Felipe Fernandez-Armesto

Felipe Fernández-Armesto is the closest thing that history writing gets to a Renaissance Man. With flagrant disregard for the contemporary trend towards specialisation he has used history's unique position (incorporating everything) to re-examine humankind's relation to the planet. His is global history in the true sense of the phrase: seeing human beings as actors in a global drama rather than the authors of their fate. In Millennium, for instance, he attempted to view the last 1000 years from the imaginary perspective of Galactic Museum Keepers, whose distance would allow them to observe the interaction of ecology, discovery and intellectual trends without the bias of progress or self-interest.

The freshness of his historical narratives derive from the fact that he is not bound by the limited perspective of predictable written sources, utilising fragments of knowledge from the fields of anthropology, biology and the humanities. Indeed, the only reason why one hesitates to use the term Renaissance Man is that it is based on a received idea of the Renaissance that he himself has dismissed:

". . .the conventional catchwords [. . .] make it sound as if the period was dominated by ideas, crafted by minds. In fact, the biggest transformations happened by accident and owed little to conscious human agency."

Unlike most other academics, he understands the importance of literary art in the enterprise of knowledge. Fernández-Armesto's own style is allusive, generous, supple and substantial. In his works received ideas are toppled like dominos by a mind that is inquisitive yet focused, vast yet ordered. The reason for these qualities became clear as our conversation progressed: he appears to lack the impediment of an ego. The point at which he encounters himself is the point at which he swerves. Not because he has nothing to impart – he does – but because he finds other things far more fascinating, as was made clear in the following exchange:

Would you ever write an autobiography?

"Oh God, no! I wouldn't have any material. I'm just not that interesting. Egocentrism is a terrible kind of vice. There is a world out there which is much more interesting than oneself."

This lacuna of egotism led to the occasional hiatus in the conversation as he racked his brain to remember a biographical detail. The reverse was true when the question referred to history, so effortlessly would he spin elegant webs of words. He seems to think in written words, rather than the usual cacophony of sound and images. As he explained:

"I work in my head. I never write something before I write it. That's a silly waste of time. I've never understood why people write notes. You need to have thought it out mentally, therefore you don't need to do another draft. Even when I do hackwork I try to do it as well as I can. I have a slight fantasy about myself as an artist creating works of art."

Do you have any interest in literary immortality?

"No, no, no, that would be a bit self-important. I just hope that somebody will read something. I still hope to write a great work, but it's a hope rather than an expectation. History is a rather ephemeral art, which gets taken of the reading lists fairly quickly and consigned to the dustiest part of the library."

In 2003, he published two books in quick succession: Ideas that Changed the World, a Dorling Kindersley book that brazenly ignored conventional reliance on written sources to unearth the ideas of homo sapiens going back at least 150,000 years. And The Americas, a short history of the hemisphere. Both books were commissioned and were laden with impositions: the former having the discussion of each topic reduced to 350 to 500 words; the latter being only 50,000 words long.

Do you have no great work or grand statement you want to complete?

"There are certain things that I want to do, but none of them are on a very daunting scale. I am contracted to write textbooks for the American University market, where they've already got what Blair wants here, with 50% of school leavers going to University. As a result the publishing professionals and most of the teachers are very unambitious for their students and have quite a low opinion of their level of knowledge. Not to dumb down, but to try and make the language as simple and direct as possible and to explain as much as possible and not do what I usually do and have allusions hanging in the air, which I think is great fun. You can't do that. But I didn't forfeit my own voice."

And it is this inimitable voice that comes across most strongly in the following interview.

I first encountered Felipe Fernández-Armesto when I undertook his MA seminar on Civilization and Barbarism at Queen Mary, University of London. Before I had read him, he was spoken of in hallowed terms by a fellow academic, who also inferred that Felipe was related to the Spanish royal family. As my concern was initially chronological, I made the gaffe of asking about his ancestry.

"I'm extremely unsentimental about ancestry. I think it is usually a sign of personal inadequacy if you have to console yourself about your own deficiencies by celebrating your ancestors. Although I have got a lot of professional intellectuals, gentleman intellectuals, amongst my ancestors, none of them have been terribly good. I don't take any great pride or interest. But I do feel very Spanish, although I am only half-Spanish, my mother is English."

