15 questions to ask of popular history

Having come up with a couple of other similar lists for Lars Dahle’s online culture project (20 Questions for Novels & 12 Questions for Albums), here is the latest, on one of my personal passions: history writing. Popular history books are big business. Which means that lots of people must be reading them… Which means they are definitely worth approaching with considerably more care and attention than many give them…

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A nursery for crime: John Le Carré on teaching at Eton!

As part of my ongoing trawl into the literature and culture of the Cold War, I came across this classic description from John Le Carré (nom de plume of David Cornwell) of his 2 years’ teaching at Eton. It is from a collection of transcribed interviews spanning 40 years – which is itself fascinating, because of the sense of development it reveals. You can see how often answers to different interviewers don’t tally, which seems part of a deliberately cultivated air of mystery. Everything he says (no doubt with a perfectly straight face, and undetectable to any unsuspecting interviewer) needs to be taken with a pinch of salt.

So it is significant to see both the many years of constant denial and then, at last, his admission in 1983 to having been a spy (to Melvin Bragg no less). When he gave this interview, though, he was still insisting that he was merely working in Germany for the Foreign Office. But his description of the school (if he can be believed!) suggests that he was even better prepared for the work he actually ended up doing. (more…)

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The oppressive shadows of the Berlin Wall: Anna Funder’s Stasiland

The Berlin Wall has been gone for over 20 years. But its shadows haven’t.

People here talk of the Mauer im Kopf or the Wall in the Head. I thought this was just a shorthand way of referring to how Germans define themselves still as easterners and westerners. But I see now a more literal meaning: the Wall and what it stood for do still exist. The Wall persists in the Stasi men’s minds as something they hope might one day come again, and in their victims’ minds too, as a terrifying possibility. (p233)

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