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…