I wonder how your Spanishness affected your early choice of specialising in the history of Spain's Golden Age?

"Belonging to two cultures is very important to me and, because I am immersed in the English half, I tend to Romanticise and idealise the Spanish side. As a deracinated Spaniard, I needed to tend Spanish roots. But it has not influenced the period I chose, and my doctoral thesis was on the Canary Islands, which I have no atavistic links to at all."

It is interesting that you wrote a book – Armada – that went against the received idea of a dramatic English victory.

"My resentment with English complacency about the Armada victory certainly informs the book. I began the book with an anecdote of my school days: the embarrassment of my name. You were made to feel as though the historical record demonstrated the inferiority of your stock; something that I think is quite unjustified from the true history of the Armada. At the time the Spanish monarchy was outstandingly efficient, the logistical achievements of the Armada were staggering. English education, I think, is particularly narrow; narrow-minded and complacent."

It is worth mentioning Felipe's accent at this point (which it is possible to hear by clicking here). He sounds how I imagine P.G. Wodehouse's Psmith to sound – a rich, humorous, public-schooled English voice. When speaking Spanish the inflection and the tenor is completely different – serious and deep. The same divergence could be extended to his responses, which flit between a barely suppressed hilarity to the utmost gravity in seconds. For instance, when I asked him the following question he could barely contain his laughter.

Starting with when and where you were born, what are the key events in your life thus far?

"I suppose I must have been born. I didn't particularly remember it. I wasn't dropped on my head as a baby. I'm not the victim of any terrible traumas. I'm told that I was born in St. Mary's Abbots hospital. But I wasn't really registering accurate memories at the time."

And what events made you who you are?

"The odd things about my life . . ." he pauses to reflect, then speaks gravely. "I've certainly lost a lot of my childhood friends to death. That's quite unusual. It is surprising that there has been such a rate of turnover amongst my friends and contemporaries. My very best school friend died when he was newly graduated, the next best school friend was a victim of motor neurone disease. Certain people in a similar category who have been very close have also died in their 20s and 30s. It is one of the few ways in which I can think of my life as being at all odd. I'm unaware of how that has shaped me. Might have made me a little wary of friendship."

And your intellectual rites of passage?

"In my teens I read Spengler's Decline of the West, which I still greatly admire, but which is rubbish. It is great rubbish, a category that I have a lot of time for. And Joseph Needham's Science and Civilization in China, which was a great eye-opener. I have been trying to shift away from a Euro-centric perspective ever since."

Other key events?

"Getting married at the age of 27 and being a school teacher in Charterhouse, after I finished my doctorate, were both very important. A fantastic way of life. I did it for 5 years. And there's no way of learning stuff better than putting it together for teaching."

There is little sympathy in your work for political radicalism, the so-called hippy revolution of the Sixties. What were your experiences of sixty-eight?

"I was a student in Salamanca in 1969. The mood of sixty eight was abroad. It was shortly after Franco had nominated Juan Carlos as his successor. You weren't allowed to talk to more than two people on the street because that was considered a riot. The faculty was actually closed when I was there," he laughs with muffled hilarity before continuing.

"I was a bit baffled when I came back to this country. I had seen a situation of real repression, in a terribly authoritarian university where you weren't encouraged to think. I was baffled at Oxford, where it was liberal and relaxed, and where people were fighting for their 'human rights.' What they really meant was that they wanted longer guest hours and keys for getting in and out of college. It was hard to sympathise with that."

You were never politicised?

"I've always rather despised politics. I am a historian; I like to wait for things to mature for a while."

You mention in Millennium your experience of ghost-writing for an African politician. What was that like?

"Oh yes, I did a lot of things that I am deeply ashamed in order to earn money. It is quite a good discipline. You write things that you flatly disavow yourself. I'd inherited that from my journalist parents. I used to write speeches against the common market for him. I am rather ashamed of supporting causes like that. Why am I ashamed of that?" he asks rhetorically. "Because after all it is just a job like any other, no worse than being a salesman and knowing that there is some product better than your own but knowing that you've got to do it if you are going to feed your family."

What other things did you do to earn money?

