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
Published in Mid-winter (Jan-Feb) 2019 issue of Prospect Magazine
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…