What first attracted you to the period or periods you work in?
The Second World War was such a dramatic, traumatic event – but what interests me just as much is what happened next. How did we react to that massive trauma? How did it change society? How do we remember it today, and what parts have we chosen to forget? That’s really important to me, because it’s as much about who we are now as who we were then.
Can you tell us a little more about how you research? Has the process changed over the years?
The way I research has mostly stayed the same over the years. First I devour general histories of the period I’m looking at. Then I plunder their bibliographies to seek out books on more specific aspects. It’s only once I’m confident I know the outlines of my subject that I dive into the relevant archives to see what else I can find that is new. This is the biggest challenge. Sometimes you can spend days looking through boring or irrelevant stuff. With foreign archives, sometimes I have to employ a local assistant just to help me with the language – but they don’t always understand precisely what it is I’m looking for, so there can be a lot of to-ing and fro-ing. Wherever possible I try to go to archives myself, and struggle through German, French or Italian documents – despite my own language deficiencies it always ends up being much more efficient that way. In the past I also used to do a lot of interviewing, but nowadays survivors of the war are becoming few and far between.
The common phrase is that history is written by the victors. Do you think this is true?
Of course it’s true – but hopefully it’s becoming less so. A good historian should always try to find other points of view. And a good reader should always be willing to accept new points of view.
A good example is what has happened with black history recently. What used to be a simplistic story of slavery and abolition – a story told mostly by the white ‘victors’ – is now becoming much, much more interesting. We’re getting to see all kinds of points of view these days that were invisible just a few years ago. For an old white guy like me, with parents who grew up in the empire, it’s a real eye opener. And about time too!
Are there any historians who helped shape your career? Similarly, can you recommend three history books which budding historians should read?
There are too many to choose from. If you forced me at gunpoint to pick out three books, I’m afraid I’d only disappoint you by recommending my own!
If you could meet any figure from history, who would it be and why? Also, if you could witness any event throughout history, what would it be?
I’d love to meet Churchill, because he seems like he’d be entertaining to have a drink with. Einstein, from my reading, comes across as a genuinely nice man. And Sartre and De Beauvoir seem like a pair of great minds. But truthfully I’d be nervous about meeting any of them. How disappointing would it be to catch them on a bad day, when Churchill was incoherent, Einstein in a temper, or Sartre and De Beauvoir in some existentialist sulk? In my experience, heroes never live up to our idea of them.
If you could add any period or subject to the history curriculum, what would it be?
The history curriculum gets a bad press, but on the whole I think history teachers are doing a good job. There’s so much to cover, and it’s not easy to keep everyone engaged. I suppose that I’d like to see much more European and World history studied – but that would come at the expense of a bit of British history, which is also important. The only sensible thing is to concentrate on instilling a bit of wonder and excitement in our kids – then they’ll go out and find these things out for themselves.
If you could give a piece of advice to your younger self, either as a student or when you first started out as a writer, what would it be?
Don’t panic when you get a bit of writer’s block. The battles you fight today might seem fruitless, but they’ll bear fruit tomorrow or the next day. There’s no point in getting your knickers in a twist.
Can you tell us a little bit more about the project you are currently working on?
I’m working on a book about Naples in the aftermath of the liberation in 1944. Naples is such an exciting, dirty, sexy, ancient city – it’s a great excuse to spend some time there. But the main reason I chose this subject was to clear up some unfinished business. A few years ago I wrote a book about the aftermath of the war in Europe, and Naples featured heavily in the opening chapters. It was a place of such extremes in 1944: huge wealth arriving with the Allied armies, terrible poverty amongst the starving population, the continuing desperation of the war, revenge against collaborators, corruption, the resurgence of the mafia – it’s a story that has everything. And then, in the middle of it all, Vesuvius erupts. I wanted to explore it much more then, but I had other topics to cover. Now at last I can give this city the attention it really deserves.