Neil Oliver: If people say the wrong things they’re burnt at the stake

The statue of Edward Colston being pushed into the river Avon

The statue of Colston is pushed into the river Avon. Edward Colston was a slave trader of the late 17th century who played a major role in the development of the city of Bristol, England, on June 7, 2020. (Photo by Giulia Spadafora/NurPhoto via Getty Images) - Credit: Giulia Spadafora/NurPhoto via Getty Images

There’s a passage early on in Neil Oliver’s new book, Wisdom of the Ancients, where he writes of his love of “the few square miles around my house in Stirling. I could stay here for years on end”. Now that Covid means the entire UK has pretty much had that experience enforced, I wonder how it feels. “It was quite enjoyable for a while but now I’m completely sick to death of it,” he says. The day we speak two pupils at his children’s school have shown potential Covid symptoms and the tests his family is being offered are hundreds of miles away.

He’s talking to me from that Stirling home as he promotes the book, in which the archaeologist and television presenter delves deep into time to consider how the messages from our ancient past might apply to our lives today. More a meditation than a standard history work, flitting from Scotland to Tanzania, Sweden to Australia, it is, he says, a book which has been on his mind for as long as 30 years.

“I had always felt constrained from giving free rein to my emotional connection to these places, because history and archaeology are fairly scientific subjects,” the 53-year-old says.

“They’re approached in a very serious way. It’s all – and properly – about research and sources and, you know, peer review, and the net effect of that is to create works which are very serious and very informative but they can also be dry and missing emotion.

“And I finally kind of decided to take the leap and be the one that would write about how these places made me feel, which for a lot of historians and archaeologists, I’m quite sure, especially in academia, they would say that that was irrelevant and not necessarily the right way to think about and to write about these places and these events.


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“But I thought, damn the fear, that’s really always been my heartfelt inspiration for being interested in these subjects.”

What he realised as he pulled the various stories and messages together, he says, is he was “getting at times a kind of comfort and reassurance from common strands that seemed to be there in stories from a million years ago right up until much more recent stories, or sites that had been affected by historical events much more recently.

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“So I started to see and try to bring together these common strands like the importance of family, the importance of home, love of place, the importance of memory.”

It is, I say, in many ways an accidentally timely book – written before the pandemic, a period when the word ‘unprecedented’ has been in constant usage, it’s a reminder that nothing in human history, really, is unprecedented. It is “unintentionally prescient”, Oliver agrees.

“It’s hard not to see that these people, in circumstances unimaginably different to our own, had found the time to express grand thoughts. They were clearly asking each other and themselves what it meant to be human and alive, and what did it mean to die. And what might be expected after death. They were doing that 8,000 years ago in an unimaginably different time, and I thought: these people, then, were seeking answers to questions that we’re still seeking answers to now. And maybe their answers are just as helpful in our time as they were to those people in their time.”

When he thinks of the preoccupations of our 2020 world – Covid, Brexit, the future of the UK – he says, “although they obviously profoundly affect all of our lives moment by moment, they are nonetheless a thin scraping of butter over the end of a very thick loaf of bread.

“I like reminding myself, you know, the kind of King Solomon notion of ‘This too shall pass’. In 10 years from now, 100 years from now, whatever, the preoccupations of whoever is living here will be entirely different, and they will just look back at our high-tempered obsessions as things they possibly don’t even remember, far less teach about in schools. It means so much to us, but in the wider context of history and deep time, it’ll probably matter not at all.”

The book is timely in other ways. Written not just before lockdown, but this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, he touches on the destruction of statues and writes of how we “lose some part of the truth of ourselves, good and bad”. Have this summer’s events made him reflect further, I ask?

“I am by nature a conserver,” he says. “I like to keep things, old things. I’ve got that kind of instinct. And so it’s hard-wired into me to keep rather than to throw away and start afresh.

“When it comes to the statues that were either being torn down or recommended for being removed on the basis of who they represented, I just felt that was completely back-to-front and wrong-headed. To me, you don’t erase history.

“The analogy I use, I suppose, is, you know when you got a new jotter at school, in the good old days when you wrote in jotters, and it was always a thrill to turn over and get the first clean white page? And you’d kind of be tempted to use your best handwriting. You might sustain it for a page or two, but then eventually you’d made your first mistake and you’d have to do your crossing-out and it was quite heartbreaking. And there was a temptation to get another new jotter and start again without the mistake.

