1. How and/or when did you get you hooked on history?
I would love to come up with a really smart answer to this, the first question, to show that although my claim is never to be anything more than a 'Juggler and Entertainer' talking about history, that there is an academic core to my life in history. However, I fear that anybody who has seen any one of my shows in which I take out the bullwhip will immediately see that here is a man who was first inspired to history by Indiana jones, and just never grew up. From watching the Indiana Jones movies I began to look at archaeologists and history, and I think it was the story of Howard Carter and the Tomb of Tutankhamen (discussed in the first Condensed Histories book) that made me realize this was a real thing.
I was lucky that as a child, as well as today, I devoured books, and it was always the stories in history which held the ultimate fascination for me, and led me down the road to where I am today.
2. What role does history play or has it played in your personal life?
History was always something I loved, the stories fascinated me. I was lucky enough to have been born into a family who shared an interest, and growing up whenever we went on holiday as a family we would visit local castles, historic buildings and museums, and I guess that that only cemented my love of them. Until a few years ago, history was very much something in my personal life. I was busy working as a performer, on tour a lot of the time, and I actually did a History Degree with the Open University, not because I envisioned history playing a part in my future career, but to give me something else to focus on when I got in from a day's shows. It helped give me something else to do in a time before I realized that doing my own shows and writing books could fill the time in hotel rooms on tour!
3. How is history a part of your professional life/career?
I started my professional career when I left school, intending to be a serious actor - which very quickly fell by the wayside as I realized that juggling and entertaining without learning lines and playing a part were just more fun to me. About five years ago I first struck on the idea of writing a history book based on my own thoughts and life, and it was something I started and then let drift for a year.
A few years back I was then looking for a subject for my next one man show, and I found my History Degree still in an envelope in a drawer, and from there the Condensed Histories shows were born, and as a result the book was finished and became the first in a series. Since then the majority of my shows (which are my full time job) are my Condensed Histories shows, travelling around juggling, entertaining, and talking about history.
4. Why is studying/knowing history important?
To be honest this isn't an argument I normally try to make. There are arguments that knowing history can deepen understanding of the present, and various others, but I try not to stress them, because for me stressing that it is important to know history is the wrong way of going about it. If someone had ever told me I should know history because it is important when I was younger, it might even have put me off a little (I'm a professional juggler - not one for following what other people tell me is important or I'd have listened to my teachers and got a 'real job'). I would much rather let people know how fun and interesting history is, let them know the stories, and discover history through that, rather than because it is important.
When I tell people the story of Taillefer the juggler at the Battle of Hastings, I don't think there is anyway it will be important to them to know it, but from the number of people who come up and talk to me about that fact after the show, I know that it has entertained them. I suppose it is the same thing as juggling - is it important? I might get myself in trouble at the next juggling convention I attend, but I think no, the act of juggling is not important. It is, however, entertaining when it is performed in the right way, in the same way that history is entertaining when imparted the right way. From what I gather, happiness is good for your health, and being entertained is good for happiness. So there you go, I guess the importance of history is that being entertained by it is good for your health (I must add at this point in time that I am NOT actually a doctor).
5. What is your favorite period or aspect of history to learn about and why?
I don't know. Isn't that a terrible answer? But I fear an honest one from a lot of people. The whole reason I started doing the Condensed Histories books and shows is so that I could do stuff on as many different types of history as possible, because I've never found myself tied to one time period. So the only answer I can give is what I’m learning about today.
The answer today is Victorian Explorers, because I have just started work on a new project for next summer, including a new series of shows, and so I have a pile of books about all of the great Victorian Explorers on the desk in front of me as I work, and I am learning new stories with every page I turn. My favorite thing to learn in history will always be a new story, which is part of the reason why when I interview people on the podcast I ask them to choose a subject to talk to me about, rather than me choosing one I am already familiar with.
6. What Is the Condensed Histories project and how did it come about?
I've just realized I should have read through all of the questions before I started writing, because then I wouldn't have already largely answered this question in a previous answer. It is a lesson I never learned in exams either, along with re-reading your answers, and the fact that the point of an exam wasn't to finish and get out of the room as quickly as possible so that you have more time to do what you want.
Really it began with the first show that I created, as mentioned above, when I found my history degree while searching for inspiration, and the response I received to the shows has been so warm and flattering, and the feeling of sharing the stories which fascinate me alongside the variety skills I use in the shows is something I really enjoy. I also feel it connects me to a long tradition of jugglers and 'fools' throughout history who shared tales while performing. I have often said that it is Shakespeare's line 'better a witty fool than a foolish wit' that keeps me going!
7. Some really weird people don't connect history and fun automatically. How do you reach those people?
First off I find these people unfortunate, but by no means weird. Weird is not a word I'd be comfortable using when my full time job as an adult is juggling, unicycling, cracking a bullwhip and dressing up!
Usually the failure to connect the two comes from the fact that they have never been shown that history can be entertaining while they were in school - something which I hope I'm helping with while touring the school versions of my shows. I was lucky - I had great teachers in schools but due to the curriculum there were still subjects I found boring - the French Revolution springs to mind. I had to study this for my A-levels at 18, and do for once I dreaded history lessons which were long and boring and about corn laws and the minutiae of the subject, never getting on to the heart of it. It was only years later when I tried to tackle this that I found Mark Steel's book 'Vive La Revolution' that I began to realize that most of the subject was actually fascinating!
But my shows are usually big, exciting events where people who don't like history are dragged in by the show, and I love it every time people come up to me and tell me they've never liked history before, and then spend ten minutes just discussing history with me.
If you've read this far through my answers, thanks a lot! For more ramblings about history you can check out the book. Many thanks also to the Histocrats for letting me answer the seven questions - not sure I've succeeded in answering them all, but I've got as close as I ever will. No time to re-read my answers, the exam is over, and if I hand in my paper now I can get a good half hour of juggling in before the academics finish checking theirs!