Mark Elvin interviewed by Alan Macfarlane 24th July 2012

0:05:07 Born 1938 in Cambridge but the life I remember was in San Francisco; my father sent me and my mother, who was American, to live there with my grandparents, probably in 1939; my mother was a clinical psychologist took a job in the juvenile court there; in due course this turned into the assignment from hell; she was amazingly calm about it but only talked of it to me when I was about twenty-five; just after the Americans came into the war, an enormous number of troops poured through the Golden Gate and out to the war with Japan; the number of Lolita-aged girls who were in trouble was almost unhandleable; my mother's job was to decide what was to be done with these girls, some as young as eleven, once the judicial process had had its way; my chief sadness was when her legal clerk, Marie Caldwell, suddenly disappeared to sew ships with a welding gun in a shipyard in the north of the Bay, organized by the automobile magnate, Henry Kaiser; I had no idea really what was going on in the court, and only a rough idea of the war; I was taken around an aircraft carrier, and my chief concern was for the poor rats who, I was told, ran up the mooring hawsers, met sort of inverted coolie hats, couldn't turn round, and fell off; I had no idea what these young men were going off to do; my father had disappeared; the first three months he had what he said was the worst non-combatant job in Government; he had to write letters to the widows of those who had died in the Battle of Britain for the Air Ministry; because he put in tiny human touches he was promptly taken off that job; it was discovered that he had two other abilities, one was a knowledge of America so he became very much involved in relation with America, particularly trying to prepare the public and Government for a hoped-for alliance of some sort; the Japanese did his job for him; he wrote a temporary best-seller called 'Man of America' which was later, after the war, translated into Japanese; the one part he never talked about, my sons conclude, was that the time not spent in the Ministry of Information was mostly spent being the man behind the man behind the Minister at various conferences; he had an extraordinary knowledge of the world which is why he later fitted so easily into UNESCO; he was garrulous, a brilliant raconteur, but about this we never heard

5:28:08 War is great for small boys and they don't understand at that distance what is really going on; in San Francisco I remember, much later on, when coffee was rationed there was a bitter protest; you can put that into the British context and see why it looks very odd when I look back afterwards; the impact at the personal level was that my grandfather, who the Minister of the First Unitarian Church in San Francisco, had a very friendly old Japanese gentleman, who looked after the church and was a great favourite of mine; one day he disappeared into some kind of internment; I never saw him again and nobody would tell me where he had gone, which even at that age worried me as I knew something was wrong; it wasn't explained what the Americans were doing, for security reasons, and he got engraved inside me as a memory of something that went wrong; otherwise it was a very straightforward childhood with some odd lessons in it; at kindergarten they wanted to introduce something more realistic; when I arrived, aged about four, I was presented with a can with water in it and a four-inch paintbrush, and told to paint the wooden slat fence outside in the sunshine; I set to work and carefully painted the wood with water, but by the time I got to the third slat it was drying off, so I went in and protested; I was told not to be silly, and that made me very angry; the row became so bad that my mother had to be called and she managed, diplomatically, to settle it, and I was never asked to do such a silly thing again; in retrospect this was a wonderful parable for the real world and much work, but I also began to learn that grownups could be incredibly stupid, and would not back down; at another pre-school I had a teacher, mainly an art teacher, called Miss Sunny, a name that suited her well; I drew trees, houses, children and animals, not very well, but I always did the sky as a solid blue line across the top of the paper; after a while she said, "John (I was called John then and changed my name later to my middle name) if you look at the sky doesn't it come down and fill in all the gaps"; she suggested I try but I said that I painted the sky at the top because that was where it was; she didn't lose her temper, but smiled, it was fine by her, but I could try it some time if I was interested; sometime later I did try and confessed that she was right; she remained a great favourite of mine because she was a reasonable grownup; she was helpful, didn't bully, and told me something; the chief point about life there was the contrast with Britain after the war when I came back; I actually came back slightly before the end in a meat steamer which many British children travelled in at some time or other, called the 'Rangatiki' - a New Zealand ship which travelled in the centre of the convoy for protection against the U-boats; I don't know why my father brought us back so early though he was aware that the war was going to end in our favour - it was 1944; I suffered a terrible pang of guilt for my behaviour there because I made a very beautiful little paper boat and was caught by the steward dropping it over the side of the boat; he told me that the Germans would see it and know that we had passed by; he put rubbish into a weighted container every evening and dropped it over the side where it went straight to the bottom; he told me never to do it again as I was risking people's lives; because he had described things, I saw him as a reasonable grownup, and was desperately anxious that I would not imperil us because of my paper boat

