I’m giving 93 speeches over the next four months to promote my new book, Churchill: Walking with Destiny, but I don’t actually like public speaking. I enjoy it once it’s over, but not while it’s happening. I envy those writers of the 1970s who just got on with writing the next book as soon as the last one was finished. Once, at the Royal Hospital in Chelsea, a lady started her question, ‘You seem to be very ignorant, Dr Roberts.’ The Pensioners naturally roared with laughter. She was referring to my failure to have read the latest issue of a psychology journal that explained Adolf Hitler’s career in terms of his potty-training. More loud laughter from the veterans in scarlet. ‘Madam,’ I replied. ‘You’re correct in thinking that I haven’t read the article… but there must have been other children in Upper Austria in the early 1890s who were potty-trained in similar ways to the putative Führer, who didn’t then go on to start the second world war.’ I’m delighted to say that she bought the book afterwards.
At a book-signing in New York a few years back, a lady asked me to sign two books, one for Mike and another for Peter. ‘Are they friends?’ I asked, trying to make conversation in the way one does when the line starts to shorten. ‘I hope not!’ she replied. ‘Mike’s my husband and Peter’s my lover.’ If only she’d had an even more active love life, I remember thinking, she would have needed to buy more books.
Margaret Thatcher and Lady Antonia Fraser are widely acknowledged in the trade to be the fastest-ever signers of books. It takes ferocious concentration and skilled assistants to sign a thousand in 90 minutes, as I’ve done twice in the past week. After a while you tend to forget your own name and write whatever comes to mind: shopping lists, where you want to go for lunch, etc. While signing at Penguin, we were discussing the second world war, and I signed one book ‘Adolf Roberts’. Thank God I spotted it before it was sent off to the bookshop. People ask if your arm hurts after signing your name 1,000 times. It does a bit, but it’s a virtuous ache. I wonder how much Stalin’s arm hurt after signing all those death warrants?
I’m reading Diarmaid MacCulloch’s extraordinarily good life of Thomas Cromwell, and loving it. What an extraordinary coincidence that easily the two greatest revolutionaries in British history should have had the same (uncommon) surname a century apart.
One of the perks of having a link to Stanford University is that I can visit San Francisco regularly. Last month the De Young Museum there had an exhibition of wartime propaganda posters, one of the captions of which stated that ‘During the First World War, the British Government perfected the art of atrocity propaganda by exaggerating, for instance, some of the crimes German forces committed in their invasion of Belgium.’ I thought that all the recent historical work had found that terrible atrocities were indeed committed, and was pleased to hear this substantiated by David Olusoga at the Cliveden Literary Festival.
Here are my favourite quotations from that festival, of which I’m proud to be president. Cherie Blair: ‘My husband calls me a bolshie Scouser.’ Niall Ferguson: ‘Essentially I’m a Marxist but on the side of the bourgeoisie.’ Niall recalled trying to interest Norman Stone in a PhD thesis on Jewish intellectuals in late 19th-century Vienna, only to receive the reply: ‘Total detumescence.’ Robert Hardman quoting Queen Mary: ‘We are the Royal Family. We are never tired and we love hospitals.’ Jake Chapman on the train on which J.K. Rowling thought up Harry Potter: ‘I wish it had crashed.’ When Allan Mallinson quoted Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke’s observation that nothing brought out the worst in people more than high command, Antony Beevor replied: ‘Cecil Beaton also added Charity and Amateur Dramatics.’
Although it’s said that the collective noun for historians is a ‘malice’, it isn’t true. With the Minister for Prisons, Rory Stewart, I’ve launched a new initiative entitled Historians in Prisons. So far I’ve had a 100 per cent success rate whenever I’ve asked historians to give speeches there. ‘Prison audiences have a much more enlightened attitude to studying history than do most student ones,’ Max Hastings writes. Of course it was probably inevitable that the first person I met when I spoke at HMP Wandsworth had been in the year above me at my college at Cambridge.