John Dunn interviewed by Alan Macfarlane 5th March 2008

0:09:07 Born in Buckinghamshire in 1940; my family was a sort of imperial family; my father came from the British ascendancy in Ireland; his mother came from Staffordshire; my grandfather was an army doctor and was at the battle of Omdurman, also fought in the First World War, injured and decorated; my father was a career soldier; mother's family was  Highland Scottish but her grandfather and father both lived a large proportion of their lives in India; her father was a tea planter and was killed by a wild boar when she was about thirteen; my parents met in the Nilgiri Hills when my mother was staying with her elder sister; they spent quite a lot of time in India before the war; my father managed to go back to India in the 1950's as a pseudo-diplomat; he was a keen animal hunter; I really grew up, thinking about politics, in reaction to parents vision of the world

5:37:21 I really started to question my parents attitude in early adolescence; my father's first escape from military life was when he went to Iran as Military Attaché at the Embassy and was there at the time that the oil fields were nationalised; I went out there a couple of times in late childhood and was half aware of the political tensions; when he went back again into diplomatic life  he went to India for four years and I went out, first during school holidays; became very depressed at school and went to stay with parents; then fell off a horse and broke my back and  stayed in all about a year and a half in India; I was about fifteen at that time; my mother was quite literate and my father collected hunting books; my mother's education stopped at thirteen; part of the reason that I ended up with such different preoccupations was that my preparatory school had sent me off to take a scholarship examination for Winchester which I got; college at Winchester was a very different sort of imaginative milieu from my family, and I adjusted to that; I have a younger brother who also came to King's

11:31:02 Preparatory school was in Cirencester, Gloucestershire; it was very disagreeable in many ways and I didn't like being away from my parents; it was run by a headmaster who was a rather sadistic figure but very passionate about history; I had an edgy relationship with him because I enjoyed history; it wasn't a bad school and the teaching was quite good; I was quite keen on drama both there and at Winchester; after my years away in India I did not go back to Winchester; I went to a rather frightful and expensive school in Somerset, Millfield; the headmaster was very competitive and because he thought I might get an Oxbridge scholarship the fees were cut a bit; educationally speaking it was dreadful but it did have one or two dashing teachers; one of them, Robert Bolt, is best known as a playwright; I used to have supervisions with him on how to write; I made friends with him; I never got out of the arts and humanities, and never did any science; I did one term on the history of chemistry and another on the history of physics at Winchester; I did not intend to come to Cambridge but would have gone to Keele as the Professor of Education there had come to give a lecture at Millfield; he talked about the first year where one could make up the lacunae in education which I thought was a good idea; school told me to take the King's and Balliol scholarship exams first; my parents didn't really have any opinions about such things; they were very pleased that I got a scholarship to Winchester as it paid most of the fees; they were pleased when I got a scholarship to King's but for roughly the same reason and had no sense at all of what it meant to come to an institution like this

17:22:07 I remember one of the interviews very well; the tutorial interview was with John Raven and John Broadbent, a dramatically assorted pair; John Raven was extremely stiff and shy and I was similarly so; it was a very slow interview with almost no content; I was then interrogated by John Broadbent about my reading, trying to put me at my ease, I suddenly remembered a book that I was reading, an Angus Wilson novel 'Anglo-Saxon Attitudes'; asked what I thought of it but couldn't remember anything about it; music does mean quite a lot to me now; I suppose I first started to become susceptible to it at Winchester; it made a big difference coming here as it is a musically resonant space; I have never tried to play an instrument and can't sing, but have spent a lot of time listening to it; my taste is very conventional, particularly opera of the eighteenth and first half of the nineteenth century; of sport, quite liked playing fives, squash and tennis, but it has never meant anything serious to me; God was quite important to me in the Winchester context; Winchester was not a very religiously responsive school but was Anglican; if you were a Catholic or a Jew you were not expected to take part but otherwise it was assumed that you were an Anglican and would be confirmed as such quite soon after you arrived; I said I couldn't do it as I didn't believe it; they were very perturbed by this and said it had never actually happened before; I had to see various people and ended up talking to the headmaster, called Oakeshott; I explained to each of them why I couldn't say the catechism; they, and even my father, tried to persuade me; the most emotionally exposing conversation I ever had with him was about that; on that occasion he felt that he knew something I didn't know but which was tremendously important and directly pertinent to this issue; he was in the Artillery, was a rash person and did deliberately dangerous things, so not a coward; he was in the 'D day' landings and explained to me that if you hadn't been personally exposed to a modern artillery bombardment you couldn't begin to imagine how absolutely appalling it was; the significance of that from his point of view was that God wasn't an option but was required; I really knew that this wasn't a good reason for the action I was being asked to perform; it didn't affect me but it did move me as it was such an honest, self humbling, thing for him to do; I said I was not going to do it and they accepted that; I have not changed my mind since; I am quite Humean about the matter as it doesn't make any sense; I am very interested in how religious belief works and what it has meant; I take it very seriously, but it is not my belief