11:50:08 At that point I only knew my mother's father who was a bit overawing; on Saturdays you had to observe complete silence in the house because he was writing his sermon; I really related much better to my grandmother who was apparently distantly related to the Wrights of Ohio who had invented powered flight; Dian (my wife) as a genealogist has not yet pinned that down; I think the family is unhappy about too much poking around; my grandmother was interested in birds and vegetables, and I grew a vegetable garden under her supervision; we also looked at the birds in the garden and occasionally had humming birds; I remember watching one flying backwards and thought it extraordinary; she was a good cook; what I didn't know, and only learnt this year, was that my grandfather had been unfaithful to her during a transatlantic holiday voyage, on the way to some conference in Europe, with his church organist; I suddenly discovered a sort of cousin - Tom Stone - who wrote to me with all the details which had just recently been released to him; the older ladies in the family who did know this had kept it secret; they decided that since his father had now died they would tell his son; suddenly I discovered I was not on my own, and we have been in correspondence since then; my grandfather was a very moral and authoritarian chap and this would have smashed his career to pieces; I am quite sure in retrospect that my grandmother knew; there was a kind of subdued sadness about her which impressed me very early on and I didn't know why; she found relief in the birds and for the first time in seventy-plus years, that makes sense

15:22:11 My father's father was a Lay Preacher - I had always understood, Methodist, but I think it was Congregationalist - rather rigid, but a very principled man, I think in this case, genuinely; he was a trade union leader; he said his hardest job as leader of the Clerks Union has been to organise the offices of the railway unions' personnel; the unions running the railways did not want their clerks to be unionised, and it was quite a struggle; in the end he became a member of the London County Council, and for at least one year was the President of the TUC, so there is a very deep streak which didn't die in me either, which regards unions, responsibly run, as incredibly important parts of society, and the endless, day to day, largely confidential battle against the mistreatment of people who are workers; my father's mother was tiny and called Dolly, probably about 4ft 11in; it turned out later on that she was a free thinker but had kept her mouth shut while my grandfather was alive; something of her attitude clearly got into my father and his two brothers; my grandfather died fairly young at sixty-seven, and I remember knowing that he was going to die by looking at him; he sat in a chair having Benger's food with a shawl around him; he was a very remarkable man and I must have inherited something of his attitude towards society; there was only one occasion that my grandmother lost her temper with me; it was very near the end, and she was living with my second uncle at Leigh on Sea, Essex; she didn't like even then to be thought of as a burden, and did all the washing-up after lunch and breakfast; she found me doing so and gave me a real scolding, saying that she was living in my uncle's house and there was very little that she could do to thank them for their kindness apart from washing-up and that I had got to let her do it; I suddenly had awe-stricken respect for this self-discipline, and apologised at once; this was a burst of real anger that I had never seen before; she was a character but I didn't know her very deeply, unlike my American grandmother; my two uncles were interesting people; Uncle George was the de-facto founder of the old Associated Cinematograph and Television Technicians Union, which for a time had powerful control over the manufacture, production and showing of films made in Britain; he was a man who exuded will-power in the same way as a boxer exudes strength; he went eye to eye with people like Spiro Skouras and Sam Goldman's representatives; he took on power and he very often won; he was a very determined guy with a wonderful sense of humour, but he suffered a lot from nervous strain; it was for his sense of humour that he is remembered; he always took bribes and declared what he had received - such as a fur coat - on the notice board in the main Union office in Soho Square; he then circularized his deputies around all the branches asking which of their members would have a use for the bribe; if someone wrote about a newly-widowed woman who would love a fur coat, George would look round to see that no one else was worthier, then send off the coat to her with the compliments of the Union; he was attacked by one of the Sunday papers and accused of being a card-carrying Communist; he was very left-wing but not a Communist and he sued them and won a lot of money; with it he took a very well publicised trip to Sochi on the Black Sea and had a de luxe holiday, bringing back a lot of caviar and other things for the family; it was in fact my first taste of caviar; he was making the point that he was not going to be intimidated; when I lived in Glasgow much later, I got an insight into his methods of negotiating; he would come up for a meeting and we would arrange to pick him up and give him a bed for the night; I remember picking him up around midnight and he seemed to be extraordinarily drunk; we gave him a coffee and then somehow got onto the only real disagreement we had with him; we thought that the policy of his union towards people who made small-budget films did not get a fair deal - they did not need to have a special electrician putting the plug in and out, for example; once the argument got going he sat up, the slur left his voice, and he talked lucidly like a trade unionist should, disagreeing with every word that we said; I realized that the secret of his technique was to feign drunkenness and stay absolutely stone-sober inside; I did some negotiating in Australia later in life, not at a very high level, but that was a useful model; of my other uncle, if this story is true, he got trapped in the Soviet Union when Hitler developed the second front; he went straight to the Embassy, where my grandfather did know the Ambassador, and was given the job of the second, assistant, night watchman; he was very happy with this; then there was the Embassy chess tournament; he was not a very good chess player, but not bad - I was a better player; the Soviet Union and Great Britain arranged over-the-radio chess matches with a Russian-speaking representative present to see that they followed the rules; my uncle had just recently won an Embassy chess match though an assistant night-watchman thrashing a political secretary was just not done; the Ambassador summoned my uncle, ascertained he could play chess and speak Russian; asked about his past experience of work he said he had acted as floor manager for Alexander Korda; he was immediately promoted to Assistant Secretary for Culture and given the task of looking after the refereeing and umpiring of the radio chess match, and so he did; I don't believe there is any comparable promotion in the diplomatic service; this was the man who brought the Russian ballerina, Violetta Prokhorova, better known as Violetta Elvin, back to Britain after the war; she now lives in Naples and has confirmed that it was through the direct intervention of Atlee with Stalin, at my grandfather's request, that my uncle was able to get a top ballerina out of Russia to marry him

