, it was stolen.
Are things getting better or worse?
Some things better, others worse. By the material measures my friend Steve Pinker collects, things are mostly getting better. However, our capacity for self-destruction grows greater every day.
What is the most embarrassed you’ve ever been?
When I misspelt the word “embarrassed” in front of the entire Glasgow Academy at a school version of Mastermind—with Magnus Magnusson in the chair. I shall never live it down.
What would people be surprised to know about you?
That I am an introvert driven into the public sphere by economic circumstances.
If you had your time again, would you like to have a go at being a woman?
I would love to have a go at being a real man.
Which of your ancestors or relatives are you most proud of?
I am deeply proud of my five children because, despite my shortcomings as a father, they seem to be living up to the very high standards of integrity instilled in me by my parents and grandparents.