Author Archives: Tom Larkin

Old Aylesburian interview – Tim Harford, journalist, presenter and author

Credit: Fran Monks

Credit: Fran Monks

Tim Harford is The Undercover Economist, the man who takes on the mad world of economics and manages to make it understandable, engaging and even, shockingly, entertaining for the rest of us.

His first book under that guise was a massive best-seller, with over a million copies sold to date, spawning a series of further books and columns that have made Tim one of the most popular economic journalists around. 1.3 million people have viewed his talk at the TED conference, he’s fronted his own BBC TV series and currently presents Radio 4’s More or Less, where he can be heard taking apart the numbers and statistics that appear in the news.

 Tim kindly took some time out from that schedule to reminisce about his days in the hallowed corridors of AGS.


Hi Tim. How do you remember your time at school?

That’s a long time ago! Dimly, I think is the most obvious answer. It was a remarkable education, of course, with some terrific teachers. All things considered, it wasn’t bad, given that it was a school…

I did a lot of public speaking at AGS, that’s a distinctive memory of my time there. I was confident rather than competent!

I enjoyed learning things, and was one of those people who really struggled whenever you had to drop a subject. I’d always think ‘well, this is interesting, why would I want to drop this?’ but of course you hit certain moments where you have to stop. I dropped history and biology when I was something like 12, which now seems ridiculous but if it wasn’t them it would have to have been something else.

Did you have any favourite teachers while you were at the school?

There were quite a lot… I think particularly Mr Peter Norman, who taught me English when I was 13, he was absolutely fantastic and a very, very inspiring teacher. Mr Ferris, Latin teacher, was brilliant, but fortunately he didn’t inspire me enough to keep going with Latin! Mrs Jacobs ran the public speaking team, which was very important to me.

There were not many teachers who you could think weren’t that good, and there were a lot of teachers who you just thought of as incredibly engaging people.

I think that for things to go well you need a lot of good fortune. One of the lucky things I’ve had over the years is a lot of good teachers and tutors who’ve inspired me and been willing to take the effort to guide me. That’s not something that everybody gets.

UE reissue Bpb.inddDid you ever have a plan in your mind of where you were heading?

There was never a plan, and there still isn’t! No, I never particularly expected to be a writer and I never expected to study economics. I didn’t study economics at school and I didn’t really plan to study economics at university.

Opportunities came up and it seemed like a good idea to take them, and they can take you to strange places.

Your TED talk has had well over a million views. Did you ever imagine while you were involved in public speaking at the school that it would become such a big part of your career?

I often thought that I would like to do something with the public speaking, but I didn’t know what that could be. I thought for some time that I might become a public speaking coach; I didn’t want to be a barrister, and I certainly didn’t want to be a politician.

There was this thing at the forefront of my mind that I wanted to use this skill and that I enjoyed it, but I wasn’t sure what career path would lead to that so I sort of forgot it. I feel quite lucky that I’ve stumbled upon this career as a writer and journalist where speaking is really quite important; I never knew that when I started writing books, so that was a stroke of good luck.

What is it that you personally find interesting about the subject of economics?

Well, it’s endlessly challenging. Keynes famously listed the qualities of a master economist, with himself in mind, saying that he had to be able to communicate in prose and think in mathematics; got to talk to prime ministers and to the common man; to have a grasp of history but to be able to see into this future.

It’s a tremendous range of skills that you need to be the perfect economist and nobody can have it all, it’s too complex. For that reason it’s infinitely engaging because there’s always something new to learn about a very, very wide range of different subjects in economics. It’s terrific fun and there’s never been a more interesting time to be an economist.


Credit: Fran Monks

At what point did you realise that you could make a career from writing about it?

After The Undercover Economist came out in about 2005 there was a period of about sixth months, during which it was selling well and the foreign rights were selling well… There was talk of a big advance for the second book, suddenly I was on TV and had a BBC Two series. That all took place in a very short period of time.

I’d had it in my mind that I was going to be a financial journalist who occasionally writes books, which I suppose I am, but I didn’t realise that the books would be such a big part of it. It all happened very quickly; after years and years trying to sell the book, it didn’t take long to realise that the book was a big success.

