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19 June 2024

Jonathan Dimbleby Q&A: “I’d run my estate as Tolstoy ran Yasnaya Polyana”

The broadcaster and author on running a 19th-century household, Mikhail Gorbachev, and identity politics.

By New Statesman

Jonathan Dimbleby was born in Aylesbury in 1944. He is a current affairs and political broadcaster, a historian and author, including of Destiny in the Desert: The Road to El Alamein.

What’s your earliest memory?

The moment when I first hugged Robert, my cuddly rabbit. He is now retired and lives comfortably in a drawer in the bedroom. He is aged 75, weary but still smiling, although one eye is hanging out.

Who are your heroes?

My childhood hero was Pat Smythe, Olympic show jumper. As an adult it’s Jerry Cohen, my philosophy tutor, who nurtured what there was of my intellectual potential, taught me how to think and that learning could be fun. He was later appointed Chiechele professor of political theory at Oxford. I became a journalist.

What book last changed your thinking?

Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring along with EF Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful – which I read half a century ago – alerted me to the fact that our tenure on this planet is alarmingly fragile. And it is getting worse, not better.

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

The late 19th century. I’d own a great English estate and run it as Tolstoy ran Yasnaya Polyana. I would travel frequently to Vienna as a guest of the emperor, Franz Joseph I, staying at the Schönbrunn Palace, riding a Lipizzaner stallion from the Spanish Riding School in the afternoon,  and listening to Haydn, Schubert or Mozart quartets in the evening. I’d have no idea that elsewhere in the city a ferment of revolutionary ideas was seizing Europe’s imagination or that the entire imperial edifice would collapse in ruins.

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What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

The Battle of the Atlantic in the Second World War, but I wouldn’t fancy my chances.

What political figure do you look up to?

Mikhail Gorbachev was one of the great men of the last century. He removed shackles from the Russian people, brought about the liberation of eastern Europe and averted a potential cataclysm. His reward was to be toppled from power by a drunk who chose a monster to succeed him.  

Who would paint your portrait?

Jonathan Yeo, but he’d be far too expensive even if he was minded to accept the commission.

What’s your theme tune?

Sibelius’s Karelia Suite, which opened every edition of ITV’s This Week when I was a reporter in the 1970s and again in the 1980s. I still shiver when I hear it.

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

“Do whatever you do to the best of your ability” – it was advice given to me by my father. I’m still persevering.

What’s currently bugging you?

The conspicuously immoral, arguably illegal and probably unworkable Rwanda scheme.

What single thing would make your life better?

The demise of “identity” politics – a non-solution to very real problems. 

When were you happiest?

As a teenager, either jumping large fences on a good horse or spending long, lonely hours driving a tractor across large otherwise empty fields.

Are we all doomed?

Of course – “golden lads and girls all must…” But the planet will survive and humanity might do so as well, but only if we start to think beyond the end of our noses and act accordingly.

Jonathan Dimbleby’s “Endgame 1944: How Stalin Won the War” is published by Viking

[See also: Shami Chakrabarti: “Surely Gogglebox is the best of all reality TV?”]

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This article appears in the 19 Jun 2024 issue of the New Statesman, How to Fix a Nation