28:54:03 My father was a man I greatly respected; always very proper, cautious and responsible, for example, he and my mother never travelled on the same aeroplane until I was twenty-one so that I would never be orphaned; not seeing him but for a very brief visit during the war meant that I reached the age of seven without knowing him; my bonding was very much with my mother, an extraordinary, deep person; my father was never interested on the surface in what I did; he was working firstly at higher education as the Principal of Ruskin College in Oxford; Oxford actually asked him if he wanted Ruskin to be incorporated into the University, and after discussions with the people there, decided against it; in his day, people like Bertrand Russell and Joseph Needham would come willingly to talk, and Ruskin was full of people from the main university; he was a remarkable man but with me his relationship was summed up by my showing something I had done, and he would just say "Very Fine"; eventually I got into the habit of asking him to look at something but not to say that it was very fine; of course he just found an equivalent phrase; on the surface he was not really interested; he then went to UNESCO as the "E" when it was still a remarkable and idealistic organization, and not a way of finding jobs for people owed political debts; that meant we had to go and live in Paris; I saw a little bit more of him there but mostly I just remember his table talk, which was brilliant, but he had very little interaction with me, although he was very responsible and kind in a rather distant way; my mother was quite a different matter; she was the first woman to get a first in psychology at Cambridge which was her second degree; she had been at Stanford before that; she was one of the specially gifted children studied by Terman at Stanford throughout their lives; the project carried on until very recently; she was the scientific part of my background; although basically in therapeutic work, her great speciality being the effects after the war of localised lesions in the brain; she was for a long time, after Richie Russell with whom she worked, regarded as the most important person to refer to; she was part of the team who first put agrammatism on the screen as a real phenomenon, with tests to determine its presence; agrammatism means having a vocabulary, maybe quite a large one of several thousand words, but not being able to string them together in a reliable and consistent order; the last time I talked to her she said there were probably about four cases a year in Britain, if that, but during the war there was a great number of these people; she spent most of her time before we moved to Paris, and some of the time after we came back, on how to diagnose the specifics and try to find some kind of useful employment for such people; I gained from her an acute awareness of the importance of science  in society; eventually, as a historian, I came more and more to saying that the great gap in history are people who can bring together the skills of social scientists and historians with some sense of the science; there are plenty of histories of science for scientists, but there is not enough of the meeting ground in the middle, and not enough people working in history, as I was primarily, could understand some of it; for quite a while in the late forties I was an occupant of the old Institute of Experimental Psychology as one of the first people on whom a new piece of machinery was tested, so I was very familiar with what went on in these places; I was an only child which was basically Hitler's fault; I did beg my mother to have a brother or sister but she pointed out that I would not be a brother but a junior uncle in age; our relationship was fantastic; when you have an only parent with an only child, if it works you don't have a problem; I never quarrelled with my parents because it just didn't seem appropriate; it probably helped being at a boarding school; when I got older, being with my parents in Paris for a third of the year was just like being on a fantastic holiday; my mother was interested in what I did and was good for an intelligent conversion until the last time I saw her; I tried to get back from Australia when she was dying in hospital, and missed her death by twenty-four hours, but apparently she was completely lucid until her final moment; she turned to a lady called Joyce who had helped in the house when my father was ill, and told her bluntly to look after Lionel, and Joyce did; even when my mother's body was failing her she showed gentle will power; I remember going to see her once near the end when I had come to visit from Australia and she was like a glove puppet; her head was working with a limp body; then I looked into her eyes and felt she was good for some time yet; she sometimes took two hours to dress in the morning but she would not move until she had done a good job, and she always did; she had a remarkable will power and kept being re-employed; she would retire from one hospital job and then there would be a phone call; she was still working at seventy-eight or nine when the team she was with broke up and she didn't go back; but it wasn't just the team breaking up, she decided, looking at herself very clinically, that her eye-sight wasn't good enough to drive home in the dark from Addenbrookes Hospital where she worked