29:15:06 Came to King's in 1959; just missed having to do National Service; read history and Christopher Morris gave me half the supervisions that I had as an undergraduate, with extremely little net profit; he was a nice man and I liked him but he was a hopeless teacher of history; he just didn't understand what was involved in teaching history to people who were prepared to think for themselves; he didn't have much didactic competence; I didn't think I could face going on with history about halfway through the first year; I tried in a desultory way to switch to philosophy; by the time they had made up their minds I had begun to go to some lectures that meant something to me; I went to Postan's lectures which were very exciting and intellectually alive on mediaeval economic history; I also went to some of David Knowles's lectures and those were wonderful to listen to, almost a spiritual experience; by the second year I had read some of Postan's writings and could see how you could think history; in that year I had one close friend, Michael Cook, now a well-known Islamicist; his father was a Professor of Ancient history and after the first year when both of us got firsts he said that in the second year we should do ancient history; I was not too keen but told we should go to Hugo Jones and Moses Finley and that then it would start to make sense; he was right as Moses was the most wonderful teacher; he was a lecturer and ran seminars which I went to but never supervised me; he and Hugo Jones ran a research seminar but we were able to join in with the discussions; it was incredibly exciting; Moses gave these wonderful lectures  on slavery which he never quite made into a single dominating book, but I have never been taught by anyone else in that way; that was really the big change for me; interesting in retrospect that it was in a subject that I had not thought I wanted to do or in any way directly connected with any of the things I went on to do; it just was a demonstration of how to do it; I was taught by John Saltmarsh in my second year; he was not a very good supervisor either though his lectures were charming; he had a very strange lilting voice; Walter Ullman was a very good lecturer and I was excited about medieval political thought by him; he was a much more compelling lecturer than Peter Laslett, for example; in my final year  I did a special subject with Duncan Forbes on the Scottish Enlightenment and that was wonderful; he was definitely a Highlander in exile; a lot of other people did that special subject like Quentin Skinner and Nicholas Phillipson, people who went on; Quentin was my contemporary but I didn't meet him until my third year; Michael Cook and I both got starred firsts and so did Quentin, and Michael said we should meet him

41:40:04 Quentin and I both started off doing the history of political ideas at the same time as graduate students and both started off working with Peter Laslett; we had a very high degree of intellectual sympathy about what it was we were trying to do and a lot of overlapping interests; we were companions rather than being influenced by the other; Peter had a series of grandees to come and talk to his graduate students; on the whole these were not people we had a very high regard for and gave them an extremely rough time; it was great fun doing it together; Quentin has always been an extraordinarily fluent, polished and intellectually vivid figure; to do something that you really very closely share an interest in together with him was a very great pleasure; in terms of esprit de corps it certainly made what might have been a rather confusing and confused apprenticeship feel like a romantic exploration; I certainly think that the intellectual confidence about what I was trying to do must come to a large degree from that period; there was a bit of it before working with Michael and I certainly spent much more time in his company, and worked through each others thought processes in much greater detail than I ever did with Quentin; we did our own research and talked and gossiped, and read each other's work very carefully, but the strongest thing to say was what a great pleasure it was; the respect in which we were most in analytical agreement was negative in retrospect; it was over the rather dimly fictional character of most of what was done as the history of political ideas at that point; we shared a common animosity towards the way in which the history of political ideas was done in Oxford; for quite a long time we fought a common campaign more or less on that front; it was basically Berlin and Plamenatz who's work we thought frivolous in the intellectual sense, an elaborate showing off from an intellectual point of view; there wasn't a product there which you could use as a reliable source of belief about anything; we admired Keith Thomas, but he wasn't from our point of view as principally an historian of political thought; we thought of him as a sort of social historian, bringing the benefits of anthropology and sociology (if there are such benefits), to history; we both at that point thought that history and the social sciences ought to be in the same structure, part of a common enterprise; we thought that anthropology and sociology devoted more intellectual attention to the question of whether there was a good reason to believe that what they said was true or not, something that in history was due for some serious remedial attention; we thought of Keith Thomas as being a very intellectually advanced historian, doing what we would like to be doing in our bit of the terrain

51:00:10 We didn't talk about Marxism as a distinct topic in history; I stumbled into it when writing about Locke as there was a Marxist "owner" of Locke at that time, Brough Macpherson, who was an interesting person but very badly wrong about Locke; essentially he didn't understand how Locke's theory worked because he had a model which showed how it must have worked and the model blanked out quite a lot of the way it did work; I was quite well disposed towards Marxist historians because I thought they were wearing my sort of colours; in so far as I was really interested in Marxism I was interested in how it came out in relation to contemporary politics; my judgement on that was that it didn't come out very well; I wasn't intellectually very convinced by Marxism; later on I had to think quite seriously about it when writing on revolutions and started working on the politics of Africa

56:09:06 I did not initially intend to work on Locke as I wanted to work on Hume with Duncan Forbes but he didn't think it a good idea, but better to look at the history of political ideas between Locke and the French and American revolutions; it was agreed that I should work with Peter Laslett on what happened with the two treatises in the subsequent century; that is what I was supposed to be writing a Ph.D. on and I did do quite a lot of research but what I found was that less happened than I had been led to believe by all the secondary sources, and that the really interesting bits could be located quite fast; turning it into a bullet-proof Ph.D. would have required extensive documentation of non-happening and I thought that would not be a rewarding exercise; I got a Harkness Fellowship and went to Harvard after doing a couple of years research; partly because I had been given a teaching job at Jesus College by Moses Finley, I managed to get agreement that I retain the teaching job provided that I didn't go to America for the full time that I could have; I went to Harvard for about a year and a quarter in all and I did the American bit of the research which I thought would turn out to be more interesting but it didn't really turn out that way; I thought that as I had a job and had seen something interesting about Locke himself that wasn't understood by people at that time that I should come back and write a book rather than the Ph.D.; there was a lot of academic employment in the late sixties; I didn't expect to be able to go on working in Cambridge because I didn't really want to go on being an historian, but wanted to work on politics, and I thought there weren't any jobs in politics; after Jesus I came back to King's and became Director of Studies in history; I was keen to come back to King's as Jesus was very right wing in those days; Denys Page, the Master, was the lone British supporter of the Greek colonels, which gives some idea of the general political timbre of the College; Moses Finley and Raymond Williams, who was also a Fellow of Jesus, never came to the College, but as a young teaching Fellow I was economically tied to it