What first attracted you to the period or periods you work in?
My interest in the Mediterranean world goes back a long way. My father was a naval officer who was based there in peace and in war. When I was nine he was stationed on Malta and I went out for holidays. I was entranced by the sights, sounds and smells of this small island and its history, clambering around on the fortifications of Valletta, visiting prehistoric monuments and swimming in warm seas. Before and after university I made trips to Greece, went to live in Istanbul and walked across western Turkey. The Byzantine and Ottoman worlds left a deep impression on me, and the maritime history that bound these empires together.
Can you tell us a little more about how you research? Has the process changed over the years?
I usually start by reading general histories of something I’m interested in to try to define the centre of a narrative. I also look early on to see how rich the contemporary source material is. I’m an avid reader of bibliographies to get a grasp of what’s available. The ability to read languages is essential to me and I have to spend a fair amount of time learning languages that I can’t actually speak. Although I have occasionally used translators (Arabic) I find I can’t tell what’s useful until I can read it myself, but my rule is to do no archival research – it’s simply too time consuming and demand skills I don’t have. I’m grateful for all those post-graduate students who have mined and collected material from the Venetian archives. Then I set to doing detailed reading and write hundreds of pages of handwritten notes. I aim to write books that have a rich sense of place and so travelling to historic locations in part of the deal. Writing the publisher’s proposal is a crucial first stage. With my first book I mapped out the whole thing, every chapter in detail, and it proved the easiest of my five books to write. In subsequent books I’ve tended to produce more general outlines and on several occasions I’ve ended up throwing away thousands of words. Recently I’ve resolved to going back to first principles and bolting down a very clear idea of the content at the proposal stage.
The common phrase is that history is written by the victors. Do you think this is true?
The fall of Constantinople in 1453, about which I’ve written, at the time was the work of the losers. Because of the disparity in narrative traditions between the Christian West and the Islamic world and the power of print in t17th he West from the early modern period on, Europeans have tended to hold the advantage in controlling the narrative, win or lose. Nowadays I think we’re seeing a rebalance, and there’s increasing space for the voice of the losers to be heard, whether it’s the terrible plight of the people of Berlin in 1945 or the rediscovery of slave narratives.
Are there any historians who helped shaped your career? Similarly, can you recommend three history books which budding historians should read?
It’s hard to pinpoint any one in terms of approach, but regarding the Mediterranean world I’d say John Julius Norwich on Byzantium and Venice and Fernand Braudel’s great work The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II have inspired me.
I can’t claim to any ‘shoulds’ but here’s three varied reads:
- Sapiens for big thinking about our place on earth
- The Suspicions of Mr Whicher for the ability to weave fascinating narratives out of wonderful micro research.
- Braudel (as above) for interdisciplinary approaches to history: economics, geography, culture, politics and war. A man who can speculate that the Turks could capture Constantinople and the Arabs couldn’t because the Bactrian camel could cope with the harsh Anatolian climate and the Arabian camel couldn’t, makes fascinating connections.
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 would like to meet and accompany the incredibly admirable Alfred Wallace, the British naturalist and explorer, on his voyages by native canoe through the lush tropical world of the Indonesian archipelago in the 1850s. It was here that Wallace saw astonishing species and formulated most clearly the ideas of natural selection. I’d be able to see this process unfolding.
Re events – a boy’s own adventure. I’d like to be holed up in the mountains of Crete with Patrick Leigh Fermor and Cretan partisans in 1944 and witness the capture and abduction of the German commander, General Kreipe.
If you could add any period or subject to the history curriculum, what would it be?
I don’t think I’m knowledgeable enough about the history curriculum to answer this one, but generally I’d hope for enough history about the world beyond our shores, given what I sense is a narrowing focus on our national story at the moment, and not endless repeats of the Second War. Space for a skill as much as any particular topic would be useful too, viz. the ability to handle evidence in an objective way.
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?
- There are many different reasons for wanting to write history books. Be clear what yours are.
- Foreign languages are incredibly useful if you want to leave our shores in search of history. Learn as many as you can.
- Look to write the kind of book that you want to read – you are your own ideal reader.
Can you tell us a little bit more about the project you are currently working on?
I’m thinking about the sixteenth century voyages of discovery that joined up the world, reached out to the old civilizations of China and Japan, and launched the rise of European maritime empires and the half millennium of the dominance of the West. There’s a vast and wonderful, almost daunting, contemporary literature on the subject – a testament to the invention of printing and an age of information explosion – I have a lot to read before I can crystallise this!