Andrew Wheatcroft, author of Infidels: A history of the conflict between Christendom and Islam discusses why he chose to write on such an emotive subject and how research is the key. Plus, we get to grips with Andrew’s school memories, what he’s reading at the moment and how he’d like to be remembered.
Why did you decide to write your most recent book, Infidels?Firstly, I didn’t realise how long it would take. I began over ten years ago and my first scribbled notes are from the early 1970’s. Secondly, as I did more and more research, I realised that my background in publishing and communication gave me what I thought a significant new perspective.
Not many historians have also been embedded in the detailed mechanics of how ideas and prejudices are disseminated, certainly not for the areas that I cover. Some have. For example, Robert Darnton benefited enormously from his life as a successful journalist. This background has given a unique depth to his excellent histories and essays. Similarly, two decades as a senior book publisher have attuned me to recognize how the mechanics and strategies of communication operated in the past.
In The Ottomans and in The Habsburgs, I tested the idea that (then as now) attitudes were largely formed by hearing, seeing and reading; I also discovered that this process went back a lot farther than I had first thought. So with Infidels, I took the idea – why were Muslims feared and sometimes hated – back to the beginning. And then brought the story right up to the present.
The real spur to completing the book was simple: this particular history is now being so dangerously misused. It worries me that a much-misunderstood past now influences today’s politics so profoundly. Most worrying of all is the growing habit of using history as analogy and then as slogan – say, applying Europe’s 1930’s vocabulary of ‘appeasement’ to current world events in very different situations.
The book has been very well received, but you have been accused of telling only one side of the story, the negative Western view of the East. Why have you not talked about Muslim oppression of Christians as well?That is actually not correct. Most of the terrible events that happened on one side are shadowed in the book by a similar event on the other. But I am not really concerned just to count atrocities. I grew up in a staunchly Protestant, Christian, culture; we were taught the Gospel stories about our obsession with other people’s imperfections while ignoring our own. The King James version expresses it memorably: ‘And why beholdest thou the mote [speck of dust] that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?
But I never quite knew what the story meant until well on with this book. If you like, the book recalls the beam in our eye that we had been schooled to ignore.
So why didn’t I do the same detailed analysis for the non-Western part of the story? The reason is very prosaic. I have read as much as I can in English, Spanish, French, and German; and limped through some Italian studies. But I cannot read the vast number of texts in Arabic, Ottoman, modern Turkish, and Persian that would be necessary for me to speak with any degree of confidence on Eastern societies.
And I have a well-grounded suspicion that many of those who pronounce with such great confidence on how Islamic societies ‘work’ have often not done that reading.
Can you let us into what you’re reading at the moment?I always have about four books on the go. My secret passion is crime fiction, mostly by US authors. But why be ashamed: writers like Michael Connelly are actually the modern masters of plot, character, and a sense of place, much more so than much more ‘highbrow’ fiction. Probably this yearning for well-made books grows from my editor’s eye, the imprint of a long publishing career.
My current enthusiasm is Michael Gruber’s Tropic of Night. Then an entrancing (and excellently translated) novel by Amin Maalouf called Balthasar’s Odyssey. It is about an imaginary journey in 1666, in pursuit of an elusive rare book, from the Levant to Constantinople, to Italy, on to London, and then back again to Genoa . And finally two work-books for a new project: one on Witchcraft, Sex and the Crisis of Belief, by a US scholar called Walter Stephens, and another on the Darker Side of the Renaissance, by Walter D. Mignolo. All of them, I now realise, are united by a single common quality: they are tautly and sparingly written.
Do you have any particular places you like to write?At home, at the very top of 16th/17th century tower. I spent a lot of time travelling for research, but only make notes while I am away. My work rooms at home have progressively been filled with bookshelves, and box after heavy box of papers, to the degree that I am now getting worried that one day they will all drop through the floor.
Before writing did you have any other jobs?Yes, many years as a publisher of history, archaeology, material and cultural heritage; and now, running The Centre for Publishing Studies at the University of Stirling. The great advantage of being a publisher is that you can meet more or less anyone you want to talk to. Over the years I’ve garnered leads, information, arcane knowledge for my own books that years later have proved invaluable.
For my kind of books that wide range of contacts, many of whom became good friends, is more valuable than the narrower range of specialised academic connections that most historians develop. I have also spent long periods working and travelling, some times for many months at a time, mostly in the Mediterranean and the Middle East.
Which author do you most admire?Tolstoy, whom I wish I could read in Russian
And what’s your favourite book?Leo Tolstoy Resurrection. It is about a mistake redeemed, at the cost, over a lifetime.
Now for something slightly lighter – what’s your earliest memory?Planting Michaelmas daisies at aged three or so. That was evidently the summit of my horticultural achievement. Now, living with a magnificent 5-acre garden, I am just the ignoramus who wanders around asking ‘what’s that’. But I have just discovered that we grow the splendid Michaelmas daisy, called ‘Monch’. I remember mine was very much inferior.
Who or what always puts a smile on your face?My elder daughter’s little dachshund, Charlie, who has Napoleonic ambitions, but is barely a hand span tall.
What is your greatest fear?Losing my memories.
How would you like to be remembered?It isn’t something I have ever really considered.
Have you even done something you’ve really regretted?Yes
How do you spoil yourself?Buy expensive books that I don’t really need. It is a kind of addiction, only weakly resisted if at all. I also travel miles to museum exhibits and then buy the catalogue. The last two were the Enlightenment exhibit at the British Museum, and the Byzantium exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, over the space of couple of wee