Why do you think the way you approach the subject has been so popular?

The method that underpins everything is to keep listening to good radio, good economic journalism and writing of other kinds and to constantly be asking yourself why is this working? Why is this so good to read? What do I admire about what this person is doing? And to keep trying to figure out what you can learn about that.

That general principal that you’ve got to keep getting better instead of staying still and getting stale means you have to keep consuming and enjoying excellent journalism from people who are trying to do similar things to you, and you can learn from them.

The financial crisis got people very interested in the economy for very serious reasons, as it became clear that this stuff is very important. I think there’s always an audience for clear, engaging, enjoyable explanations of how the world works, whether we’re talking about astronomy or evolutionary biology. I think economics is no different.

What has been the proudest moment of your career?

I’ve been lucky enough that there’s been a lot. Publishing your first book is pretty great. In fact, just finishing the first book. At the time I wrote the book I had no publisher, no certainty at all that it would ever be published, and it took years for it to actually to be published, but I remember saying to my wife at that point that I felt it had been worth it. I’d had such fun writing the book and it was such a sense of achievement having done it.

What advice would you have for the boys at AGS now?

Work hard and be flexible. You’ve got to be ready to adapt and change what you’re doing, how you act, and what your goals are to respond to different opportunities, and to all the things that you’ll learn along the way.


 Tim’s personal website is, and his TED talk can be watched here


Old Aylesburian interview – Theodore Zeldin, scholar & historian

TZ imageTheodore Zeldin’s first AGS report in 1948 said ‘he bestrides this school like a colossus’, a comment that reveals his status as a child prodigy, and suggests that teachers at the school today could do with throwing around a few more grandiose similes…

In his varied and distinguished career since leaving the school, Theodore has written numerous history books, focusing on the role of the individual and emotions in society, and won Britain’s most prestigious historical award, the Wolfson Prize. These studies, which often centre on France and the French people, have earned him a place in the heart of French society; he was described by one French newspaper as ‘the most popular Englishman in France’ and ‘the world’s foremost authority of Frenchness’ by Time Magazine.

He’s advised governments and businesses around the world, and now dedicates much of his time to running the Oxford Muse, his charity that aims to ‘pioneer new methods to improve personal, professional and intercultural relationships’.

Hello Theodore. What are your memories of your time at AGS?

I remember it as a small school, with very pleasant and kind teachers. I have good memories of a history teacher, Miss Stewart, who enabled me to do special subjects that nobody else was doing.

I have always been interested in knowledge and the school certainly encouraged and helped me. Ultimately one teaches oneself, it just depends how much effort one puts into learning. All one needs is guidance.

The great problem with education now is that there is so much knowledge that everyone has to become a specialist and you’re only able to take a few subjects within the arts or the sciences. This is not a guide to achieving an understanding of the options of life. We are very different to the people of the Renaissance who studied everything, because then there were very books and very little knowledge. I think our education system hasn’t dealt with this idea that what you learn teaches you to be rigorous in your thinking and to develop your curiosity.

Did you have any preferred subjects at the school or did you always prefer to study more widely?

I enjoyed Latin. The interest of Latin was not just learning a language, as Latin prose involved thinking about every word and where you put it and where it comes from. It is a most intense way of thinking about style, about how to write.

The ability to express oneself is a rare gift, in whatever subject one enters. I am increasingly interested in communication as something that is crucial to the development of human relationships and my historical studies have emphasised individuals trying to make relationships.

What interests you about the study of history?

I think the academic subject has become rather banal; it’s a kind of memorisation of what’s happened in the past. Whereas I see the past as an inspiration for the present: how can we avoid making the same mistakes as our ancestors? What did they try to do that they couldn’t do? What can we do that they could not?

Now that we have more knowledge and we are, of course, more numerous than humanity has ever been, how can history inspire us to be less stupid? We’ve not been very successful with that, we’re still making the same mistakes. The news is full of stupid wars. Everybody knows that wars cause nothing but trouble and leave terrible legacies, and yet we go on doing it.

I have written books which bypass the normal chronology and I see history as a chance to reorganise the facts of life to give us a bit of wisdom.

