As an historian of tsarist times, I spend most of my time teaching and writing about the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. But I’m interested in all aspects of modern Russia and enjoy my role as chairman of the Russian Booker Prize Literary Committee, which takes me to Moscow several times a year. My most recent book is Catherine the Great (London: Profile Books, 2009), which was shortlisted for the Longman-History Today Book of the Year Prize. I’m currently researching relations between Britain and Russia in the nineteenth century and
will deliver the Royal Historical Society’s Prothero Lecture in 2017, the centenary of the Russian Revolution.
One of the nicest features of my occasional broadcasts, including appearances on Radio 4’s In Our Time and the 2016 BBC series Empire of the Tsars, is that they almost always prompt old friends from Bolton School to get back in touch. The only one that failed on that front was a recent talk-show on early-morning radio in Melbourne, Australia. But I live in hope …
Since 2008 I have been Sir Bernard Pares Professor of Russian History at UCL, having served as Professor of Modern History at the University of Leeds for nine years before that. I began my career as a Junior Research Fellow at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, where I read History from 1979 to 1982, and spent nine enjoyable years as a lecturer at the University of Glasgow.
Things would doubtless have worked out quite differently had I not been able to learn Russian at Bolton School – starting at age 12 and going on to take both O-level and A-level. The languages I learned then (I also took French to A-level) have stood me in good stead ever since.
What is your connection to Bolton School? Were any other members of your family here?
I’m the only member of my family to have attended Bolton School. I was at Park Road from 1968-72 and at the Senior School from 1972 to Christmas 1978 (I stayed for a seventh term in the sixth form in order to take the Cambridge entrance examination).
What is your fondest Bolton School memory?
We had some inspirational trips abroad. I was fortunate to participate in the Clermont-Ferrand exchange led by Michael Tatman (with whom I’m still in contact thanks to our shared interests at Bolton Little Theatre), and I went on the first School trip to Moscow, led by Roy Waterhouse at New Year 1975. It’s marvellous that that tradition still continues, though so much has changed since then. For one thing, I suspect that it’s no longer possible to keep the cost below £100. And the Soviet Union has collapsed too! Each time I travel to Moscow, I think of the hours we spent passing through customs at Sheremetevo airport. But it was worth it to see Red Square lit up at New Year, and above all to see the Bolshoi opera in the Kremlin Palace of Congresses.
As a (very amateur) musician myself, I particularly enjoyed the role of the Sergeant of Police in The Pirates of Penzance in 1976. Alan Mitchell was the Pirate King, Derrick Shaw the Major General, and Tim Corner (another Inspiring Mind), sang Frederick. The whole thing was conducted by Norman Harper — one of those who wrote to me out of the blue after seeing Empire of the Tsars on the BBC forty years later.
Did any member of teaching staff particularly inspire you while you were at school?
It seems invidious to single out any single person since what strikes me in retrospect is the strength in depth of the staff. Still, Mike Tatman and Mike Townson did their best to improve my wayward French grammar; Charles Winder was a generous Form Master in the Sixth Form; and I should never have got into Cambridge without the sardonic encouragement of the late Roger Whitten and Chris Eames (who famously put his head on the block by entering BBC’s Mastermind and came a close second in the final).
I might never have become a historian at all had it not been for a single year at the age of 14 being taught by Richard Wilkinson, whom I still see in London and who is still writing history books himself (the most recent is a characteristically amusing one about Louis XIV). Convinced that serious history was a subject only for adults, Richard got every boy to understand why it mattered to them. As a convinced pacifist, he liked to charge the door with a window pole, letting out a blood-curdling cry in order to deter anyone from being lured into bayonet practice.
What do you feel your experience at Bolton School has given to you personally?
It has given me some wonderfully loyal friends and the confidence and resilience to cope with anything the world throws at me.
Apart from the furniture and the marvellous new buildings, I see no huge differences when I re-visit School. I still have the same sense that it encourages open, articulate people, full of the curiosity and determination that will sustain them in their future careers.
What is the best career advice you can give to Bolton School pupils today?
Most people who do well are simply lucky – and lucky enough to be doing something they enjoy. But the best way to make the most of your luck is to be ready to take advantage of it when it comes. So work hard and keep in touch with people. You may be surprised to find how many Old Boltonians you’ll meet along the way!
What do you think about Bolton School’s 100 Campaign aim to re-establish genuine open access through its bursary fund?
Much the best thing the School could have done in difficult times!