Rutherfurd on Rutherfurd


Q. Did you read a lot as a child?

A. Quite a bit. Sci Fi at first, maybe a book a week from the lending library. I was into space travel.

Q. Any history?

A. It was the epic movies that made the most impression: Ben Hur, Spartacus, The Ten Commandments. They may be the origin of my epic novels. Then I got sick, I was in bed for two weeks, and my mother brought me one of the Hornblower novels. By the time I got well I'd read them all. I got into historical fiction after that: Conan Doyle's historical novels, the rest of Forester, even a writer from an earlier generation called Henty. Later on I'd read Gore Vidal as well.

Q. Not bad. Now you have kids of your own, do they read much?

A. No. They're into videos and computers.

Q. Is that the greatest difference between your generation and theirs?

A. Perhaps. There's another huge difference also, especially in Britain. When we were kids, whatever your personal beliefs, the language of the Bible - by which I mean the old Authorised version pretty much - was an absolute presence in people's lives. Those magnificent cadences echoed in your head; the Old and New Testament stories were familiar reference points in daily life. That's all changed and, belief aside, it seems to me a cultural and linguistic loss.

Q. You went to local schools in the ancient Sarum area. Did you gravitate towards history studies?

A. Not at first, though I loved history. In those days in Britain, except for Scotland, kids were made to specialise far too early, in my opinion. Though he was quite well-read in history, my father encouraged me in my teens to go on to the science side. So by the age of fifteen I'd begun the A level course, as it was in those days, which led to University entrance, in Chemistry, Physics and Maths. I loved the Math and dreamed of being a cosmologist. But I wasn't good enough, and also felt deprived without any arts or humanities. So after a year, the school let me switch to History, English and Latin instead. But I still regretted having to specialise and I'm still partly a scientist, wanting to understand the universe and how things work.

Q. Did you start writing?

A. School magazine articles, short stories, like many others in the class. By the age of seventeen, another career had come into my head. The school had started offering a Russian language class, which I took, and I was included in a school trip to Russia. Then just after that, a relation working in the foreign service invited me to Japan for one summer, and I spent one month there, and another travelling alone across the US and Canada. I'm not sure I'd send a sixteen-year-old to do that nowadays, but it seemed quite normal then. Anyway, I began to wonder if I could find some sort of foreign service job.

Q. You were studying History and English. Were you better at one than the other?

A. Loved the history, the English came more easily.

Q. You took the exams for Cambridge in history, though.

A. The school favoured history, and they had a good university record with it.

Q. So you took the exams and passed into Cambridge?

A. Not at all. I failed. Cambridge turned me down.

Q. What happened?

A. A fit of adolescence probably. The summer before, I had decided to study Chinese during the holidays. I took classes and worked hard. As best I recall, my idea was that I was going to learn Russian and Chinese and then save the world. Childish, but well-intentioned. I forget how this was supposed to work, but presumably if I couldn't be a cosmologist, saving the world was the next best option.

Q. Sounds reasonable.

A. In this somewhat confused state of mind, I took the history exams, went for interview at Cambridge, and told them I'd like to study classical Mandarin, about which I knew nothing. They liked my general history papers, but my essays on specific subjects were rubbish, and the college Director of History turned me down.

Q. Have you forgiven him now?

A. Nothing to forgive. I'd have done the same in his place.

Q. So how did you get in?

A. I went away to London, stayed with relations, and worked with a tutor for almost a year, reading English Literature. I really worked hard, read about half of Shakespeare, the whole of Milton's Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained, Wordswoth's Prelude, Keats's Letters, D.H. Lawrence's whole works and letters and much more. The next year I took the exams in English and this time they accepted me. In fact I won an academic award.

Q. So you don't give up easily.

A. Success is fine, but so far as I can see, it's what people do when they fail that really matters.

Q. So you studied English literature, but that would have involved some study of history too, at Cambridge?

A. Yes. As it happened, some of my best friends were also history students.

Did You Know?
In 1598, Queen Elizabeth ordered a banquet featuring a food source from the new world: potatoes. The royal cooks, having never prepared potatoes before, threw the veggie away and cooked the green part or eye instead, sickening the whole royal court. Elizabeth banned the vegetable. The ban was eventually lifted a few years later when potatoes gained popularity in Spain, France and Italy.

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