Black Books: Daniel Snowman Meets Jeremy Black, Prolific Chronicler of British, European and Worldwide Diplomatic, Military, Cultural and Cartographic History, and Much Else Besides

By Snowman, Daniel | History Today, April 2005 | Go to article overview

Black Books: Daniel Snowman Meets Jeremy Black, Prolific Chronicler of British, European and Worldwide Diplomatic, Military, Cultural and Cartographic History, and Much Else Besides


Snowman, Daniel, History Today


WHEN I FIRST CAME TO KNOW JEREMY BLACK, he was in his late thirties and already widely recognised for two things: his expertise on eighteenth-century British and European history, and his extraordinary industriousness. Jeremy's ambition, nicely symmetrical for one steeped in Enlightenment rationality, was to have authored forty books by the time he turned forty. Today, I'm afraid, he has things completely out of phase: approaching fifty, the Professor of History at Exeter already has some sixty books to his credit.

For once in these columns, I cannot claim to have read all of my interviewee's books; I suspect only Black himself has read everything he has written. But I have sampled a good deal and learned a lot about Hanoverian politics, diplomacy and culture, the history of the press, maps, warfare and much else. As I did so, it rapidly became clear that the criticism of Black--that he merely 'turns out one damn book after another'--is far from just, though the often mundane titles of his gigantic bibliography can seem to merge, diverge and re-form like oil blobs on a watery surface. Some of the books are, in effect, extended versions of earlier academic papers; others are heavyweight monographs or, latterly, synoptic tours d'horizon. All historical writing, including his own, says Black disarmingly, must be understood as no more than an interim report. Of course, he acknowledges, there are differences and may be inconsistencies between an early book and a later one on, say, the Grand Tour or the development of the English press (topics he has recently revisited). That's because he himself is older, hopefully wiser, and has researched new sources. History permits of no 'master narrative', Black asserts, and no publication is definitive or even necessarily that particular author's own last word on a subject. Are there borrowings in his books from earlier publications? Why not, if the point, or the example, is a good one and the new book takes the subject further?

Jeremy Black is the product of a hard-working, socially mobile northwest London family; today, his sister works with a top entertainment agency while his brother is a big wheel in real estate. Like Simon Schama, Black attended Haberdashers' School and went on to read History at Cambridge where, he recalls, he at first found intellectual standards rather lower than those he was used to at 'Habs'. At Cambridge, Black continued to revel in the joys of public debate, a skill he had first honed at school, and in time came to value the personal and intellectual tutelage available to a bright undergraduate. He still speaks with affection of his Director of Studies at Queen's, Jonathan Riley-Smith, though the admiration did not extend to his becoming a fellow-medievalist.

A starred First led to postgraduate work at Oxford and then a lectureship at Durham, where Black completed his doctorate (and first book): a study of British foreign policy in the age of Walpole. Foreign policy, he insisted then and has insisted ever since, cannot be understood in isolation from domestic policy, or vice versa. This may be obvious to us today as, for example, we note the links between George W. Bush's domestic constituency and the war in Iraq. But Black recalls that, when he was beginning his career, historians routinely ignored this interconnectedness, a profound gulf separating those who studied, say, the diplomacy or warfare of the Napoleonic or Crimean wars from those who wrote about the growth of the franchise or of cities. From the start, Black liked to question whatever he took to be the received wisdom. He thought of himself as something of an intellectual loner, a maverick. As a debater, he prided himself on his ability to understand the other side's arguments; he had a recurrent fantasy as an undergraduate that he would go into an exam room and, instead of answering the requisite number of questions, would take just one and give it a number of alternative answers.

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