The historian answers Prospect's brief encounter questions—including why he wants to be thrown in the Thames after he diesby Prospect Team / December 14, 2018 / Leave a comment
What is the first news event you can recall?
The sinking of the Flying Enterprise, January 1952. I was six, nearly seven, and pictured the gallant Captain Carlsen alone (or nearly—he had a tugboat mate with him) on the ship listing 50 degrees, trying to sail it to harbour intact but giving up after six days. It seemed spectacularly Man vs Cruel Sea, although it was later said that if he’d tried to make it to Cork not Falmouth, the ship would have survived. Why we should have cared so much about a freighter carrying pig iron and coffee beats me now—but we did. I remember seeing the Mayor of Falmouth in his chains of office, on the nine-inch television my parents had bought—the latest thing! The next month came the death of George VI—sad, but also deeply irritating for casting a pall over my 7th birthday.
Which historical figure would you most like to have dinner with?
Abraham Lincoln: the profoundest depths of humanity, the most eloquent tongue but also peppered with cornball jokes—many of them off colour. I’d want to ask him about composing the Gettysburg address; all its models classical and modern, and to give me some tips on conciseness. But I would also quite like souper à deux with [French actress] Sarah Bernhardt, or possibly her and Abe together. Lincoln might pick at his food, she wouldn’t.
What is the book you are most embarrassed you have never read?
Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities. Everyone I’ve ever respected has told me what a masterpiece it is; but something about it is as daunting as a German Gothic cathedral.
What is the most over-rated book of all time?
The Highway Code.
What is your favourite quotation?
“Be brave”—Arthur Schama on his deathbed. My dad wrongly reproached himself for not having been brave enough in his career; settling for business to keep his own father happy, relinquishing his dream of working in theatre. But he always wanted me to break norms and expectations, and believed that creative risk would find its reward and even if it didn’t one could die without his kind of regret. I’ve tried to honour his excellent advice.
Where would you like to be buried?
Chucked in the Thames. Not ashes but whole body in some sort of nice bag, pointing downstream to the estuary of my earliest memories and out into the sea. Illegal, yes, but hey, I’m dead. Irritatingly, my son has mentioned the Thames Barrier as an obstacle.
If you were given £1m to spend on other people, what would you spend it on?
The wonderful Eco-Peace project—which concentrates on water and ecological restoration across borderlines in Israel, Palestine and Jordan; a wonderful example of replacing mutual recrimination with necessary co-operation.
What have you changed your mind about?
Jaguar sports cars (sorry but can’t live without them); Victorian architecture (now pro); John Major (anti-Brexit warrior); Iggy Pop (extremely pro); Puccini (not so pro); Bach unaccompanied sonatas (necessity while driving Jaguars: see above); lamb (made me gag as child; now my favourite meat).