Military historian Mike Loades lent his expertise to Sky Atlantic’s landmark series, Mankind: The Story of All of Us. We chatted to him about time travel, the Black Death, and dining with a legend.
There’ve been so many history books and shows, what makes this series different?
Mankind: The Story of All of Us gives a much more interesting trail to follow. Instead of doing the chronological tale of ‘Henry the third follows Henry the second…’ it’s instead based on consequences: ‘this happened and because of that we have this, and because of that this was invented…’
For example everyone knows that we got hit by the plague - the Black Death - but I bet people don’t know that if it hadn’t have been for Genghis Khan spreading the Mongol Empire and all the trade routes going to China, it wouldn’t have had its route to get to England. I think those consequences are fascinating.
Can anything new be said about the past, though?
Well that’s what’s so exciting about history; we’re still constantly discovering because of archeology and technology. We’re much more able now to make connections and make sense of it all, and making sense of the human story is important because it helps us to understand ourselves.
What did you do for the show?
Well my area of expertise crops up in most of the episodes because topics within military history have always triggered great changes for mankind.
I had a four-hour interview, which was a bit like doing Mastermind on steroids, and they asked me questions on over 20-odd subjects so it was quite a stretch. I talked about hunters in the rift valley, the Bronze Age, the coming of the Sea Peoples in Egypt, the Iron Age, various battles, China and the first emperor, the Roman Empire, the fall of Rome, the Crusades, the Mongols, the first guns, the Vikings in America, Aztecs, Sir Francis Drake as a pirate, the Samurai, and something else but I can’t remember what it was now…
Wow. Do you have all this knowledge stored in your brain or did you research for the show?
I did do a little bit of swotting up beforehand, but it was refreshing rather than learning anew. So yes, they’re all things that I know about already.
You clearly have a real passion. Do you remember where you first discovered that interest?
Actually, I was seduced by Chaucer and Shakespeare at school so I think it was through literature that I was first brought to history. But for me it’s also the practical side of riding horses, shooting bows, wielding swords and all sorts that have given me a chance to experience history too. And it’s rather like this show; every time I get interested in something it triggers a trail of exploration that takes me on lots of different paths.
So you like living the history as well learning about it... if you could time travel to any era where would you like to visit?
I’d want to come back in about 50 years to see what happened next. I’m actually as much a futurist as I am a historian because the whole story fascinates me.
What would you expect to see on your trip to the future?
I’m not sure I could relate an answer without giving that good thought, but contrary to that famous saying, history doesn’t repeat itself. There’s always something new. We’re in turbulent times, but most of human history has been in turbulent times and I’m optimistic about the future of our species.
We’re a very adaptive animal, and that adaptability is the key to our survival. People talk about the survival of the fittest but that’s not actually true. We’re not the strongest, the fastest, or the fittest, but we are adaptable. That’s what keeps us going, and that’s what this series shows.
What would you say has been the most influential development or invention in our story? Or is that question too big?
It is an awfully big question. It’s a bit like asking what’s your favourite Desert Island Discs.
Oh, I know what it is - speech!
Way back in cavemen times?
Yes, because what speech gives us is the ability to communicate, co-operate, and pass on wisdom from generation to generation who build on our ideas, which then gives us greater adaptability.
And it remains the biggest development in human history because what’s changing the most today in our world is communication systems. We’re such a global community now and it’s all just an elaborated form of that first speech.
I thought you were going to say wheels or iron or sliced bread…
I apologise for not being predictable.
You’ve probably been asked this countless times, but do you have a favourite era?
Yes, I have been asked far too many times, but the answer is: no I don’t. I guess my favourite period in history is now because we’ve got iPads and things, but often my favourite period is whatever I’m going to be looking at and researching next. I’m much more interested in next than I am in last.
Finally, if you could choose any figure in history to take out to dinner, who would it be?
Whoever I say I know I’ll want to change it later, but I have to say Winston Churchill.
To speak to somebody with such an overview of history, someone at the heart of history, and someone who straddled two worlds… He was in the cavalry charge in the Battle of Omdurman, on horseback and with swords drawn – a very Victorian soldier. And yet he was also commander-in-chief in the most modern war (because war hasn’t really got that much more modern since the Second World War).
The conversation would be great. And I suspect he’d have a very good wine cellar.
A decent glass of wine and a fine cigar too I expect – not bad company for a Friday night.
By Rachel Wood
I had a four-hour interview for the show, which was a bit like doing Mastermind on steroids.