Neil Oliver, interviewed by Justin Doherty

Justin Doherty, security consultant and former army officer, met up with Oliver to discuss his latest book.
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In his new book, The Story of the World in 100 Moments, Neil Oliver has chosen events covering a million years to understand how human history is linked. Justin Doherty met up with Neil recently, and they discussed the new book, what inspired it, and the subject of history itself.

Neil Oliver , why did you choose to tell your story with these moments in such a personal way?

That’s the crux of the matter, isn’t it? You know, I was aware that I was doing something you say ambitious, I found it quite terrifying actually. Once I had set myself the title and sat down to do it, I thought, ‘What have I done? This is monstrous!’. But it really all comes from the same place, which is that over the years, I’m not a historian, I’ve got a degree in archaeology, but the television work I’ve done, and the book projects I’ve done, are much more easily put under the history umbrella. So, I get called historian even though I am not in any academic sense. But I’ve always just loved history. It was my best subject when I was at school. I initially went to university planning to study history, but I discovered archaeology and took that path.

But for me, more recently, I’ve discovered that history is a narrative. There are no facts about it really. There are assembled dates and people’s names but essentially you can stitch it together in any way you want. And I think it’s in the grand tradition that has been around tens of thousands of years of we tell each other stories in a bid to justify our own position or to make sense of the past. I thought, ‘Damn the fear, I am just going to put together a slightly elongated version of a story of world history of the sort that I could almost remember’. I love remembering things. Since I was a little boy, I’ve committed to memory poetry and favourite paragraphs from books and all manner of things. I enjoy that process. And I do genuinely have a sort of fantasy of being able to stand up and recite the story of the world, from beginning to end, which obviously is just a fantasy.

But this was an attempt to make that fantasy real, to assemble something. I thought I’ll do it around key moments, key people and moments, that seemed to me to be lie like beads on a thread, and I can sort of hold up the thread with all the beads one after the other and say that for good or ill, this seems to tell me something about how we got from 5000 years ago to today and feel free to take a pop at it and say ‘how could you write such a book and not mention x, y and z?’.

You open yourself up to people challenging you with their own moments, which is quite a cool thing to do.

Well, I think it’s conversational as well. The book I wrote before was, Wisdom of the Ancients, again I was trying to… not provoke, provocative is too strong a word, but I like to engage a conversation. In that last book, I was trying to get beneath the white noise of all the modern technology. It was written before Covid. It was really all about Brexit and nationalism and things that seemed to be making the world an uncomfortably hot place and bad tempered and coarse discourse. I thought maybe if we scrape away a lot of the white noise and get back to things like family, house, storytelling, things we’ve all had in common for thousands of years, it’ll remind us of things that actually unite us rather than separate us.

And with this one, with The Story of the World in 100 Moments, I just want to invite people to engage. I genuinely feel that at school people don’t get enough history. And I feel, for good or ill, that the amount of history that I am aware of definitely makes it easier for me to try to understand what’s happening today. And I don’t write academic tomes. I don’t write books for critical acclaim. I am trying to write populist history that would attract the reasonably interested reader, who reads from across the board and reads about all sorts of things, to pick this up and maybe just be led off down the garden path and think, ‘I’d not even heard of that person’ or ‘I’d not even heard of that battle’ and off they go. If I can get someone to do that, then that’s the objective met.

That was certainly my experience reading The Story of the World in 100 Moments. Were you choosing these moments because they made a big point, or were you choosing them because they entertained, or struck a chord, or raised an emotion, or fitted together like the beads you were describing? Do you have a sense of how you were selecting those subjective moments?

It was difficult. When I sat down, obviously one of the first things that I had to do, having submitted the title to my editor, I did have to sit down an assemble a list. And when I saw how long that was taking me, it was at that point I began to appreciate how much of a swamp I had got myself into.

That’s a big number, right? I mean it’s a lot.

Yeah, I know. Why didn’t I just pick 25? But off I went, and it is definitely the case, if there’s a point to the kind of books that I write, that I am interested in the importance, appreciated or otherwise, of that which is often overlooked. The things that interest me as an archaeologist, from the point of view of artefacts, are the very slight things. I’m not really terribly excited by gold coins or treasure hoards. They’re exciting momentarily. But my heart is stirred, and my imagination is fired by a little bit of a stone tool or evidence of a fire, and you think, ‘Who started that? Who kindled that? And why? Was it for cooking? Was it for warmth? Was it to keep away scary animals?’