39:12:22 It was at the Dragon School in Oxford that it really dawned on me that I was different; I had come back from California which was quite a bit "ahead" of Britain in some respects, and found people doing things very differently and I was extremely rebellious and utterly unpersuadable; I got beaten a lot and regarded this as just ridiculous; I carried it off and got great peer group adulation which made me behave badly again; I was very bright which was the reason they tolerated me; I think if I had been in their place I would have asked me to be removed; I only stopped misbehaving because that was exactly what the Headmaster, Joc Lynam, did; he threatened to expel me if I didn't behave; internally I did not behave, but I had no trouble in stopping my physical misbehaviour; I never believed I would lose an argument, and when I was beaten I accepted that with the masters, but if I was right I never changed; I remember the extraordinary bewilderment of Wilding, a very good classics teacher, that I remembered an argument that we had had for a year, and I came back at him and said I still didn't understand why he had beaten me, and then he gave in; I accepted that these people knew maths and classics far beyond anything I could hope to understand, and had a great deal to learn which I did very happily, but not religion; exposed to a variety of religions and none, for both my parents were agnostics; my mother later said that it was not intellectually responsible to believe in a revealed religion; that sums her up; it wasn't a great agony or triumph, just not intellectually responsible; I was fascinated at the Dragon together with my friend Francis Hope, (who later died in the Orly air crash), that one area where we would almost always win arguments was on religion and philosophical issues related to religion; I was genuinely interested and not trying to do anything demonic or satanic, but was puzzled by the fact that I was told nonsense; other masters might say something wrong or that I didn't agree with, but nonsense, no; the contrast fascinated me so I was already by the age of eleven, in some ways took as a guide Bertrand Russell's work, beginning with 'Unpopular Essays'; I suppose that meant that my sense of being an outsider, of always being at odds with the establishment - not the one I had grown up with, which was very important - and going to France where people had different values again, merely rubbed it in; to take a trivial example was drinking soup; in France you tipped the plate towards you and in Britain away from you, and I remember being baffled by this; then it seemed to me to be the way the world was, in different places people did different things, so nobody was necessarily right; I remember much later coming across a phrase of Wittgenstein’s - all could also be otherwise; this I think laid the foundation of two things, firstly an interest in China where they did do things differently and also normally when I picked up a secondary work on the subject it was bound to be at least partly wrong; later on when studying history I would look at sources first and then when I had a working idea, try it out against a secondary work; sometimes they stood up, but not always; generally one always found something new as adults were not known in my childhood for always talking good sense; it sounds very arrogant but wasn't meant to be; it was the result of being bumped in different ways by circumstance in West Coast America, post-war  Britain and diplomatic France, because my father was an international civil servant moving largely among diplomats and people of a similar sort

46:43:15 I don't know when I started playing chess seriously but it must have been by the time I was seven, because my father could always beat me even as an adult at ping-pong, but I began to beat him regularly at chess when I was seven and he refused thereafter to play with me; I played with the uncle who had been in Russia into my mid-teens, but I still beat him fairly easily until late at night; he would keep me up until about three or four in the morning when I would finally give up from exhaustion; he wasn't bad at chess, but one of the few things I thought my father was a bit weak on was when he refused to play with me; at the Dragon we had a chess team that was formed by a master, Dennison-Smith - Denny Whiff, I don't like that name as thought he was very good value; that chess team did extremely well; I would have loved to have acted as my friend, Francis Hope, was brilliant, I think the only boy there to carry off Hamlet, under Bruno's guidance; I had a minor part as one of the ambassadors and had about two lines; that was typical; I would get two or three line parts; I would have loved to have been able to act but for some reason I couldn't; I was not musical in the ordinary sense; my mother was too sensitive to music; she had had Beethoven forced on her by her father, and she hated it; I picked this up from her and was largely turned off by music until I was about twelve when I belatedly discovered it; I have an extraordinary catholic taste in music although I got nothing from the Dragon and only a little from one master at St Paul's; my mother was very unhappy about her effect on me, was well aware of it, and would nobly come to concerts with me, but I could sense her will power in trying not to let is get her; when I was a little older I went by myself; this had the effect of opening me to all kinds music all at the same time, and it was all equal in my mind; I took it on my own terms, and when I went to Cambridge I immediately joined the Cambridge Asian Music Circle under that near-genius, Laurence Picken - a man who could play seventy instruments, virtually all of them not British - and I took on Indian classical music particularly; I helped organize the concerts for Ravi Shankar and Chatur Lal, the tabla player, that Laurence put on in my first year at Cambridge, and this became another example of taking all cultures on their own terms; I don't think all music are equal, but having firstly discovered Webern then Hindustani classical music, they were just part of this process and have remained very deep inside me till now; I don't listen to a great deal of music except as a background to work when I am feeling a bit depressed - for that, nothing much stronger than Shostakovich, otherwise I have to listen to it; again, it is another example of this curious destruction of the normal process of growing up

