Historical Oracle Meets...Dr Ian Mortimer, Historian
Updated: Feb 26, 2020
When I found out that we had the opportunity to interview Dr Ian Mortimer, I jumped at the chance. As a historian myself, his back catalogue of books has punctuated my life in academia and journalism.
Though, I am not the only one who have been influenced his work. His The Time Traveller’s Guide to… series are a staple of many people’s book shelves. Biographies of Henry V and Sir Roger Mortimer have been seminal pieces of work. And his fictional work such as The Outcasts of Times have entertained readers around the world. To get a chance to interview him about his life and work was one not to be missed.
When I met him at his house in Moretonhampstead, it was exactly the place I would imagine a historian living in. To say it was a home that breathed history would be an understatement. Somewhat expectably, Ian was able to recall the precise detail of every occupant and the date of every wall in the house with immense ease.
Despite being originally from London, it is fitting that Ian should now live on Dartmoor, a place his family is so strongly linked to. His father was the son of John Stuart Mortimer, the last member of the family to have owned the firm of Mortimers (Plymouth) Ltd, founded in the eighteenth century by his great-great-great-great-grandfather, John Mortimer. From 1773 to 1933 they were all dyers and cleaners, employing 150 staff in about a dozen branches in the first decades of the twentieth century.
Walking into Ian’s study, you are greeted by a picture of his aunt, Angela Mortimer on the wall. A famous tennis player, she won several grand slam titles, namely the French singles title in 1955, the Wimbledon ladies’ doubles title the same year, the Australian singles title in 1958, and the Wimbledon singles title in 1961. The hands of history have firmly grasped the Mortimer name then.
When we finally sat down to begin, he started by discussing the motivation behind his career, something that links back to the thought of his aunt:
“The legacy of my aunt Angela was that you do not need to be scared for the rest of your life. You can do something. She could be playing tennis on the other side of the world and you would realise you could do something else.”
Having grown up in London, but with a grandad still living on Dartmoor, I asked him what his first memories are of visiting a place so strongly linked to his family:
“My grandfather carried on living down here in his sort of obtuse, idiosyncratic way. Long walks with the family are what I really remember because we didn’t really do that back where we were.”
His grandad had been an expert in wildlife and could identify a bird just from its call, something I suspect few of my generation could do nowadays.
After moving down to the Moor, Ian spent a lot of his life giving back to the community in which he lives, partaking in voluntary roles for organisations such as Dartmoor National Park Authority.
“When the children were young, I decided it was time for me to get involved in some public service. I was appointed by the Secretary of State to be a representative on the Dartmoor National Park Authority Planning Committee.
‘I devoted myself heavily to the planning. I think I spoke on every planning application for 12 and a half years. At one point, I was committing a third of my time to voluntary organisations.”
It wasn’t long before we got on to the subject that really drives him and for which his name is synonymously linked.
“I have always been interested in history. At the age of 43 someone pointed out that I’ve got time in my name. It took 43 years to realise I got time right in the middle of my name. If you’ve got a name like Mortimer it just takes you back to the past. You and I talked [previously] about the family business in Plymouth. When [the family] talked about that we talked about it [as if] we did it. A sense of family identity that lasts hundreds of years. We didn’t have much of a family identity before that but since then talked a lot about what we did.
‘[As a family] we talked about my great-great uncle who had a terrible shock when the love of his life died in childbirth. He never recovered from the loss of his partner. We referred to this person that died in 1894, as if it was relevant now. My father talked about his great aunt who died in 1954 as if she had just stepped out and for a pint of milk or something. You had these conversations that would go back centuries, so I can’t remember not being interested in the past.”
With such a love of the past, and with such a strong family identity, I asked Ian if he had always wanted to turn this love of history into a profession.
“I wanted to be a poet first of all. I wanted to write poetically about the past. However, the meaning of History gets in the way of trying to write poetically. I had limited success as a writer of poetry. I had about 20 or 30 poems published in journals but in the end the desire to write about history took over, but I always wanted to be a writer.”
Arguably the books that are linked so strongly to Ian are that of The Time Traveller’s Guide to series, having sold hundreds of thousands of copies worldwide. Like any budding writers, I asked how the concept came to him – taking the process from inception to the page.
“I remember the process very well. What would the past be like if a schoolboy could go to it, see what it’s like and come back? Would he be able to tell you about it? Well no, because you are taught the key to history is analysis and evidence. Which made me think way we teach history is not about the past but about analysis. But the past is surely what drives us on. [So I asked] How can you dream of a form of history that prioritises the past and therefore is like going to the past?
‘The first idea was a Hitchhiker’s Guide to History. It was going to be something like ‘If you went to the past, you’d want to avoid boiling to death in Henry VIII’s England.’ I sent the idea off to four publishers. John Hayle came back and said that there was a germ of a good idea but the focus should be on one time period.”
And so the idea of a Time Traveller’s guide came into being. Listening to Ian candidly describing the process of writing, it was easy to tell the effort, passion and difficulty that goes into introducing his readers to the past.
“The Travellers Guide to… books are hell to write. People think they are easy to write because they see a kind of formula. However, it’s a formula you can’t repeat. If you say the same things about cleanliness in each book people will get bored. You’ve got to find something new to say about the old over and over again.
‘At the same time you have to break all historical rules. Normally you judge the past objectively and from a distance. In this case, you need to go as close as possible and make people judge it subjectively, which is not what historians are meant to do.
