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Philip Ziegler tells how a chance invitation to a Loire château set him en route to becoming a historical biographer.

I still remember the opening sentence of my first school report after I had become a history specialist. ‘Ziegler’, the master concerned observed, ‘will never make a historian.’ I have never had cause to doubt the accuracy of this perceptive judgement. All my life I have loved history, read it voraciously, enjoyed the company of historians; but what has interested me most has always been human beings – why they act as they do, what values they hold, what they love and hate, what makes them tick. History for me is, above all, of importance as providing the framework in which innumerable individuals have their being; I have never been much of a man for the ant-hills, I prefer the ant.

If one is fully to understand other human beings, one should first have invented them oneself. Only in the novel can authors exercise that control which enables them to view their subjects’ lives as a gratifyingly coherent and logical progress from cradle to grave. I would perhaps have been happier as a writer of fiction had it not been for my inability to tell a story. My first novel had a certain crude vitality, but as it contained all too recognisable and grossly offensive portraits of people whom, in fact, I liked and did not wish to hurt, I knew there was no question of my even trying to get it published. My second attempt was perhaps a little more mature and well-constructed, but it lacked the vitality of the first and, even to my fond eye, was obviously not something I wished to see in print. My third got as far as a publisher’s reader. It was treated with some tolerance. This author, said the report, writes rather well: interesting turns of phrase, good descriptive powers, thoughtful plotting, careful characterisation. But – dread word – the reader concluded, he can’t write dialogue and there is no narrative drive, nothing to make the reader want to turn the page. ‘Perhaps,’ was the final judgement, ‘this writer ought to turn his hand to biography.’ Well, if you can’t write dialogue and can’t tell a story, there is obviously something to be said for a branch of literature in which you are not allowed to make up dialogue and the story has already been invented for you. I took the reader’s advice and have never regretted it.

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