Your work often focuses on France and French history, what attracts you to the country and what’s made you so popular there?

Well, French was the only language that I was taught at school, so it was the only one that I could easily get into. It’s next door… It was a bit of an accident really. But I’m very glad that I chose France because the French have such a history of articulacy. They are a rich civilisation that has been able to express itself. The thing I found most interesting there was the ability to say ‘what is a good life, how should we live well?’

I suppose the French have been interested in what I say because I give them a different view from the view they have themselves of themselves. They have always been surprised by what I’ve seen, as I’m quite critical of what I see but I do always do it in a friendly way because I love their intelligence and their understanding of how one can live decently.

As a result, I have had a very interesting life. Having written my books they actually knighted me and let me participate in government, which is an incredibly rare honour for a foreigner.

What was it like to be actively involved with the work of government?

I got to know what government means. If you spend your time with ministers and presidents and see what these people are actually doing then you have a different idea of what government is about. You see a minister being all uncertain, worried and unhappy, and then he goes on television and puts on a wonderful show, like an actor.

One could see the same when I met Mrs Thatcher, who was a very feminine and solicitous hostess, all smiles and kindness, and then she would go into the backroom and you could hear her shouting at some of her subordinates before coming back all smiles once more. There’s a great deal of acting in it.

You get a different view of what is going on behind the scenes. Likewise when I’ve been invited into business you can see that there’s a great difference between a CEO’s outward performance and what kind of person he really is. This is what history is about; it’s about pretence and what is going on behind the scenes, what matters. That is what emotions and passions are about.

When you were a boy at AGS, could you ever have imagined this career or that you would reach such a status that these people would come to you for advice?

No, my life has been a whole series of accidents. It’s just opportunities opening up and accepting invitations, even if one might make a fool of oneself.

I was very lucky that I didn’t go into the civil service, which was my option if I didn’t get a scholarship for my senior doctorate. I would have become a bureaucrat in the home office or something; chance saved me from that…


AGS cycle team sponsorship opportunity

The fields in which AGS teams achieve sporting excellence now includes cycling, with the new school club hitting the road to compete in competitions over recent months and already achieving some great results.

The team is now looking for sponsorship for kit and equipment, so if you or someone you know would be interested in supporting the cause and helping Mr Corby to develop the next Bradley Wiggins, follow the link below for more information.

Could you help us to create AGS’ own Froome or Wiggins?

Any students who would be interested in getting involved with the club, please contact Mr Corby.

Michael Burden selected for national handball squad

Congratulations to Michael Burden (Ridley 11) who has been selected for the EHA U16 National Academy squad, representing England in the Partille Cup. This is one of the largest single sport competitions in the world and is held in Gothenburg, Sweden. He continues AGS representation at this level, following in the footsteps of Elliott James, Brendan Lowe and Ben Howard. Good luck Michael, we look forward to hearing how you get on.

Old Aylesburian interview – Tim Besley CBE, economist

besley2013This week’s interview is with an old boy who, it’s fair to say, has certainly made the most of his AGS education… Since leaving the school and studying at Oxford, Professor Tim Besley CBE (Philips, 72-79) has gone on to become one of the foremost economists in the country. He served on the (very important) Monetary Policy Committee at the Bank of England between 2006 and 2009, has published research across many areas of the subject, and won numerous awards, with his main focus on developing economies and emerging markets. Tim is now Professor of Economics and Political Science at the London School of Economics, but his own school memories should give hope to boys who aren’t, yet, at the top of the class.


Hi Tim. What are your memories of the school and your time here?

There are different phases, actually. Early on I found it somewhat intimidating; when I was there I was in the youngest year for two years running because they switched the intake year after I arrived. And I just found the place quite intimidating: mixing with guys who were older than me, and also the teachers seemed incredibly old and crusty. In that early phase I found the adjustment to senior school quite hard, though I obviously did appreciate that I was at a very good school, I can’t say that I settled in very well initially.

I think, for me, it is the sixth form that gave me most of my happy memories. I’d ground my way to rather a mediocre set of O-levels, as they were then, and found the sixth form to be a very liberating experience.  There was one teacher in particular who stands out in my memory from that time: an economics teacher called Derek Jones. He made it feel like a lot more of a thinking environment, and suddenly you weren’t thinking of education as stuff that you had to do, but stuff that you wanted to do.