‘Most of all, standards of the modern day should not be allowed to intrude on the past. To judge the standard of the slave trade by today’s standards is complete nonsense but because you areintroducing modern people to the past as if they really could go there; you have to be sensitive to what modern people would think if they really could go there.
‘Most of all, you have to know so much. You have to know what fans of the topic know. So, The Regency, which I am writing at the moment, it’s hell to write. You’ve got to know what the Jane Austen fans know, you’ve got to know what the Peninsular war fans know, you’ve got to know what William Pitt the Younger fans know, and the Byron fans know. You’ve got to be up to speed with so much. You can’t do it all but you got to pretend you can do it all. It becomes a huge, great confidence trick.”
For anyone that knows the historian profession, they will know that the work isn’t finished when the book is published. It is then a case of defending what you have written when it is questioned. To say we are an argumentative bunch is an understatement. I asked Ian what he thought of the current state of the profession:
“Most historians are not doubtful enough. I found a major point about the past, about Edward II, that is not supported by evidence. I started, in the academic press, an argument about this. It was hugely controversial to this day because all the scholars do not want to admit that what they have been repeating as certainties for so many years is demonstrably, provably false.
‘All the information on Edward II’s death relies on one message which could not possibly have been checked before it was circulated by the court. Three years later the man admitted it was false. You then have to revisit all the evidence and you get into really tough arguments with other historians.
‘You then realise there are areas where people are very, very confident, wrongly, because that is the way they want to look at the past. If you were to take a straw poll of everyone in this country who is lecturing on 14th Century England you’d find that 95% of those that do so believe Edward II died in Berkeley Castle even though in 2005 I proved the evidence for believing that is wrong.
‘You can’t simply supplant argument over belief. Belief becomes paramount to people. Someone said to me even if you proved God existed I still wouldn’t believe in him. That discrepancy between belief and argument means that a lot of history goes through on ‘because I say so’.”
While this all may sound academic, at the heart of Ian’s work is a want to give meaning to the subject he cares so passionately about. His poetic and storytelling instincts dominate his writing.
“In talking to people about History, it is definitely an art. If you were simply to list everything that ever happened, people are left to make of it what they will and you haven’t actually given it any meaning. Talking about the past has no value at all unless it has meaning. Giving the past meaning is an art.”
There will be some – and I have met a few – that will feel history is far removed from everyday life. However, arguably the past continues to dominate the present. Many of you would have heard over the years of campaigns such as Rhodes Must Fall -- a protest movement that was originally directed against a statue at the University of Cape Town that commemorates Cecil Rhodes. The campaign for the statue’s removal received global attention and led to a wider movement to “decolonise” education across South Africa.
Or the recent discussion relating to Cambridge University which has launched a two-year academic study to uncover how the institution contributed to, and profited from, slavery and other forms of coerced labour during the colonial era.
I asked Ian about these movements and, despite it being an off-the-cuff interview, he gave me an answer that could have formed the basis of a book.
“At the moment, we are talking about it in very, very simplistic ways. At the moment we have ‘This person, this name, this heritage, is offensive – we need to expose it, we need to damn it and make sure everybody is against it’.
‘Then you have people like me whose first reaction is to say ‘You can’t judge the past by the standards of the present’. You can’t say to Cambridge University: ‘You need to give up some of this funding because it came from slavery’.
‘For start: who do you give it up to? Why are you giving it up in the first place? Aren’t other aspects of the past equally reprehensible. Was not medieval villeinage a form of slavery? Who are you going to give money back to then?
‘Cambridge University certainly has a lot of land and that land would have been cleared by medieval slaves. How far back do you go? What is really powering this? Then you go back to the other lot and you have to ask how much is this driven by wanting to see past wrongs righted, which is impossible, or is it self-empowerment?
‘Why do we never talk about white slavery? Devon and Cornwall, Southern Ireland, parts of Spain, parts of Italy were subject to this massive white slave trade in North Africa. We never talked about it because white slaves were never around to multiply, they were never allowed to mate with their own colour, and they were normally executed.
‘There is roughly a population of 35,000 white slaves in North Africa right through from about 1580 to the 1730s and around a quarter of them were killed each year. This massive genocide is largely forgotten about because there are no living victims who talk about their slavery experience. If there had been, we’d see a similar argument about the slavery of white Christians.
‘So, if you really want to get into the business of righting wrongs, where do you stop?
Having said that, things do change. We have always gone through history adapting, changing. To say the Colston Hall in Bristol must be called the Colston Hall in honour of all the good things he did rather than the negatives, is like saying we should never split our infinitives because it’s wrong or never ending a sentence with a preposition, which turns out to be a rule in Latin and not English. So, there has to be an adaptability.
‘I think Rhodes Must Fall is a movement worth resisting because it is actually trying to empower people today in a moral way by undermining those people who are the heirs of the British Empire – is not about anything positive. It’s about criticising one legacy by saying ‘We are right because we suffered in the past’. I’m sorry but I believe the sins of the father should not be visited on the sons. You don’t make any advantage this way.”
Ian only took up his PhD in his 30s, so to say he has been productive since then, is a considerable understatement.
“I didn’t waste my thirties, that is certain; even if the years in question saw less poetic wonderment than my twenties.”
At the end of our interview, I asked what his plans were for the future. I was greeted with the answer that he has already mapped out his work for the next 10 years, leaving me slightly bemused as I’m not sure what I will be having for dinner tonight.
Though his inspiration for carrying on summarises so perfectly the mind of a man who has dedicated his life to studying the past:
“History is not about the past; it’s about humanity in time - understanding our own species over the course of centuries. That, surely, has to be the most inspiring thing in the world.”