"God! Naturally I've tried to exclude them all from my mind. I was a solicitor's clerk for one day . . . " He tries to think of other jobs, but without success. "I do quite a lot of things without being paid if I think they are particularly interesting, like writing for Index on Censorship. I am chairman of the Penn literary foundation, I do work for the Hakluyt society, these are all labours of love. Anything run by Mr Murdoch [he frequently reviews books for the Sunday Times Culture section] I wouldn't do without being paid. Having been very poor, I find it very difficult to turn down any offer of remunerative employment. But I wouldn't any longer do anything that I didn't approve of."

Would you have considered yourself poor?

"Until 1995. Especially in my 20s and 30s. My family were fairly prosperous when I was little, but owing to fluctuations of the world economy there was no money around by the time I graduated. There were some very dicey decisions. Thanks to my wife's greater sagacity and handiness there were opportunities to supplement one's living by moving house a lot. We moved four times in the Eighties."

You were, possibly, the first academic I had met who was openly religious. Do you think this has influenced your work?

"I suspect not. I always assume that other people think that my Catholicism affects my view of the past. I always mention if I feel that it might excite people's anti-Catholic sentiment, in case it makes them hate me: I wouldn't want to deprive them of that pleasure. Sometimes it backfires. I was once giving a lecture in New Zealand: The subject was 'Truth in the Works of Frank Sargeson," a novelist. I did mention that I was Catholic and some drunken man in the audience made an opprobrious remark about the Pope, after which another person took offence and then a third person got annoyed and it broke out in fisticuffs. And it was a great occasion in New Zealand. I felt a bit like a saint as these penitents came up to shake my hand saying 'We're not really like that in New Zealand.' It was very gratifying. For the first time, I felt I had stimulated a reaction in a lecture."

However, you don't use it in an intellectual way. You don't seem to place the same importance on religion as someone like Richard Dawkins.

"Richard Dawkins is a profoundly religious figure, his religion is Darwinism. He is as passionate about Darwin as any Muslim is about Muhammad. His dogmatism is greater than that.

"Most people's religion isn't metaphysical or transcendental. For most people religion is about this world, about coping with and mastering the forces of nature. That is what Dawkins has done. He has aligned himself with most people. Most people don't even try to visualise what a being like God could be like. They may not think about it at all, or they may actively reject it.

"Nevertheless, just about everyone in the West, whose identity is influenced by historical experience, is deeply influenced by Christianity. They find it very difficult to escape. The trouble is that when you try to escape from something you remain in relation to it. When you are fleeing from something your position is always relative to the thing that you are fleeing from. I always feel culturally just as close to my atheist friends as I do to those who call themselves Christians."

There is that line in Truth – A History about you doubting everything your friends say, but believing the prescriptions of the Vatican.

"That was a joke. I wasn't expecting anyone to take that literally."

Have you had periods of religious doubt?

"The period of religious doubt began when I started to think and has continued ever since. People with a so-called simple faith aren't religious in any sense of the word. And unless you're always challenging it then it's meaningless, worthless."

In your investigations you have never been attracted to another religion?

"Religion is a part of culture and and belonging to a religious community is a cultural choice as well as an intellectual or spiritual matter. I'm a cultural catholic and I can't culturally be anything else. Since I have become interested in ecology, people have thought I am very materialist, but I'm not."

In the Ideas book you have great fun with the concept of Materialism, don't you?

"It is quite amusing. Many people think that materialism is this modern idea that it took a great deal of effort to get away from non-material beings like spirits, I think exactly the opposite. It's easy to believe in materialism because the evidence is there. It is extremely sophisticated to say 'just because I see this table in front of me doesn't mean that it is really there.' I think metaphysics – animism is terribly profound and subtle."

I get the feeling that you're not a very clubbable person.

"I do belong to several clubs, but I don't know if that makes me clubbable. My favourite club is one where, notoriously, a member complained to the club secretary that another member had said good morning to him. 'I didn't want to be rude,' he said, 'so I just turned my back and walked away.'

"But I am certainly not easily assimilated to cliques and bands. I am not the type of person who attracts gossip or conspiracy. I have people who I consider close friends about who I don't know anything about their personal lives. Conversation is about matters of general intellectual interest. I don't seem to be the sort of person who generates confidences from other people. You'd never find me in a conspiracy . . . I'd forget what it was about!"