What kind of student were you as you came through the school? Were you always very strong academically?

I would say that I was reasonably mediocre up until O-levels. To be fair, I do remember generally being towards the top of the class in exam scores but I never thought of myself as a ‘strong student’; there were always people better than me in every subject, that’s for sure. In retrospect, I think I was just coasting and my O-levels were, well, by modern standards they would be horrific!

What knocked you out of that coasting approach to your studies?

People often complain about A-level specialisation, but I think it worked for me. Having the opportunity to study the subjects that you were really excited about – I did economics and politics, which were two new subjects for me, and two subjects that I was phenomenally excited about. That meant that I was no longer studying as a chore, I was just doing the things that I was interested in.

At that stage, could you have imagined what you would go on to do in your career?

I certainly couldn’t have seen it in the broader sense. I knew that I wanted to study economics in a university setting, and I had started to do well academically. I was developing my own views about things and reading a lot of stuff that wasn’t in the curriculum; I had really developed a substantial interest in the subject. From that point, taking it on to university was clear but I don’t think that I could have imagined anything beyond that.

What was it that got you enjoyed about studying economics?

To this day, what makes me enthusiastic about it is that it combines the right amount of chaos and order. The way we do economics now, and we do get criticised for this, is quite mathematical and structured. So on the one hand it’s a very ordered subject, but on the other hand, as long as you play within the rules, you can pretty much do anything.

The tools of economics are amenable to a whole variety of problems and that’s very exciting. One of my professional interests has been showing how these tools are useful in political science, even recently in areas of social structure, psychology and anthropology.

Economics gives you an incredibly powerful set of tools – I think that’s what really appeals to me.

Would that make you recommend the subject to the boys coming through the school today?

If what they want is something that has got that underlying structure, but to which you can bring lots of other ideas, and if they like analytical thinking about big questions.

If you look out into the world and wonder why it is that a country like Liberia has an income that is a hundred and sixtieth of the income of Switzerland and think that’s an important question; if you really want to think hard about that instead of just reading a newspaper article, then I think it’s the subject for you. You can combine what I think really are some of the world’s biggest questions, while learning the tools to tackle them in a very rigorous way.

What has been the highpoint of your career achievements to date?

There are two sorts of achievements: some involve public recognition, while actually the things that you value as an academic are what you might call peer recognition. I’m a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, which to most people would sound like nothing, but it’s based on a peer-selection process by people you completely respect deciding that you can join that particular club.

It’s nice when you mix with your friends and relatives to say that you’ve got a CBE, or whatever, but those aren’t the things that matter because most of my day is spent dealing with very concrete problems. What my peers think of me as an economist is far more important to me than whether my neighbour is impressed.

You were working at the Bank of England in 2008 and the worst years of the financial crash; what was that like?

That was like nothing I was prepared for from my previous life. I think there was a reasonable assumption that people who were relatively successful academic economists would also become successful policy-makers, but the experience we had and the kind of things we were worrying about, with the dial running down and the economy beginning to look like it was in a very bad place, there’s not a lot that can prepare you for that.

For me it was a formative experience, more akin to what people who’ve fought in a war can remember; you’re suddenly put in a totally unfamiliar situation and realise that you have to be part of a collective solution to the problems that are thrown at you. I’ve learnt a lot from it and knowing that you’ve done something so out of the ordinary will certainly live with me for the rest of my life.

What advice would you have for the boys who are currently at AGS?

I think one of the things that I have been very struck by in life is the fact that people find their own pace at which to develop. I remember boys who would come in at age 11 and, to me, seemed totally brilliant. They would get all the top marks and win all the prizes, and for all I know they’ve gone on to be phenomenally successful in life, good luck to them. But I think different people very clearly develop their skills at different paces; some people won’t succeed until after university.

It’s important that you are comfortable developing at the pace that’s right for you, rather than writing off your chances if you’re not the top kid in the class when you’re 11. Just wait until your opportunity arises, and make sure you grab it when it does.