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Q&A with Christopher Tugendhat, author of A History of Britain Through Books 1900 – 1964

Q&A with Christopher Tugendhat, author of A History of Britain Through Books 1900 – 1964

By Gabrielle Johnson |

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Christopher Tugendhat is a politician, journalist and businessman with experience directing brands such as Rio Tinto and Eurotunnel. A History of Britain Through Books is Christopher’s fourth book and explores political and social change from 1900 to 1964 through the lens of literature. An innovative exploration of history, Tugendhat’s new book has already received acclaim from award-winning authors, hailed as ‘a fascinating book’ by Peter Hennessy and a ‘tour-de-force’ by Lucy Riall

To start, could you tell us a little about yourself and A History of Britain Through Books.

I’ve been collecting modern first editions for nearly fifty years, including many that I believe reflect and illuminate the British experience during the first sixty or so years of the 20th century. For a long time, I was looking for a way to distil and share the understanding of the period that I had gained from these books. When I read Neil MacGregor’s A History of the World in 100 Objects, I realized that I could use my books as he had used his objects.

You’ve had a varied and exciting career in politics and journalism – why did you decide to write and publish this book, which focuses on social and political change, at this time in your life?

I had a deep desire to revert to my original métier. I began life as a journalist. While working on the Financial Times I wrote two books, one on the international oil industry, published in 1968, and another, published in 1971, that was among the first to deal with the, then new phenomenon of multinational companies. When I returned to London after serving as a European Commissioner in Brussels for eight years, I wrote Making Sense of Europe, published in 1986. I always hoped I would write more and this idea of how to write about my collection of books has at last enabled me to do so.

What will readers learn from A History of Britain Through Books?

They will learn that the way the world and issues looked to people at the time, was often very different from the way it appears with the wisdom of hindsight, which is how history is generally written. They will also, I hope, gain a deeper understanding of the ideas, prejudices and events that contributed to making British people who we are today. In the case of older readers, I hope this will lead them, like me, to reassess some of the ideas they previously held about the past. In the case of younger ones, I hope it will provide them with a framework within which to form their own views.

Why did you decide to comment on political and social change through the lens of literature?

My aim is not so much to comment on the political and social changes that took place during the period covered by this book. It is to get behind them and to convey – through the prism of books – the way people thought, felt and lived, from which those changes flowed. My book is above all about people and the context of their lives.

Could you describe the experience of holding A History of Britain Through Books in your hands for the first time?

There are few experiences in life more satisfying than holding a book one has written for the first time. I felt the same thrill holding A History of Britain Through Books, as I did when I first held my first book more than fifty years ago. I was also enormously impressed by how attractively whitefox produced it.

If you had to choose three books to reflect your own life and career journey, which would you choose?

When, as a student, I was very unsure about what to try for after university I happened to read The Great Days, a novel by the American John Dos Passos. It tipped me towards journalism, for which I have always been grateful. I am also grateful to Noel Annan for setting me thinking about how to find an original approach to writing history with his book Our Age, a portrait of the generation that lived through much of the period I have covered. Finally, the book against which I have always measured writing – mine as well as others’– about politics, policy and politicians, is John Maynard Keynes’s The Economic Consequences of the Peace about the Versailles Peace Conference after the First World War. I think it is still the supreme example of the genre.

What was your experience of working with whitefox?

Working with whitefox has been a delight. I have been enormously impressed by the professionalism and attention to detail of all those I have dealt with and by the speed with which my questions and queries have always been dealt with.

Click here to pre-order your copy of A History of Britain Through Books, publishing on the 7th of November 2019. 

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