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17 April 2024

Peter Frankopan Q&A: “If you want to write good history, read lots of novels”

The historian on retro football, easy-listening classics, and his favourite Byzantine emperor.

By New Statesman

Peter Frankopan was born in London in 1971. He is the author of the 2015 bestselling non-fiction book The Silk Roads and a professor of global history at Oxford University.

What’s your earliest memory?

My kindergarten nativity play where I was one of the stars (literally a star rather than one of the leading roles). I had to stand extremely still, holding hands with my two other co-stars. We nailed it.

Who are your heroes?

My childhood hero was John Craven, the Newsround presenter. He was completely brilliant. As for today, I can see heroes everywhere – from teachers, carers and single parents to medics in countless conflict zones risking their lives for others.

What book last changed your thinking?

I was bowled over by Corey Ross’s Ecology and Power in the Age of Empire. It is an amazing work and one I admired from the first page to the last.

What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

English football in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I can still recite the starting line-ups of many First Division clubs – and what happened in the most memorable matches.

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In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

The future. While I love history, I’m keen on good and improving healthcare, and I’m a fan of equal and human rights. Ideally, it would be somewhere that is environmentally benign. The list of possible places is getting smaller and smaller – so it might be a bit of a squeeze as others will want to be there too.

What political figure, past or present, do you look up to?

Alexios I Komnenos, ruler of the Byzantine empire from 1081 to 1118. He was a remarkable man. While not all of his decisions were effective ones, he recognised when he made a mistake and changed course. I learned a lot from that.

What TV show could you not live without?

I should say The Sopranos, Peaky Blinders or Narcos, but the Sky Sports coverage of top-class cricket, tennis, football, golf, water polo – you name it, I love it – is amazing.

What’s your theme tune?

I love music and I’m going through an easy-listening phase at the moment. So maybe “The Shake” by the Laurie Johnson Orchestra, or “Mambo Mania” by Bert Kaempfert.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

One of my university professors told me that if you want to write good history, you should read lots of novels. No one teaches early-career scholars how to write well – the focus is on methodology and content. I’ve learned a lot from novels and novelists over the years.

What’s currently bugging you?

The cost of education in the UK and the limited opportunities for early-career scholars. If I had a magic wand, I’d dramatically increase funding for PhD and post-doc students.

What single thing would make your life better?

The ability to smell. I haven’t been able to smell for 30 years – the cause is probably an allergic reaction to dust mites from books. I don’t feel sorry for myself but it’s a right pain.

When were you happiest?

Whenever I have my family around me. My perfect day is a sunny summer’s day, a bottle or two of rosé on the day before a bank holiday, so time is not a pressure. Those come around quite often, so I feel very lucky.

Are we all doomed?

No. But also yes.

Peter Frankopan’s “The Earth Transformed: An Untold History” is published by Bloomsbury

[See also: Josie Long Q&A: “I wish Keir Starmer had a functioning spine”]

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This article appears in the 17 Apr 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Israel vs Iran