The scholar's life is very sedentary. Is this, as Burton claims, a source of melancholy? Would you prefer to be like the gentleman intellectuals of the Eighteenth Century, feeling other people's bumps and investigating strange occurrences?

"I am very sedentary. But I wouldn't accept that it makes me at all atrabilious. It is quite a tranquil and peaceful way of life. I can put time into philanthropic activities because I've got a lot of emotional energy to spare, I don't use it up in human encounters in the way that many people do with more active ways of life. I am interested as a historian in trying to marshal the enormous diversity of evidence, in the tactile sensations that the evidence can communicate if you describe it well. I like to see artefacts, I don't go out to dig, but I always check out the catalogues and the journals to see what they've come up with. And I like to encompass archaeological detritus, works of art and literature, imaginative literature, as well as archival documents which have become the main fodder of historical writing.

"For me, history is about what it meant to live in the past. It doesn't mean experiencing it directly. One of the things about being a historian is that you do live vicariously, learning about things not by the senses but vicariously. I relish that. History is sources, I am much more interested in them than in what actually happened, if you could ever know them."

Do you believe in the idea of a universal human nature?

"There are two answers to your question: the first is yes, the second no. There is no point in talking about human kind unless you think there is something that they have in common. On the other hand, I don't think there is any thing that is exclusively human, because we are products of evolution. We know that there have been other species – Neanderthals, homo habilis, homo erectus – there are lots of species that are not homo sapiens that have had the same nature, the same abilities and that have done everything that we consider peculiarly human. The more we think about other primates the more we see that we've got in common with them."

It's just you seem recently to be attempting to capture this elusive universal human nature in your works, with Civilizations, Food and Truth.

"I'm not interested in human nature for it's own sake. I'm interested in constructing the narrative, constructing the story of human divergence and reconvergence. If you think of the history of homo sapiens from 150,000 which goes back to a common ancestor. How do you characterise what has happened? We have got different from each other. It is such a short time. And yet we've developed all these different kinds of cultures: it is amazing if you compare it with any other kind of social animal. You know, ants don't have that kind of diversity in a single species. Even chimpanzees which are the animals most like us – do have some cultural divergences – but they're tiny compared with the vast differences in human history. The big story is how it happened and the big question is why it happened and the current phase of the story seems to be a kind of reconvergence in which in the last few hundred years we have been exchanging culture. That is what I am really interested in. The universal is a by-line in the way I have been thinking over the last few years."

In Millennium you introduced the idea of Galactic Museum Keepers, who are aliens you imagine to be looking at Earth 10,000 years in the future, able to see what was important. Why was that?

"With my usual intellectual perversity, I though it would be interesting to have a history of the world written from an imaginary perspective. I am interested in shifting perspective. I do believe in objective historical reality. I do believe that the truth is out there and I'm absolutely not a relativist or a postmodernist. But I don't think that it's easy to get at. I think you have to keep shitting perspective. I have this politically incorrect phrase of history being a muse you view bathing between leaves.

"I must stress though that this isn't Nietzschean perspectivisim. Objectivity is the sum total of all possible subjectivities. But I'm only interested in subjectivity for the sake of the objectivity.

Following on from what you have just said, your latest book [Ideas that Changed the World] begins deep into human history. Is it not impossible to know what people thought 150,000 years ago?

"It may seem unsatisfactory to make inferences of what people thought by looking at the objects, but it isn't that much more chancy than making inferences of what people have thought in written evidence. Often it is very opaque. It is also occluded by different strategies of deception. We're reasonably sure that the objects people have left us are there. Thinking isn't modern. It isn't a product of any culture. It is a human disposition. Most of great thoughts and ideas are therefore very, very ancient; deep into pre-history. Most histories of ideas begin with the Ancient Greeks or something as recent as that.

"All evidence from the past is partial, even things that we have witnessed ourselves, because memory plays such tricks with us."

Finally, what is the difference between you internal make-up and your external appearance?

"What," he says half-jokingly, "you mean, although I am gross, fat and ugly on the outside is there someone slim and beautiful within? I don't suppose so, erm, I don't know. I've always thought it was very unwise to judge people by their appearance."

Neil Scott | Spring 2004