York History Weekend: 5 minutes with Andrew Lownie

Guy Burgess was the most important, complex and fascinating of ‘The Cambridge Spies’ – five brilliant young men recruited in the 1930s to betray their country to the Soviet Union. At our York History Weekend in November, Andrew Lownie will offer a fresh perspective on Burgess and his world, based on interviews with more than 100 people who knew him personally and the discovery of hitherto secret files...

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Ahead of his talk, ‘Stalin’s Englishman: The Lives of Guy Burgess’, we caught up with Andrew to find out more and to learn about his passion for history… 
 
Q: How and when did you first realise you had a passion for history?
 
A: I’ve always had a passion for history and read it voraciously as a child, starting with the Ladybird books. I then went on to study it at university, as both an undergraduate and graduate student.
 
Q: Why do you love your period of history?
 
A: I like writing about the 19th and 20th centuries because there are still people alive who knew my biographical subjects, and there is also extensive documentation in terms of letters, diaries, memoirs and official files.
 
Q: Which other historical areas fascinate you and why?
 
A: I live in a house built in 1700 and the 18th century also interests me. I find it a fascinating period. So much was happening that shaped the modern world, from developments in architecture and science to literature, music and politics. Reading history at Cambridge I had to study a range of periods, but my greatest love is British, European and American history from 1700 to the present day. 
 
Q: Which history book(s) are you reading at the moment?
 
A: My next book is on Lord and Lady Mountbatten, so much of my reading is for that. It’s a huge subject covering the royal family, the Royal Navy, the Second World War, modern Indian history and the couple’s wide range of friends, from Noel Coward to Charlie Chaplin. 
 
I also work full-time as a literary agent, specialising in history and biography, so there is always plenty to read, whether it’s delivered manuscripts or proposals to offer to publishers.
 
At the moment I am excited by Lawrence James’ revisionist look at the ‘scramble for Africa’ – Empires in the Sun: The Struggle for the Mastery of Africa; Harvard historian Danny Orbach’s The Plots Against Hitler and Nicola Tallis’ Crown of Blood: The Deadly Inheritance of Lady Jane Grey, all published this year.
 
Recent books I’ve agented included David Lough’s No More Champagne on Churchill and his finances; Sean McMeekin’s The Ottoman Endgame, which recounts the end of the Ottoman Empire; Richard Aldrich and Rory Cormac’s The Black Door, which examines the relationship between prime ministers and intelligence; Juliet Barker’s book on the Peasant’s Revolt and Robert Hutchinson’s biography of Thomas Blood, who stole the crown jewels.
 
Q: Are there any developments in your field that are really exciting you at the moment?
 
A: ‘Intelligence history’ is being taken more seriously – helped by the release of more official papers. There are a growing number of academic courses and more young researchers drawn to the subject. I judge an annual prize for intelligence books and the standard is now very high.
 
Q: What are you most looking forward to about the York History Weekend? 
 
A: I always enjoy speaking about Guy Burgess because often there is someone in the audience who had some contact with him and I learn something new. And it’s always great fun to come to such a beautiful city and mix with other history enthusiasts.
 
Q: What can we expect from your talk at York?
 
A: My presentation covers Burgess’ life in 45 minutes and 90 pictures, many of which come from his family or obscure archives and have not been seen before. I continue to research him and am hoping to have some new disclosures about his spying and the extent of the Cambridge Spy Ring, which numbered more like 50 than five.
 
Q: Which other talks are you looking forward to at the York History Weekend? 
 
A: It’s a whistle-stop day visit but I am going to try and go to talks by George Goodwin and Simon Sebag Montefiore, who are appearing either side of me.
 
Andrew Lownie will be speaking at our York History Weekend this November. He is a literary agent and visiting fellow at Churchill College, Cambridge. He has written books on the life of John Buchan and, most recently, British intelligence officer Guy Burgess. 
 
You can find out more about our history weekends and Andrew’s talk, ‘Stalin’s Englishman: The Lives of Guy Burgess’, here
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