A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Having known you for several years now, I think I can say with some certainty that you’re a fellow enthusiast; a quality that goes down very well in the den. What are your particular enthusiasms?
Well, I am known for a few particular things. I am a collector (and user) of fountain pens as well as vintage watches. I’m also enjoy collecting British First World War military marked pocket watches and First World War era trench watches. The first two are very much passions of mine, I often still pen handwritten letters to friends and family and I enjoy the wide variety of different colours of ink available to the person who does not use a biro. My current favourite ink is a sepia ink made by a British company. I have a few vintage fountain pens, from the 1940s to 1960s (rough estimates of age) and quite a few modern ones of all makes and values. My interest in fountains was aroused during the final year of my PhD candidacy, perhaps as a subconscious response to how much time I spent on my computer and a desire to add a more human touch to my correspondence.
Well, the watches are a guilty pleasure. I shall be honest about that. I’ve always had an interest in timekeeping instruments and an appreciation for fine craftsmanship and I feel that digital watches and quartz watches are a bit soulless when compared to a mechanical watch. I also like to imagine the history behind the watches, from my ‘trench’ watch stamped with ‘C.S.(I)’ (Civil Service, India) to my other dated watches (1914, 1916, 1918, and 1919). It is always impressive to me that watches over 90 years old still work as well now, with some maintenance, as they did when they were new.
I suppose it must be mentioned that I’m thought to be quite keen on history and I also have a penchant for collecting and playing with toy soldiers. Still, let’s not allow those to detain us since I am sure that you may well have possibly heard a bit about that already…
War, peace and the maintenance of order come over as very strong themes in your writing, both here on VL and in an academic context. How did you come to be interested in military history, and how would you say your PhD experience influences what you read and write in your spare time?
War fascinates me and peace, even though we have yet to realise any real sense of ‘peace’ for most people in the world in any era of history, is an interesting topic as well. I suppose, like most boys, it was something that I got caught up in as a child when I played with those green plastic toy army men. For my interest in order… I must admit, this story is slightly more mundane and perhaps a bit dull. As a child, I was also interested in law enforcement (I had told my parents I hoped to be a policeman one day!). I thought that that it must be a vital job in society to protect the weak and to prevent injustice.
I grew older and my interests changed somewhat. I was more interested in a military career as a naval officer but I continued my history studies, trying to learn more about the past and to understand how it shapes the world today. I then noticed the emphasis many history textbooks, rightly or wrongly, put on war and military affairs. By the time I was an undergraduate, I had opted to remain a civilian and to pursue a history degree with the hopes of one day earning a doctorate. I remember some colleagues in undergraduate telling me that we should focus more on economic or social history but I thought that, perhaps, they are all intertwined far too much to just separate out. I find it hard to study Rome and Roman society without an appreciation of the Roman military and how military affairs pervaded most layers of society (if not all).
My PhD has an influence but it is perhaps not as great as one might think. Indeed, I almost feel as if my reading and writing probably influenced my PhD. I was interested in Rome for a long time so the PhD allowed me to continue working on Roman history as well as military history. Of course, even though I read as many books as I could during my candidacy, I built up a large backlog of books. So now I prodigiously read and I am trying to reduce this backlog of WWI history, Chinese history, naval history, and science-fiction books. If there was a major impact in my non-fiction reading, I have become far more critical of the books I read and most of the non-fiction in my hands tends to be a bit more scholarly than what the average reader might see. I like a good story as much as anyone else but it has to be a well-researched story set in the proper context.
There is also an unexpected side-effect when it comes to reading fiction set in the Roman world. There’s a funny story, actually. I remember, once, my supervisor warned me that I might not enjoy any fiction set in the Roman world as I’d end up going, ‘Wait…that’s the wrong name for the 3rd Century BC!’ At the time, I didn’t think much about that but once in a while I am recommended a good novel set in the Roman world and I can’t read it since I just end up analysing its fallacies to death. As for what I write, I’m currently working on a case study of Roman Imperial public order and policing as performed by the army in the 3rd Century AD (public order again). My writing for VL is a bit more varied and I get to express a lot of the interests which I did not have a chance to write about during my PhD (particularly WWI).
