Times of his life…
Dan Carrier talks to Daniel Snowman about his new memoir which serves as a fascinating study of recent history
25 November, 2021 — By Dan Carrier
BORN when their parents were fighting Hitler, the mid 20th-century generation lived through the rise and demise of the post-war social contract.
It provided free health care, built decent homes, expanded access to education, offered employment for all – and saw Britain’s Imperial might replaced with a soft power based on language, creativity and culture.
It was against this backdrop that Daniel Snowman carved out a career as a historian at Sussex University, a producer and broadcaster at the BBC, an expert on the social history of opera, and much more. Now Daniel, who lives in Kentish Town, has taken stock of his personal experience and penned a memoir that tells his story and the period that shaped him.
When he moved to Kentish Town around a decade ago, he carried boxes of dusty and long-forgotten papers into his study. Inside were journals, letters written to his family, personal papers and scraps of memoirs. They were reminders of projects, feelings, moments and times lived.
“When I was young, when I travelled I would write long letters back to my parents and I’d ask them to keep them,” he says. “These are very personal sources. I hadn’t looked at them for years,” he says. “Re-reading it took on a new historical perspective.”
Writing his own history was done with his academic’s eye. “I always wanted to push through barriers when I consider things in a historical perspective. I wanted to see what linked different themes. I am forever asking why? I have been, throughout my life, interested in links between things that are, perhaps at first, unrelated.”
This, he says, was nurtured by his time working as a historian at Sussex University.
The university, opened in the Sixties, had a multi-disciplinary approach to subjects. It had schools instead of departments, offering students a wide range of courses.
“I was impressed and influenced by this,” he says.
The book considers his experience coming from an observant Jewish family and questioning religion, to winning a place at Cambridge at a time when there were still single-sex colleges and servants who made his bed and called him Sir.
Later, he considers the role of public service broadcasting, and how it reflects and shapes a societies priorities. When he began work at the BBC in 1970 as a radio producer, he was joining an institute with a strong Reithian culture.
“Lord Reith’s philosophy that we were there to educate, instruct and entertain was very much apparent,” he says.
It allowed him to make thoughtful and interesting programmes that enjoyed a wide audience.
“If I wanted to meet a famous writer, historian actor, musician with a view to a possible broadcast, I could.”
It was before individual BBC stations concentrated on catering for a particular audience, and as this changed, Daniel felt the Corporation devalued Lord Reith’s aims.
“I felt it was the end of the great Reithian vision of education by stealth,” he says. “You might be listening to a Beethoven symphony because you liked classical music, and the next programme would be something completely different, but you’d carry on listening.”
He recognises the challenges Auntie faces today, caught in the middle of a “culture” war, and accused of bias from across the political spectrum.
“The truth is the BBC has always faced criticism. Things became appreciably worse in the 1980s when the Thatcher government placed the Corporation firmly in its sights,” he says.
“As a public-funded institution committed to a ‘balanced’ presentation of complex issues, the BBC was anathema to an assertively Conservative government committed to a free market in not only matters economic but also in culture and the arts.”
Being impartial in an increasingly polarised world is set against a backdrop of the expansion of commercial media and streaming services.
“This has marginalised the BBC,” he says. “There is simply so much choice to compete with.”
Daniel describes travelling around the world to create programmes, and meeting political leaders and cultural figureheads. He has watched the climate crisis rise to the surface – an issue he raised when making documentaries about the polar regions for the BBC in the late 1980s and early 90s.
“My Polar trips confirmed and reinforced a profound sense of the interconnectedness of everybody and every thing on this little Earth of ours,” he says.
But explaining how joint interest means self interest is a challenge we face today, and the rise of nationalism illustrates how big the hurdles are.
“The only way to address problems is to do so collaboratively,” he says. “Growing up after the war, I was very impressed at attempts to prevent another murderous conflict in Europe. In the 1950s, I felt if the countries of Europe could develop economic interdependence, citizens could travel between states without visas, it would be a good thing.
“Then there was the United Nations – what a wonderful title, we thought. It was for the good of all. They may fail, they may be corrupt. But when people meet to do something jointly, it is better than murderous revenge projects.”
This saunter down memory lane tells not just the fascinating story of an individual life, but sets it into a context of the recent past. It offers guidance for the future – which is, as Daniel’s superb book points out, a cornerstone of being a historian.
• Just Passing Through: Interactions With The World 1938-2021. By Daniel Snowman. Brown Dog Books, £15