The historian finds a novel way to relax after dodging a row at the Hay festival
BLOOD AND SOIL
In the past seven days I’ve taught my last class of the year at Harvard, I’ve (nearly) marked my final paper and – nomad that I am – I’ve kicked the Massachusetts earth from my feet and started my travels.
First stop was the velvet-green hills of Hay-on-Wye. Last year, thanks to torrential rain, the literary festival was more like Glastonbury for bookworms than the Woodstock of the mind (as Bill Clinton famously called it). This year the Welsh soil was baked dry. Hay without wellies is heaven.
It was also a pleasure to discuss the 90th anniversary of the Versailles treaty with the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm, who, at 92, is two years older than the treaty and has stood the test of time much better. Although we are poles apart politically, I deeply respect him as a historian.
No doubt some people were expecting a Punch and Judy show – and Andrew Roberts was egging me on to land the first punch. But the communist and the imperialist agreed a good deal more than they disagreed. The fatal flaw of Versailles, we concurred, was the attempt by Woodrow Wilson to draw the map of Europe on the principle of self-determination, whereby states and peoples would be one and the same.
This overlooked the fact that eastern Europe was a heterogeneous patchwork of ethnic, linguistic and religious groups. It also created a contradiction, since applying self-determination consistently would have made Germany bigger than it had been before the first world war.
You only have to spend a little time in the Welsh Marches to see the dangers of idealising the homogeneous nation-state. People move and mingle; you can’t pin blood and soil together.
I TAKE THE PLUNGE
There’s a limit to how much literary blather I can stand, especially when I’m the one doing half the blathering.
So the sight of the River Wye glinting under evening sunlight was irresistible. I was supposed to be behaving myself at a drinks party thrown by one of the festival’s founding sponsors, but rounded up a small group of like-minded outlaws and we all plunged in.
Like Roger Deakin, the author of Waterlog, I know of few pleasures that match a plunge into wild, untamed water. Chlorinated pools are to swimming what decaff is to breakfast – there’s just no kick. My rule is never to let an outdoor swimming opportunity slip, whether in the sea, a lake or a river. Detractors may call that exhibitionism; I call it the zealotry of a fanatical water-worshipper.
Among the wild swimmers was a film-maker who had infiltrated the book-scribblers. I can highly recommend When the Road Bends: Tales of a Gypsy Caravan, a film directed by Jasmine Dellal, which takes a global look at Romany culture. At a time when economic crisis in central and eastern Europe is increasing the perennial antagonism towards the Roma people, it’s a joy to hear their extraordinary, spine-tingling music.
On Wednesday I found myself back in New York, debating the future of gold with the advisory board of one of the world’s great gold-mining companies. Could gold make a comeback as a hedge against inflation? More and more people believe the world’s central banks are in competition to see who can print the most paper money – with the Federal Reserve in front by about a trillion dollars.
Maybe the future really is golden, provided that the central banks don’t decide to sell some of their great hoards. If you’d sold your shares and bought gold in 1968, your investment would have gone up 20-fold in the following 12 years. If you’d stuck with shares, even taking dividends into account you’d have only doubled your money. If, as I begin to fear, we’re rerunning the 1970s for fear of returning to the 1930s, it may be time to go for gold before the price of an ounce goes above $1,000.
CURSE OF THE BLOGHEADS
Not everyone agrees with me about the double danger of printing money and excessive deficits. In recent weeks I’ve been derided for my “dark age” views by Paul Krugman, a Nobel laureate and dedicated Keynesian, in his blog. I never blog back. I have a theory about the origin of the word “blog”. It goes back to Samuel Johnson, who said (more or less): “No man but a bloghead ever wrote, except for money.”
Niall Ferguson is the Laurence A Tisch professor of history at Harvard. His latest book, The Ascent of Money, is published in paperback this week by Penguin