Getting to sit down and chat shop with one of the most recognisable Historians in the public eye was never going to be the most difficult job in the world, but Dan Snow really is quite the charmer. In fact so much Dan-love was being declared via social media before, during and after his appearance that QM Professor Amanda Vickery had to remind us all that we were supposed to be paying proper attention…
Team CUB were lucky enough to grab a quick interview with Dan before the main event itself, which was both illuminating and a huge honour. This is a man who is passionate about the field of History, and keen to promote the sharing of knowledge on a greater global level than ever before, therefore we wanted to make the most of his time at QM. Here is what we found out…
LC: The 70th Anniversary of D-Day (WWII) took place over this summer, and you were very much a ‘face’ of those remembrances, particularly through several television programmes. It must have been very exciting for you, so what was your favourite aspect of being involved with that?
DS: You’re right, that was very exciting for me, particularly because at the centre of the anniversary, history, politics and society collide. It also roused huge public interest, and people who perhaps have a latent interest in history could really agree and get on board with my passion for the past. The best part for me is meeting people – I was with David Cameron and the royal family, but meeting the veterans themselves was definitely a highlight of my career. Meeting the real people is amazing and we often forget that they still live around us. Another interesting part of the D-day celebrations is looking at how society commemorates, whether that’s from a religious angle or at ceremonies, and how this evolves each year.
LC: It’s a busy time for historic commemoration, with everyone juggling the First World War centenary alongside a lot of 75th anniversaries for the Second World War – from a broadcasting point of view do you think it will be difficult to keep people interested in these big historical moments for four years? We’re not going to get bored with everything WWI related?
DS: Never underestimate how short our attention spans are! I think the great thing with this is that people like familiar material, and it’s easy to have an interest in the First World War. It’s such a huge subject that easily sustains four years – there are so many angles and aspects to look at, each story and mini anniversary fascinating, different and engaging. There are always new perspectives and ideas emerging too, even now as we discover more.
LC: In the academic field a lot of people have already started to move their research away from WWI related projects, looking to the future post-2018. Have you thought about what your next project will be?
DS: The next thing for me is a programme for the BBC next year on the Vikings, however I do have another huge on-going project. I’m spending a lot of time creating interactive portals online, which is a very exciting prospect, especially celebrating things like MA work, YouTube videos and forums. At the moment I am particularly focused on getting a whole reservoir of history lovers who aren’t online engaged and involved with the masses of material available on the internet.
LC: You’ve mentioned that you are a big fan of oral history: the actual meeting of veterans of historical conflicts and moments, but do you ever go into the Archives to work as well?
DS: When I was researching the Fall of Quebec for my book I spent a year in the archives, crying…! But increasingly projects are oral, televised and as we know with the WWI archives, they are digitised. Honestly, I haven’t spent as much time in the archives as I’d like, but I’ve been writing less because of my expanding family, and the writing I have done for apps has been for a more general audience. My interest in history itself was ignited by people, namely the stories my Grandma told me as I grew up, real or fictional they were just wonderful.
I could have happily chatted for longer, but sadly we had to share with everyone else, so off we went to hear more, lecture style.
Hearing Dan speak about how and why he has ended up doing what he does today highlights the way in which world events truly can influence your path on an individual level. For Dan, “history came back” in the post-9/11 world, an important turning point for him. He is already looking at 21st century history and politics and their long-term influences – the dead ground between past and present is beginning to be eaten away.
He is very funny, happy to dish out the anecdotes alongside the in-depth opinions. A particular crowd favourite was the Chinese child whose one sentence in English was “Is Queen Victoria in Hell?” Although roared over by us, this memory was used to illustrate a serious point about David Cameron and other UK trade envoys not really understanding the point of view of the normal Chinese public. The message being illustrated here is simple – in order to understand a foreign culture, one must understand not only its past, but how that culture perceives its past.
When speaking about his work for The One Show, his enthusiasm bubbles up again, as he describes travelling around the UK, again getting to meet people, learning more about his own country. Perks include now knowing “why Manchester’s there”, but apparently there is still some piss-taking involved, as The One Show isn’t exactly known for its hip and trendy audience – again both comments bringing further amusement to the London-based crowd…
Although there were good questions on voter reaction to the recent Scottish Referendum results, as well as questioning the potential for the glamourisation of war via programmes such as his own, for me the brilliance came through in other ways. I found his comments about human understanding the best parts of his talk, with Dan suggesting that “if you ever want to understand someone, look at the world when they were twenty.” A particularly meta moment for most of the room, as we all realised this pivotal moment is where most of us are at, right now.
He is a people’s historian, interested in what the people are thinking and why they think like that, really the perfect combination of his own diverse family history. There’s a liberal reform British Prime Minister, a WWI General who recognised his own faults and the storytelling Grandmother in Canada, not to mention the journalist Father and news reporter second cousin. With his innovative thinking about using the internet to push History out to more and more people, Dan Snow is continuing the family tradition of benefitting society, and in a way that is no more bias than he can help – on the modern perception of historical figures, his opinion is that “it can be very hard to get the right side of history.” This can also be said for the historian personally, not just their subject.
However a man who ends his time with the plea to “know about History – forget about Physics!” can only ever be a force for good. So, on behalf of CUB Magazine, a massive thanks to the QM History Society for organising such a wonderful event to start the year, to the QM School of History for their support of the event and to Mr Dan Snow for being such a generous speaker.