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Five minutes with… Jem Duducu

Jem Duducu is a historian and author of The Presidents in 100 Facts, The Busy Person’s Guide to British History and Deus Vult, among many others history books. He is also the mastermind behind History Gems and runs the regular podcast series Condensed History Gems.

What is an historian?

Someone who brings the past to life but leaves their personal biases at the door before heading out into the world.

What made you decide to pursue a career in history?

I feel a bit of a fraud not acknowledging the fact that I pay my bills by being a business trainer and coach- that’s what allows me to feed my family and live in London. However my first love has always been history. I am one of the few people to have a GCSE in Medieval History. I think the past is endlessly fascinating, for those who say history is boring, I say they haven’t found the part of history that’s for them. History is not all about kings, or battles, or the suffragettes or Corn Laws; there are histories of fashion, art, even hip-hop. History is about the human experience so unless you aren’t human there has to be something there to love.

What is the one history book you couldn’t do without?

That’s easy, Albert Speer: His Battle With Truth by Gitta Sereny, most powerful book I’ve ever read non-fiction or otherwise. If you haven’t read it buy a copy today. It is a big book but it will shake you to your core and get you thinking about how easy it is for good people to do evil.

What is your favourite website for historical research?

I once had a troll say to me online “if it’s on the internet it’s a lie”. As trolling goes, that’s pretty mild but they did have a point, you have to be careful everywhere. Wikipedia gets a bad rap, it’s not entirely fair. If you are looking at something pretty obscure (we talked about Aphra Behn recently) that’s not something a 15 year-old internet troll is going to bother changing info on. Obama, however, beware…I think for a starting point on any subject just to get dates and the barebones, the Encyclopaedia Britannica is a good place to begin the journey.

What is your favourite history website?

The History Vault – why would anyone say otherwise? But in case I am being accused of bias, History Extra, the BBC history website is always worth a browse. I am, to be very biased, proud of my community page @HistoryGems on Facebook- 60,000 likes is impressive for one guy doing it part time.

You have a time-machine for twenty-four hours… where do you go?

Has to be Palestine about 33AD, meeting Jesus and asking few questions along with telling him what happens over the next 2,000 years. It would be a very interesting conversation don’t you think? It would also clear up a LOT of debate too.

What is your normal working pattern?

I didn’t realise it but I turned out to be quite prolific, 7 books in 4 ½ years. This comes down to writing when you can. The grand of idea of being left alone in a coffee shop sounds great but when you have another job, and a family that’s easier said than done. So I work whenever I can, Sunday mornings I can usually set up all my social media for a week, then the rest of the evenings  or days I’m not working I push myself- can I get 2,000 words done this morning? No? Then how about 3,000 before 3.15 when I have to pick up the kids. I work much better at home than in a coffee shop (it’s cheaper too). Saying that I travel a lot as a freelance trainer and I quite like writing in the hotel room. I remember once catching what I looked like in a mirror in one hotel room, I was so distracted I was quietly typing away about the Third Crusade while sitting in just my pants…it was not a great sight! BUT I am all too aware that everyone has their own process, so whatever works for you, do it. As the saying goes, “you just have to keep moving forwards”.

Your area of historical expertise no longer exists. What would you research instead?

I am a generalist historian good at introductions to topics. If I have a specialisation it’s the bizarre moments in history – did you know there was a riot in New York in 1849 over which version of two concurrent performances of Macbeth was better? That stuff barely exists as an area of “expertise” to begin with. So I’m never going to be the guy to write a 500-page book on Henry VIII with a sequel of another 500 pages on Elizabeth I. There’s a place for those books but I would rather give the broad brush strokes. That’s why I was able to do the Romans in 100 facts, that’s arguably 2,000 years in 100 facts! However in the spirit of the question, if I can’t do what I do, I would love to be an expert in something I know very little about, how about Aztec glyphs – they look so beautiful and mysterious. I thought it would be cool to know the signs and words for 1-10 in Aztec glyphs at university. But when I found out that 1 also meant “avocado” I realised this was a very alien culture to all my points of reference and gave up there.

Why is history important today?

Going back to my first answer, there are too many people out there trying to use history as a weapon. X country beating Y country in the past doesn’t make X better than Y, similarly no matter how mad you may get that Y lost that’s not going to change the fact it happened. You get countries like Russia banning the teaching of the Molotov-von Ribbentrop pact, you can’t ignore uncomfortable bits of your history otherwise you end up with a distorted view of your nation. No country has a monopoly on morals, intelligence or creativity, there are stupid, evil people from all races and countries, as well as the geniuses.

What is your best historical fact?

So many to choose from! How about the story of Ching Shih? The lowly Chinese peasant girl who ended up leading a pirate fleet where at her peak she commanded 80,000 men- this is all in the early 1800s. In the end the European powers couldn’t deal with the sheer numbers she had at her command. The Chinese authorities fretted about her setting up a de facto independent state on the coast so she was offered an amnesty if she retired. She did, with her pirate lover becoming an admiral in the imperial navy and she ended up happily retired running a bar and brothel. She’s been made into a film in China, but she deserves the HBO  miniseries treatment!

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