On the Spot: Lucy Inglis

‘People don't learn from others’ mistakes. We have a need to make our own.’

Lucy Inglis

Why are you a social historian?
I’m interested in people, from morphine-addicted veterans of the American Civil War to 18th-century London artisans.

What’s the most important lesson history has taught you?
That people don’t learn from others’ mistakes. We have a need to make our own.

Which book has had the greatest influence on you?
David Cannadine’s Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy.

What book in your field should everyone read?
Alfred W. McCoy’s The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia.

Which moment would you most like to go back to?
Covent Garden market at dawn, early 1760s, when it sold marmosets and songbirds, and had an Italian food warehouse.

Which historian has had the greatest influence on you?
Liza Picard. Like me, she didn’t train as a historian, but found it as a vocation.

Which person in history would you most like to have met?
Peter Mundy, born around 1600 in Cornwall, who travelled to Japan via Constantinople, India and Canton.

How many languages do you have?
I do my best in English, French and German.

What’s the most exciting field in history today?
The history of women. The gradual dismantling of the notion that the majority of women did not occupy various forms of gainful employment and exercise a measure of autonomy prior to the 20th century is bringing new perspectives into the light.

What historical topic have you changed your mind on?
Many. If you cannot change your mind, you have ceased to assimilate information.

Which genre of history do you like least?
Feminist history as a political statement.

Is there a major historical text you have not read?
Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason.

What’s your favourite archive?
The National Archives and Kedleston Hall, Derbyshire.

What’s the best museum?
It is hard to beat Sir John Soane’s Museum on the candlelit evenings.

What is the most common misconception about your field?
That it sacrifices fact for the sake of popularity.

What will future generations judge us most harshly for?
Our love of single-use plastic.

Michelangelo or Frida Kahlo?
Michelangelo.

Normans or Anglo-Saxons?
Anglo-Saxons, definitely.

Rome or Athens?
Athens.

Braudel or Gibbon?
Gibbon.

Lucy Inglis is a historian of the city and narcotics. Her latest book is Milk of Paradise: A History of Opium (Pan Macmillan, 2018).

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