I talk to historian Tom Holland about the joys of fine-tailoring, re-writing history, England’s Kevin Pietersen problem and the greatest days of his cricketing career (so far)…
Henry: Many people have a preconceived notion of how an historian dresses: baggy cords and a tweed jacket out at the elbows but you always seem well turned out. How would you describe your dress sense?
Tom: I am certainly not well turned out all the time. Working as I do at home a lot, the temptation to slob around dressed as though for a Silicon Valley start-up is often irresistible. But I do like to dress up smartly when the justification arises, and have a particular partiality for three-piece suits. Looking ahead to old age, one of the big consolations of senescence will be the justification it provides for going the full Tolkien, and investing in tweed.
Henry: What is your most extravagant wardrobe expenditure?
Tom: As it happens, I am in the midst of paying for it right now. It has always been one of my life-long ambitions – alongside hearing a wolf howl and visiting Japan – to buy a suit from Savile Row. I enjoyed an unexpected windfall last autumn, and so have splashed out on bespoke tailoring from Huntsman’s. The whole experience has been a joy: the tantrically protracted process of actually having the suit completed, the 19th century hussar’s jacket in the fitting room, the awesome professionalism of the man I am honoured and delighted to refer to as ‘my tailor’…
Henry: What is the key to your perfect shirt?
Tom: It’s all about the arms: the edge of the cuffs must be the perfect length from the edge of the jacket.
Henry: You are a very active tweeter, do you use it more as a sounding board for ideas and as a catalyst for discussion or is it your writer’s instinct for procrastination which draws you to it?
Tom: I use it as the equivalent of a water-cooler: the chance to interact with people after an hour or so of concentrated work. I also find it increasingly addictive as a commonplace book: a place to note down anything I read or see that strikes me as interesting, and discover if it sparks a matching interest in anyone else. I do, I confess, find it disturbingly addictive – and were I to become king of the world, I would most certainly ban it.
Henry: You have written a number of works of fiction but recently the emphasis of your writing has been historical non-fiction. Why did you cross over and are you finding it more rewarding as a writer?
Tom: I have always been drawn both to history and fiction, and when I began my career I wanted to be a novelist more than a non-fiction writer. But I found that all my novels, no matter how hard I tried, ended up with a central core of historical fact – and after a while, I realised that I had no choice but to obey what my instincts were clearly telling me. The periods I write about – ancient and early medieval – both often have as primary sources texts that are midway between history and fiction; and what I really enjoy is exploring the resulting indeterminacy.
Henry: Your most recent book, In The Shadow Of The Sword , is about the decline of the Persian and Roman Empires and the evolution not only of a geographical but of a societal and cultural landscape which we might recognise today as well as the development of modern religions, what drew you to this huge, sprawling subject?
Tom: My first two books were about the classical civilisations of Greece and Rome – and the result was to bring home to me, not how similar to us they were, but how unsettling and alien. Accordingly, I was interested in exploring the moral and ethical changes that separate us from the classical Greeks and Romans. My first attempt at this, Millennium, was a survey of early medieval Christendom – and having done that, it then seemed to make sense to look at what had happened in the Near East, with the emergence there of Islam.
Henry: Writing about religion is dangerous ground under any circumstances but when you’re challenging established beliefs in terms of the history of a religion you are inviting a stormy reception. Is it the possibility of historical research to throw up new theories and to challenge entrenched views which interests you?
Tom: Of course – it surprises some people that there can be new things to discover or say about ancient history, but there always are, and that for me is precisely the abiding fascination of it.
Henry: And what should eager readers be looking out for from Tom Holland in the near future?
Tom: I am writing a sequel to my first book, Rubicon , which was about Julius Caesar and the collapse of the Roman Republic. My new book is about Caesar’s heir, Augustus, who established himself as Rome’s first emperor, and his dynasty. It will enable me to write about some of the most notorious rulers in history: Tiberius and Caligula, Claudius and Nero.
Henry: As well as being an award winning writer you are also a noted amateur cricketer, playing regularly for The Authors XI . Which came first for you in terms of interest: cricket or history?
Tom: History. As a child, I loathed any form of sport – but both my father and brother were obsessed by cricket, and gradually, over the course of my teens, I surrendered to its fascination. But I still find myself drifting off while fielding into reveries about Roman emperors…
Henry: You have friends in high places in the cricketing establishment and have professed your admiration for Kevin Pietersen and Alastair Cook (your batting coach, I believe?). For those of us following (head in hands, at the moment) English cricket, what is your view of ‘The KP question’?
Tom: That Pietersen riled many of his team-mates; that the toxic legacy of Textgate still lingers on; that his self-centredness has a sometimes sulphurous quality: all this is doubtless true. The truth is, though I simply do not care. In fact – the electric charge of controversy that crackles and sparks around Pietersen is, as it has always been, a crucial aspect of his charisma. As anyone who reads ancient epic knows, difficult heroes are invariably the most interesting ones. Would Pietersen’s sacking have convulsed opinion across the country had he not been such sensational box-office?
Henry: You’ve been playing for the Authors XI for a couple of years and have toured with them to India and Sri Lanka. You’re really living the dream of every amateur cricketer. What has been your favourite ground to play on?
Tom: Last year we went on tour to India, and played five matches that seemed to express the magical variety of cricket in that incomparable country. We played under lights on the Mumbai sea-front; against a Maharajah’s XI at Jodhpur; beneath circling vultures in a desert; and against an IPL team, the Rajasthan Royals, at their home ground. But the most memorable venue was the first one: the Raj-era pitch on which India played their first ever Test back in 1933. Behind us, a maidan covered with people playing cricket, and the Gothic silhouette of the city’s
Victorian railway station; ahead of us, a pavilion in which English and Indian Test players had changed. I kept having to pinch myself!
Henry: With a knack for getting wickets you are more of a bowler than a batsman for the Authors but you have apparently hit a six as a tail-ender too?
Tom: I have. It was the most extraordinary fluke, and came at the end of a drizzle-soaked game in which we were badly stuffed – but I can honestly say that it was the single most joyous experience I have ever had on a cricket field. Also, it just happened to be photographed – meaning that I can go on and on and on and on and on and on about it.
This image (c) Ngayu Thairu
Tom Holland’s books are Rubicon; Persian Fire; In The Shadow Of The Sword and Millenium; he has also translated Herodotus for Penguin Classics.
Tom is also a member of The Authors Cricket Club and contributed towards their book The Authors XI: A Season of English Cricket from Hackney to Hambledon