I find the ephemera and the everyday, the things that we all do, cooking paraphernalia, and tools for cutting, and footprints in the sand of a parent, or an adult, walking with a child. I find those most evocative. And so, I sought moments that I thought, although there are landmark moments within the book, I hope also that I am making the point that great events and changes of direction have sometimes been the result of one person, one thought. I throw out there the idea that something like building stone circles or whatever might have been an idea that occurred to one person, or even that the caste system in India, you know I write about the emergence of the caste system, and it seems at least logical to me that the idea perhaps, or the germ of the idea, maybe occurred to one person. And then they discussed it with other like-minded people and then the whole thing grew like topsy. And then before you know where you are you’ve got a system for governing the lives of millions or billions of people into the future.

But I like speculating about the impact one person can have and, likewise Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, I love the fact that he would write as one person from his own experience, but he references in his introduction the hundreds of people whose testimony he is bringing into the public domain. And then likewise, that goes out and is connected to the millions of people that died, and then to the millions of people who went through the system but survived and kind of disappeared into anonymity having survived and made it back to the world. But I love the idea that great moments can be triggered by the smallest things: a single raindrop becomes a waterfall. That kind of thing. I was hoping that I would bring to people’s attention maybe names of individuals they had never heard of and who I had only stumbled across by chance, just because I had been reading a book and I had struck on a name. And I just find that history, as well as being made of great moments like the Battle of Borodino, it’s also composed of contributions made almost accidentally by individuals just doing the things that seem to them the right things to do.

I guess these are stories that are passed down to our children and maybe we have this responsibility to pass them on in the right way?

I think so and it’s partly why I stumbled into this. A few years ago, I wrote The Story of the British Isles in 100 Places and the inspiration for that one really was that people would often stop me in the street, having seen me on Coast and things, and they would say, ‘We’ve just bought a campervan and we’re going to go on a bit of a tour around. Where should we go?’ And I would be standing with my shopping bags, and I would think, ‘God, I can’t think of anything, my mind’s a-blank’. And so, that book was an attempt to come up with a proper coherent answer. And this one, I also realised in the process of doing A Hundred Places, that by definition, the chapters, if you can call them that, the hundred moments, they range. I think the first couple are quite long.

Enheduanna, the first named poet, I deliberately gave her a lot of breathing space because she’s from the distant past and I let that story breathe a little bit more to give a sense of that ancient world of Mesopotamia and Ur, and because that place was so foundational and was an influence on civilisation for thousands of years.

But broadly speaking, the stories are quite short. So, children, or anyone who maybe doesn’t have a particularly long attention span, can dip in, I hope, and just read one 800-word account about a moment, and that might be more digestible.

So, was it a wrench to tear yourself away from the British Isles and to take a kind of global view on this?

No, it was great fun. With projects like Coast, I mean I haven’t actually made an episode of Coast in Britain for a decade, I’ve made it more recently in Australia and New Zealand, but then with a book like The Story of the British Isles in 100 Places I was coming across like a little islander and it wasn’t really my intention. It was like I couldn’t really see beyond the edges of Britain. I love the archipelago, but I have travelled quite a lot. So, it was a great, it was like opening the sunroof on the car or something to be able to look wider. And I also was absolutely determined, I’ve read lots of histories of the world, I don’t know over the years I’ve probably read about ten different authors over the years, histories of the world. And I’ve sometimes felt that they were kind of Old World-centric, Eurocentric, inevitably. And so, it was great fun to go out and to remind myself about, South America, India, Africa, and I have tried to make it a very global book to remind everyone that until relatively recently Europe didn’t matter a damn. All of the great ideas were coming out of the Near East, the Middle East, Mesopotamia, North Africa in the form of Egypt, that went on for so long before there was anything of any world-changing interest in Europe.

Were you conscious of having to balance off different bits of the world, or were you following your nose?