We’ve had many discussions about classic comedy, notably Blackadder Goes Forth and Yes, Minister/Yes, Prime Minister, here on VL and elsewhere. What, for you, is an enjoyable comedy? What do you watch when you sit back with a glass of port?
These two shows capture the essence of what I enjoy most in very good comedy: good dialogue, wit, jokes, and the chemistry between characters. These are not the only things in my comedies. Though, I will confess, I also enjoy such ludicrous films and comedies like Police Academy but also have a fondness for some of the comedies by Terentius (Terence). My taste in comedy varies depending on my mood and I can swing from the wit of Yes, Minister/Yes, Prime Minister to the more mindless comedies such as Police Academy.
Though, most often, when I sit back and enjoy a glass of sherry or port, I do prefer something along the lines of Yes, Minister/Yes, Prime Minister, MASH the television series, Frasier, Red Dwarf, or Dad’s Army. I enjoy something with a bit of story to it rather than just an endless series of jokes that aren’t really tied together in any way.
Your first contribution to VL was over a year ago now, in October 2008. Any particularly memorable moments? (I hope it wasn’t an annus horribilis).
My first piece was a remarkably well-received soapbox on the writing and consumption of popular [Roman] history in today’s world. It has been a bit of a rollercoaster year since then as I contributed more articles and entries for Vulpes Libris and it has been gratifying to see the responses I’ve received. I think my particular favourite was our two-headed review of the Yes, [Prime] Minister novelizations and the television series itself. I am used to writing for an academic audience so it was a bit nerve-wracking to write for VL as I was quite worried I would be unable to make sense.
As for any other memorable moments, if it is not too ingratiating, then I’d like to say that just being asked to contribute to VL has been a compliment. I greatly enjoy the offerings by the Foxes and I can definitely say that my day is not complete or, really, started until I’ve read each day’s VL entry.
As always, I’d like to ask you to recommend five favourite books – and it would be lovely if you could explain their significance to you.
Five favourite books? Well, I do apologise in advance if some are a bit obvious or predictable.
1) H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds. I’ve always enjoyed this book because of the deeper meanings behind it (Wells being inspired to write this tale by the stories of the destruction of existing cultures by colonists). Also, the evocative image of HMS Thunderchild sinking Martian tripods is just too much for me to resist. There is just too much for the young reader to enjoy and much for the older reader to think about as he considers the Martian invasion of Earth as well as human activities related to conquest and invasion.
2) Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. Here, again, you see my penchant for ‘war story’ type reading. There is a deeper meaning to the story, of course, the narrative of how veterans earn their votes and citizenship. It is also an interesting story since Heinlein writes against the backdrop of the Cold War and, particularly, the Korean War.
3) Wallace Breem’s Eagle in the Snow. They say that the film Gladiator was based upon this novel, very loosely, but if this is so then I feel that the film lost out. We focus on the character, a General Maximus, who faces the twilight of Empire and he struggles to hold a poorly defended frontier with inadequate forces against a horde of barbarians. He knows his men and he are more than likely doomed but he never accepts the barbarians’ attempts to get him to betray his oath to an emperor who does not care for his pagan general or to a Rome that he has never seen.
4) Isaac Asimov’s Foundation. A sci-fi Galactic Empire based on Rome? Extraordinary! On a more serious note, there is something appealing about Hari Seldon’s fight against the coming of the darkness. An academic fighting to find a way to preserve the knowledge of human civilisation against the barbarian tide that would sweep in after the fall of the Empire. Perhaps there’s a bit of conceit but I like that theme.
5) C. Iulius Caesar’s De Bello Gallico. This is the book that really started my Roman journey and I still read the Gallic War from time to time. Caesar’s overly fond of the subjunctive but he tells a riveting (if biased) narrative of his time in the provinces and he justifies each of his decisions to his readers back at Rome.