51:46:15 At the Dragon I was in the top class for everything except the special calculus group taken by a former first wrangler which I wasn't good enough for; he was called Willy [Gerald] Meister, an old man who was very clever, and the four or five kids who could do calculus studied with him; however, I was strong in geometry; I won prizes; I would come from the bottom of A1 in maths to win prizes in deductive geometry because I have got a very strong visual sense, linked with chess, and I liked it; the other aspects I struggled at; I always wanted to know maths, and was fascinated by it, but was no good at it; I remember trying to work out what one would do if one dropped the fifth postulate of Euclid, that parallel lines never meet; this was at the age of twelve or thirteen and I was told by a firm, kind and completely correct maths master, Wilkie, that I should wait until later to look at that; it symbolizes my confusions that I found maths fascinating but impossible; I was probably 5th or 6th in classics; there were people like John Dunbabin and Luke Hodgkin who were better than I was; Francis Hope and I interchanged history and English - he tended to win more English tops, and I, history, but we alternated; French I became really good at but after I left the Dragon; I think that if I had been there at fourteen I would have swept the board, though Francis was very good at it; in maths I normally came bottom or bottom but one in a form of sixteen unless they had geometry, where I was quite capable of coming top; later on in life I found mathematical logic, bedrock proto-maths, fascinating too, and it meant that when I learnt to write computer programs I took a manual onto my boat on the Thames, spent a long weekend, came back and wrote programs that worked - it was Algol68; it was an odd feature that one little part of my brain could do maths and the other wasn't up to it

54:52:10 I got a scholarship to St Paul's but I actually came 16th on the roll at Eton; I wanted to go there as my best friend was going, but I missed it by one place; actually, with all apologies to Eton, it was the best event in my life because I ended up getting superlative teaching in history and French at St Paul's, and I was also able to go every weekend to the British Museum; the best teachers were extremely good; Frank Snow, the junior of the top two history masters, was not bad; he challenged us to write a long essay in the first term and I wrote mine on water in world history; later on I have worked a great deal on this subject, particularly in China; the most important person was Philip Whitting, a Byzantinist, already and established figure in Byzantine numismatics, and on the board of several journals; he was an absolute professional and I learnt an enormous amount from him; I regarded him essentially as an oracle, but even so, one to be argued with, but with extraordinary respect; it was probably because of his Byzantinism that at the age of fifteen I read every volume of 'The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire', mostly while travelling on the underground; that gave me a vision of history which is very unusual in these days; I can mentally automatically link the ancient world to the mediaeval world down to the modern world, without any sense of shifting gears; I wrote my first important book, 'The Pattern of the Chinese Past', on a time template derived from reading Gibbon; it was very important, and that was Whitting's doing; the other was the teacher of French, known informally as Toby Parker, a very interesting teacher who on the surface was a ferocious martinet; your pen had to be in exactly the right place in front of you on the desk; your eyes had to be on him as he talked or you were in trouble; when I knew him much better and he had relaxed a great deal I realized from what he said that he had worked this our regretfully because he had begun life as a very soft master and was pushed around by the boys; being a very bright and determined man he had worked out a bullying technique that became carefully relaxed as people became fit to be talked to as human beings; he was a brilliant language teacher and he was also on Harrap’s dictionary committee; so in the French and History teachers I had two of the most extraordinary people who, certainly from an academic level were of university level in their skills; I got a scholarship to Cambridge when I was just sixteen because of the high-pressure, fascinating teaching I got from these two people