Niall Ferguson Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley
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Niall, welcome to Berkeley.
Nice to be here.
Where were you born and raised?
I was born in Glasgow in 1964. The sixties didn't happen in Glasgow, so I was raised in a previous era. I think it may have been the nineteenth century, actually. The west of Scotland bourgeois was firmly rooted in a now-vanished world.
Looking back, how did your parents shape your thinking about the world?
My parents are both scientists, in the sense that my father is a doctor; my mother is a physicist. So I'm a great disappointment to them.
Yes, I'm the black sheep of the family. Although my mother's father was a journalist, and therefore writing for a living was seen as a perfectly respectable thing in the family, which wasn't true necessarily throughout western Scotland society.
What got you interested in history?
Why Tolstoy, and how?
Most people who read War and Peace don't read the coda at the end, the essay on determinism. I found it, actually, by far the most enthralling part of the book when I was a schoolboy. I can remember feeling rather ill and taking a day off school -- which I did rather regularly in order to pursue my own autonomous studying -- and reading War and Peace in the garden (because occasionally the sun does shine in Scotland). I got to the end in a state of great excitement, having had the meaning of life largely resolved through the experience of Pierre, the central character, and then came across this extraordinary essay on determinism and contingency in history, and it absolutely electrified me. From then on, it was fairly clear that it would be history rather than English literature that I studied.
You have a real passion for history. Is that a fair statement? You live it and breathe it?
Yes. It's a kind of condition, almost a medical condition, to be obsessed with the past, because the activity of history is essentially an engagement with the dead. To be absolutely precise, a lot of historical research takes the form of reading letters written by dead people, and to spend the vested years of your life sitting in archives or libraries reading dead people's letters is really rather an odd condition. But luckily, it's not regarded as certifiable, so we're allowed to wander the streets and to even to teach in academic institutions, where in another culture we might very well be under some kind of heavy sedation.
I noticed that your background comes up in either footnotes or introductions to some of your histories. At the beginning of the book on war you talk about your grandfather and his experiences. And then in Empire, there's a whole section on the Scots as soldiers and administrators of the empire. Talk a little about that. That must be really satisfying to elucidate both your family background and Scotland.
It might seem to be only self-indulgent to begin books by talking a little bit about one's own family. I talk about my grandfather's experience in the First World War, actually the beginning of The Pity of War, and describe his experience as a teenager, joining up at the beginning of the war actually under-aged. At the beginning of Empire, I talked about the experience of my Great-Aunt Agnes, who immigrated in 1911 to Canada.
Now was this self-indulgence? The answer is not really. It's a device to introduce readers to big, big subjects, but through a human portal, if you like. It's much easier to ease somebody into what is actually quite a difficult argument about the First World War by saying, right away up front, history is about people. It's about individuals. It seems to me impossible to understand a historian's motivation if one doesn't understand his own, as it were, ancestral connections with the subject.
I certainly would never have written a book about the First World War had it not been for my grandfather, and also all the things his generation left behind in Glasgow, including war memorials that I saw every day at school. These were the things that inspired my youthful interest in the past. If it encourages readers to pick up a book if they can see at the beginning something to which they can relate -- because, after all, a great many readers of that book had grandfathers or great-grandfathers with some kind of wartime experience -- then good, that's a good device to use.
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