The best-selling historian, award-winning journalist and TV presenter on how a meeting via social media led to an extraordinary collaboration, and why his wife is his online hero.
It is an approach that has prompted readers to dub his books ‘the real- Game of Thrones’, a comparison aided by his recent on-stage interview with the great George R.R Martin. Following The Plantagenets, The Hollow Crown and The Templars comes Crusaders, his latest book, which is a gripping deep dive into the wars for the Holy Lands. Endlessly prolific, next year he publishes a sequel to The Colour of Time, an astonishing collaboration with digital artist, Marina Amaral, who specialises in creating full colour renditions of historic black-and-white photographs.
From medieval history to 21st-century technology, Dan talks us through the digital innovations he couldn’t live without – and tells us why he’ll forever remain an ardent defender of the old-fashioned book.
My favourite website... At the moment I have spent an unhealthy amount of time on the ‘Rugby’ channel of WalesOnline.co.uk, because there is no incident connected to the Welsh rugby team that is not covered there in minute and pedantic detail. No apologies: I’ve been actively following this team for the last thirty-two years.
My favourite app... I mean, it’s dull, but if I take the long-term view and think about what app has most changed the way I live, it is probably Google Maps. The knowledge that with it you will never be lost, anywhere in the entire world, whether driving, taking public transport or on foot, is pretty incredible. And yeah, I’m sure there’s a price that we’ve all paid in terms of spontaneity of discovery and general serendipity but come on. It’s astonishing.
My favourite blog... During the last few Brexit-addled years, the legal commentator David Allen Green has been on fire. I mostly absorb his wry and informative commentary through social media but his personal blog goes deeper. A sane, polite liberal voice in the middle of the shouting shop.
My Internet hero... My wife, weirdly. A couple of years ago she and her friend Sali Hughes set up a charity called Beauty Banks, which distributes toiletries and hygiene products via food banks around the UK. It is run entirely online, principally via Instagram, and has literally changed the lives of people in this country for the better. About 98% of what happens online is, in my opinion, a colossal waste of time, but she has actually harnessed the power of the web for good and I am proud of her. Go check it out.
My favourite podcast... I have yet to hear anything better than the This American Life series S-Town, from a few years back. (Don’t @ me.)
My most recent buy online... I had a bit of a frenzy of activity the other day and bought, in one sitting, a Nike hoodie, a pair of Apple earbud headphones, four David Austin rosebushes, 200 tulip bulbs, a European plug adaptor, a TV licence, tickets for a rugby match next year and an academic article about shipping in the reign of Edward III. Wild, right?
Last book you downloaded or read... I can’t read books on a screen. It’s partly a matter of sheer, pig-headed reactionary conservatism – I dig ink on paper and don’t want to change. But also, I literally can’t read a book on a screen without my eyes really hurting. Anyway, the last book I ‘downloaded’ – from the shelves of a bookshop – and read in the traditional way was James Meek’s new novel, To Calais, In Ordinary Time, which is set in 1348 during the Black Death and is so overwhelmingly brilliant that I read it in a single sitting during a plane ride to Tokyo and burst into tears at the end and probably worried my fellow passengers because who cries on an aeroplane except mad people and terrorists, you know?
Favourite tweeter... Right now it is an account called ‘No Context Hearn’: clips of the boxing promoter Eddie Hearn saying or doing amusing things without anything by way of explanation. It’s a meme. It’s not clever. But it is funny – and since Twitter is often so ugly – a forum for boasting, grandstanding and screaming matches – I prefer to concentrate on the stupid stuff that makes me laugh.
Favourite Instagrammer... The comedian and actor Tim Key’s Instagram poetry is a near-daily joy, particularly his current material about ‘Bohnson and Moggeth.’
Social media allowed me to meet… My great friend and collaborator Marina Amaral, the brilliant digital artist who transforms black-and-white historical photographs into modern technicolour versions. We started talking on Twitter and produced a book last year called The Colour of Time. Marina is a genius, and I wouldn’t have met her without social media.
The best digital advice I've been given... You don’t have to have an opinion about everything. It’s okay just to lurk and keep your damn mouth shut.
My screensaver is... Dirk Bouts’ ‘Christ Crowned With Thorns’ – a fifteenth-century oil painting in the collection of The National Gallery in London. The vividness of the colours is like something you would see in a high-end couture shoot in Love magazine or Dazed and Confused. But it is medieval Flemish religious painting.
My standout online memory... Getting my first email address in 1999, when I went off to university. I was eighteen years old. Hard to believe, but for my entire childhood and adolescence, the internet was really not very important and had almost no impact on my life. Sometimes I yearn for those days – although this is obviously blinkered nostalgia, and I would lose my shit if I had to go one day without the New York Times recipe app or Tidal or whatever.
My pet online hate is… The YouTubers my children enjoy watching. Burbling, babbling nitwits the lot of them, who have monetised the art of being infinitely anodyne and irritating to the tune of millions of pounds every year. They are harmless, but I despise them.
Photo credits: (C) Peter Clark
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By Nancy Alsop