“But in reality, when you do finally keep that jotter and there’s the scorings out and the mistakes, at the end, when the jotter is finished, it’s much more interesting when you look back at the work, to be reminded of the mistakes. Sometimes you’re reminded of something even more significant than all the correct answers. And so to look at the statues and decide these are the people we shouldn’t be remembering I think is just a mistake.”

Oliver – who was an unenthusiastic Remain voter – is an outspoken opponent of Scottish independence, something which has made him a target of criticism for many in the country in which he still lives. In fact, some of the words used to describe him that I found in the pro-independence National newspaper when researching the interview, I had to put into Urban dictionary (“hyper-yoon” = obsessive unionist). Probably naively, I wonder if, as a public figure, he ever just wishes he’d kept his powder dry.

“Scotland is a very cowed country at the moment in terms of, if you’re an opponent of the government or the SNP or independence it’s uncomfortable to speak up,” he says.

“There is an overweening attempt to silence criticism and opposition and that’s a red rag to a bull to me. And so the more I’m shouted down the more vociferous I tend to become.

“I’ve got three kids and it’s in the run of things when you’re a dad, or a mum, a parent, that, you know, if your kids are reporting being bullied at school, we all know what you say. You say: you have to stand up to that.

“I felt I’d be a hypocrite if I was saying that to my children and I wasn’t prepared to do it for myself. I mean, it was a very heated and hot-tempered debate long before the [Scottish independence] referendum happened, and it was already apparent that taking a pro-Union stance was liable to, you know, attract the attentions of the mob. But I thought I mustn’t allow that to deter me from giving my opinion.

“That has led to years of fairly non-stop abuse. But, in answer to your question, do I wish I had just let the bullies keep my mouth shut? No, I don’t. I feel it’s an absolute obligation of every human being who’s capable of expressing an idea and of voicing a reasoned opinion… it is a right, but more profoundly, it’s an obligation. You have an obligation to the universe, to the fabric of reality, if you like, to speak up.”

This year nationalists thought they’d got their scalp when Oliver stepped down as president of the National Trust of Scotland, an appointment which sparked a petition of thousands due to his pro-Union views, amid a row over his support for the historian David Starkey (Oliver points out his three-year term ended this month).

Oliver had tweeted that he “loved” the historian prior to an interview in which Starkey claimed “slavery was not genocide” because “so many damn blacks” survived, comments for which he was fired from many fellowships and other positions and which he has since made an apology for.

Oliver says his comment came from the “warmth and the kindness” that Starkey had shown to him when he had previously been a guest at an event in London which Oliver hosted, and his admiration for his work.

“And then, of course, he gave the interview and he said the things that he said… of course I disavow the things that he said and he indeed himself subsequently apologised profusely and admitted the wrongdoing.

“All I was expressing was an admiration for work that he’d done in the past. I’m a television viewer and obviously I watch all sorts of history. You know, Simon Schama, David Starkey, Mary Beard. And I’m liable to express love for any one of them. I don’t have ideas about what other thoughts about other subjects those people might have expressed in the past.

“[Starkey] said what he said, and he’s now been eviscerated. He’s a pariah, he’s been cast out of society. And I think that that cancelling of people on the basis of remarks made, however egregious, is wrong. I believe in freedom. Freedom – not just freedom of speech, but freedom and a free society. And if freedom is to mean anything it’s surely the freedom to make mistakes and to then be able to express regret for mistakes made and to learn from mistakes and to carry on as still part of the body of society.

“But what has emerged in more recent times is a return of a kind of heresy, and heretics are to be burned at the stake. So there’s a new religious orthodoxy, and if people say the wrong things then they are to be burned at the stake, so there is nothing left of their body at all, just a pile of ashes that can be flung in a river and swept out to sea.”

Next year’s Holyrood election, if the polls are to be believed (Oliver believes polls are “about as much use as an ashtray on a motorbike”) will see a large pro-independence majority and years of wrangling over calls for a second independence referendum. Will it change Oliver’s mind?

“It’ll get ugly, it’ll get desperately cruel, and vicious. I wouldn’t rule out anything, at this moment of time, in terms of consequence,” he says.

“But I will continue to be in favour of the United Kingdom. That’s my position. People’s opinions change, and maybe something will happen to me and I will radically alter my position. As of this moment in time, I believe in the continuation of the United Kingdom. And I feel an obligation to say that.”

Wisdom of the Ancients is published by Bantam Press, priced £20

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