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10 July 2024

Roman Krznaric Q&A: “We spend too much time looking up to individuals”

The philosopher on tennis history, disruptive social action, and questions of mortality while taking part in Parkrun.

By New Statesman

Roman Krznaric was born in Sydney in 1970. He is a social philosopher, bestselling author and senior research fellow at the Centre for Eudaimonia and Human Flourishing at Oxford University.

What’s your earliest memory?

My mother’s wake, when I was ten. I’ve blanked out almost everything before then. I left early to play tennis to escape the trauma.

Who are your heroes?

Growing up, Björn Borg. Today, my grandmother Naomi, whom I admire for her willingness to break social conventions: she was a communist, a nudist and a vegetarian – and lived in an abandoned tram. Not an easy act to follow, but a real inspiration.

What book last changed your thinking?

Andreas Malm’s How to Blow Up a Pipeline, which makes a historically persuasive case for the need for disruptive social movements to create transformative change. It convinced me that we can no longer leave the problems of our time to simmer on the low flame of gradualism.

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

The city of Córdoba in Islamic Spain in the year 1000. When writing my latest book, History for Tomorrow, I discovered it had a culture of tolerance where Muslims, Jews and Christians lived in relative coexistence. Might be worth learning from.

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What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

The history of the arcane medieval sport of real tennis. I’m addicted to both playing it and talking endlessly about it.

What political figure do you look up to?

We spend too much time looking up to renowned individuals. As Bertolt Brecht wrote, “Who built the seven gates of Thebes? The books are filled with names of kings. Was it the kings who hauled the craggy blocks of stone?”

Who would paint your portrait?

I’d prefer a sculpture by Giacometti. He was able to express the essence of people.

What’s your theme tune?

“Zorba’s Dance” from the 1964 film Zorba the Greek. As Zorba puts it: “A man needs a little madness, or else he never dares cut the rope and be free.” Carpe diem.

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

To aim to be a wide achiever rather than a high achiever. I’ve tried to avoid the cult of specialisation by writing books where I’m driven more by curiosity than expertise.

What TV show could you not live without?

Game of Thrones. I tell my kids it’s for research into the complexities of the human condition. That’s a lie.

What’s currently bugging you?

The shocking, chronic lack of funding for my children’s school – and all schools like theirs. It doesn’t bug me. It makes me angry.

What single thing would make your life better?

To be able to keep up with my kids at our local Parkrun. As they disappear into the distance I can’t help but hear the ticking clock of my mortality (along with my desperate panting).

When were you happiest?

When my father, who lives in Australia, met our six-month-old twins for the first time. The family connection was instant.

Are we all doomed?

Humanity is currently on a path of ecological self-termination. But there’s hope in history: time and again, we have managed to act together, often against the odds, to overcome crises and challenges. This gets me out of bed in the morning.

“History for Tomorrow” by Roman Krznaric is published by Ebury

[See also: Susie Alegre Q&A: “I was advised to travel the world or join the circus”]

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This article appears in the 10 Jul 2024 issue of the New Statesman, All Change