Yes, I was. I was a little bit conscious. I was determined, journalistically you might say, to make sure that I did touch base with the whole world. Everywhere I felt there must have been something, there must have been a moment, everywhere. And I did go looking for some. But I was also determined. Another little message of it is just that idea that the story of the world is a global story. I genuinely think that. One of the stories that I tell is from Africa, and is of Great Zimbabwe, and there is something very poignant, and there are many other adjectives besides and not as kindly as poignant, but the fact that there had been, around the time of the signing of Magna Carta, the building of Great Zimbabwe. And those African people, sub-Saharan, had trade links, it’s hard to tell, but there’s certainly Chinese material found around it, so they had expansive trade links. And then, by the time of the 19th century, the Europeans were determined not just to take Africa, but to pretend to themselves and the Africans that nothing, nothing civilised had ever happened there. I thought, how sad. Not only to lose your country but to have the incomers try to tell you that there was never anything of value here and yet there was. Great Zimbabwe was connected to the wider world at that time.

And similarly, I’ve long been obsessed with the story of the Anglo-Zulu War and the fact that, at that time, Victoria’s armies never had a bloodier nose than that inflicted upon them by Zulu warriors armed only with spears and shields. That’s an extraordinary story of bravery. And the fact that, in the aftermath of it, the Zulus said they never fought braver soldiers than the ‘red men’, and likewise the British soldiers said they never encountered anything like the Zulu, in terms of their tactics and their organisation and their personal courage. And so, in The Story of the World in 100 Moments, I tell the story of Shaka. He established a Zulu kingdom, and it was just this flowering of something. It only lasted for a couple of hundred years. And it came from him. He took a tiny tribal group and united the tribes around him until he had a population of a quarter of a million doing exactly what he said. And the descendants of that organisation were able to punch the British Empire on the nose in a way that it never got punched by anyone else, anywhere else. I think these are such illuminating stories about the quality of human beings in different places at different times.

Which leads us on to something I wanted to ask you about which is the apparently ill-tempered battle for the past. Obviously judging the past by the standards of today takes you down a terrible blind alley. Shocking things happened in the past, how do we deal with them?

In my simplistic way, I don’t think there’s any gain to be had from judging at all. I just choose to observe and, as far as I can, to try to see the people as answers in a physical sense to their circumstances. For the longest time, we had minimal impact on our environment. I don’t think that, for the longest time, people would have seen themselves as in any way superior to wolves and deer. Just to be another large animal, they would have seen themselves, and I think some of that is reflected in the cave art in places like Chauvet and Lascaux and such like. We were so vulnerable to the environment. And I’ve long pondered how they dealt with contraception in the very distant past, because, unless there’s something we don’t know about, they just couldn’t. And because of the nature of the lives they had to lead, moving around, and on account of that they must have been practising some sort of infanticide because a mother and father could only carry a couple of babies, a couple of toddlers, each.

It’s so unreasonable and unhelpful to be judgemental about the behaviour of our ancestors. We’ve known since the Bible, you know Deuteronomy says, ‘Fathers shall not be put to death for their children, nor shall children be put to death for their fathers; a person shall be put to death for his own sin’. You can’t take credit for the achievements of the past either. It was other people, who are dead. And the sins that they perpetrated, that’s them, they did that. And we are just alive now and to go about erasing or no longer talking about people because they don’t meet your moral standards, it’s so meaningless to me as to be pretty much beyond my comprehension.

Like I was saying earlier, we were victims of our environment for the longest time as a species, very vulnerable to it, just making small responses to it. But then with the advent of the technologies which started coming about in the 1400s, 1500s, 1600s, then the industrial revolution that happened in Britain and then spread into the rest of the world a group of people finally got the upper hand, or they began to get the upper hand, and to some extent you would say that they let it run away with them. And so European colonisers in different parts of the world by their forefathers they had been handed, and they then developed by themselves, the tools that gave them dominance over the world and over those parts of the population that had not yet industrialised. They suddenly had the upper hand, and they were able to go into Africa and go into India, and, although hugely outnumbered on the ground, they just had a field day. You can look back and say ‘Well, I wouldn’t do that, that’s not how I would treat those people’. Maybe you wouldn’t, but it’s terrible hubris and conceit to be absolutely sure that you would have behaved any better, in their world, in their circumstances.

It just so happened, the British Empire, they were the group of people that suddenly had the machine gun in an era of spears and shields. They had technology and they had a whole panoply of tools that gave them the upper hand. I write in the book about photography, the first photograph, the daguerreotype and all of that, and I think that there is a message in that because we know that all through thousands of years of history people have enslaved other people, and massacred other people, and been genocidal if the opportunity presented itself, and that has been done by and done to white, black, brown, and yellow. Everyone’s been dreadful at different times when they’ve had the opportunity, but effectively they got away with it because we couldn’t film it.

Our bad behaviour became undeniable with the advent of the first still photograph, and then the moving image that it evolved into, and so we had to look back at actual faces of actual slaves, actual indigenous people whose lands we took away. We were the ones who for the first time were confronted with the evidence of our bad behaviour. Nobody else for thousands of years is confronted in the same way unless it’s by some aggrandising oil painting in a gallery somewhere that re-imagines a battle. But we look back at the things we did, and I think that’s part of the challenge, our crimes are laid bare.

You kind of mentioned earlier that we’re not teaching enough history in schools. What can we do to get the next generation inspired and to help the next generation understand?

Well, I think it’s very difficult. I think there’s a big push at the moment for people to be concentrating on STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths). The world is becoming increasingly computerised and digitised and if you don’t have computer skills to some extent you’re marginalised before you even get out of the blocks. I can see why educationalists have pushed to prioritise certain subjects against others, but I do think it’s a terrible mistake that history has fallen away. And history has fallen away. Clearly, part of you will say ‘well, it doesn’t lead you to a job in the modern era, what you are going to do with a history degree?’. I think it is a very complicated problem. But I am certain that as an individual if you don’t learn some history, if you don’t have some sense of context, and you only really get meaningful context, I would say, from history, then you exist as a goldfish in a bowl, in a perpetual disembodied present and things don’t make sense, because they don’t make sense, because you can’t see how it fits. You’re only looking at one paragraph on one page of a great, big, thick novel.

You have to read the book from page one, if you can, to try to understand why you suddenly appeared on page 672 and you get your few lines. And well, if that’s all you’ve got, you’ve got nothing. I don’t know what the solution is, but I know that people, I feel in my gut that we are losing context and I think the loss of context is part of why people are fighting like rats in a sack in the way that they are. Because without context, there’s no perspective. And without an appreciation that everyone’s been bad, everyone’s had bad things done to them, over thousands of years, everyone’s been oppressed, and everyone’s briefly been oppressor. If you exist in a present where you are only aware of who is presently oppressing and who presently seems to be oppressed, then you’re not realising that that’s a story that’s been repeated again and again and again. And once you have an appreciation that it has happened again and again and again, it at least makes you see the present situation differently because these people who are doing bad things are not the first and are certainly not going to be the last. And they’re partly behaving the way that they do because they have inherited a culture, or they’ve inherited an understanding of how to behave, from the past. And you need to know what that past is, to appreciate why they are doing the things that they do. It’s difficult for me because I was always just instinctively fascinated by history. I can’t image not being interested by it. So, it was never a problem for me because I’ve always just naturally read books, and read about the past, and I’ve read novels, historical fiction as well, that interests me. I find it very difficult to put myself in the headspace of someone who’s not interested in the past. I don’t know what to do with that.

So, winding up then, when are you going to perform and recite the whole thing from memory.

Before the whole Covid thing, I was just getting into my stride with touring The Story of the British Isles in 100 Places book around. I did about seventy theatres I think overall, over a couple of years. And it was great. I mean terrifying and challenging, but it was so rewarding. And if the theatres open up, if the auditoriums are available, it’ll have to be 2022, then I would cheerfully hit the road again with this. And you know it would be like the guy at the Burns’ supper who stands up and does Tam O’Shanter from memory. I’m going to set myself the task of some standing up and telling the history of the world in a hundred moments, and like I did with The Story of the British Isles in 100 Places I’ll have to touch base with all of the hundred, even if only briefly. But that’s the plan.

Neil, thank you, thoroughly enjoyable for me as well as great for the magazine.

Me too. I’m involved in so much else at the moment. My wife says to me ‘How have you ended up speaking politically, all this social commentary and stuff?’. Because really all I want to do is read history books and write history books. That’s what I want to do. I long for the days of just being able to just do that again.

Neil Oliver is a writer and broadcaster, and author of The Story of the World in 100 Moments.