Peter Snow and his son Dan

Written by Rachel on July 22nd, 2009

From here:

Peter: With Dan, I knew from the moment he was born that I was in for a son who would constantly surprise me. He was such an alert baby. I thought: “This is someone who will be successful at anything he tries.” We had such different childhoods. From the age of seven I was sent away to 18 different prep schools. But with Dan at day school, he and I developed a very close relationship, which I never had with my parents.

I have a serious problem finding anything negative to say about Dan. He’s never been difficult. Never had a moment of rebellious adolescence. And he shares so many of my enthusiasms — apart from my insatiable passion for model railways. He gets on with our friends. On Ann’s side, he loves Canada and his Canadian relatives, which has made us all, as a family, extremely happy. His sisters adore him. All five of his siblings love him, because he’s so good with everyone. He’s loyal, helpful and immensely kind.

It was easy to leave it all up to him at school. Dan was patently succeeding at the work. Luckily for me, he’s attracted to things I enjoy — history and literature. I’m a historian in a very unacademic way, a journalist who looks for headlines, jumping from one subject to another. Dan is scholarly. He’s an extremely serious pursuer of knowledge in a way I couldn’t begin to aspire to. I don’t have his ability to absorb details and make judgments about huge details of history. I tend to want to go on to something else — probably because I have a lower boredom threshold. I’m the reporter. Dan’s the historian. He communicates superbly, explaining things in such a lively way, I’m almost jealous. On television, technically we’re both presenters. But it’s a word we’re both shy of. I’m deeply admiring of the ease with which he performs on camera. What he does would test any presenter.

Unlike his dad, Dan has enormous guts. I’d never jump out of an aeroplane, but he loves parachuting and bungee-jumping. The other day I was stunned watching a TV programme he’s making. He’d told me he was off to Scotland to look at some archeological treasures. I didn’t realise he’d been asked to dive into the sea and cut off a bit of an old tree bottom. He has great life skills, but he also has impressive intellectual skills. That’s an amazing combination.

I’m someone who thinks something won’t happen and am always delighted when it does. I worry about work and get obsessive. I’ll say: “We’re pushed for time on this. Have you really done all the work on chapter so-and-so?” His answer is: “Chill, Dad!” I’ll have my doubts about how he’s applied himself, but his contribution will turn up bang on time. And once again I’ll have underestimated his capability to deliver something.

I had never imagined us working together, but I’ve realised that not only does Dan have all of my skills in spades, but as a scholar he has a double advantage over me. He’s acquired a massive amount of knowledge. In order to have the confidence to communicate information, I really have to get inside and research. Dan does it so easily. I watch and think: “How can you have got that far in a life which isn’t even near half the length of mine?” The only time we argue is intellectually or about work. I tend to be more dispassionate, less inclined to come to a conclusion than he is. But he has such good judgment, he’s usually
infuriatingly right.

In 2001 we sailed across the Atlantic to the West Indies. I worried, saying: “Have we done this? Have we checked that?” As the skipper, I felt that if I didn’t aim for perfection — overinsure against disaster — I’d blame myself. Dan kept reassuring me that it would be fine. He was a tower of strength. Instinctively I knew we’d be safe with him aboard. He was only seven the first time I took him sailing. The sea was very rough. My admiration for him was sealed when, after being very sick over the side of the boat, he looked at me and said: “Isn’t this fun, Dad?”

I’m sociable but don’t have Dan’s ability to enjoy friends the way he does. He takes after his mother. They can chat away about things that would tax my patience. Despite his gentle, sensitive nature, he doesn’t pull any punches. If I attempt to lift a heavy bag in his presence, he’ll get the bag and tell me how foolish I am — but with the best of motives. Dan’s often very critical of his dad, but we have this powerful, deep bond of love. We adore each other.

Dan: I have this kind of split personality. Around Mum and my two sisters, I’m boisterous and ordering everyone around. When my older half-brothers and sister are with us, I become this anonymous, quiet middle child. Everyone finds it very amusing. We’ve only recently got to know Matthieu, our French half-brother. He’s 41 and has three beautiful children. None of us — including Dad — knew about him until he rang and asked to speak to Peter; he thought he was probably Peter’s son. Dad said: “Okay, come over and have a DNA test.” He looks so unbelievably like Dad — even more than I do. Mum saw him and said: “Why bother having the test?”

I’m thrilled to have him as a brother. Like Dad, Matthieu is married to a Canadian. Like me, he’s a military historian. He’s similar to both of us, so it’s an incredibly interesting relationship. Discovering Matthieu has been absolutely wonderful — nothing but joy. Dad was 40 when I was born. And he was by far and away the best dad of all my friends’ fathers — so interesting and busy. I never watched him on television. Newsnight was too boring and too late, but Spitting Image was fun. We didn’t see him during the week but I never felt I didn’t have enough of Dad. When he was home at weekends it was always quality time. He’d tire us out hiking, sailing, going to galleries… Some of my best memories are of rampaging with Dad through museums. Once I started having my own social life and getting involved in playing rugby and sports at school, I wasn’t always available at weekends. Dad got quite upset.

He’s very active, but not sporty — we didn’t kick footballs around. And he wasn’t good at pop culture. Instead he introduced me to history books. I was a big child. On my 11th birthday, I was already 6ft. It must have looked a bit weird, sitting on the sofa with Dad reading aloud about ancient Greek writers, but we loved doing that. Mum’s much cooler — she read fiction with me.

On family holidays, we always made videos, with each of us talking to camera. In Rome, Dad would put a microphone in front of Kate, shout “Action!” and she’d say: “This is Kate in Vatican Square. The Pope lives here.” Dad loves holiday memories. Unlike me, he’s quite obsessional and keeps amazing scrapbooks of just about everything — ticket stubs, bills, letters, Christmas cards…

My father was the original feminist. He didn’t treat my sisters differently from his sons. He may sometimes look like an old Edwardian colonel but he’s bizarrely modern in his approach — especially when we’re sailing with my sisters. He’ll shout, “Whose turn is it to pull up the mainsail?” and expect them to get on with it. I sailed across the Atlantic with Dad, Katie and one of my Canadian cousins. It was great fun. Dad was the captain, I was first mate, but we were a tight-knit team with responsibilities.

Dad never once expressed an opinion about what any of his kids should do. He never inquired about what GCSEs or A-levels I was doing. As long as I was trying, he didn’t mind what I studied, because he knew he could trust me. I wanted to go to Oxford to row. Dad kept telling me to go to Cambridge — he thought the architecture was better there. But my history teacher encouraged me to go to Oxford. On Balliol open day, I knew that’s where I wanted to be. It was Dad’s old college — relaxed and left-wing. He was so against my going there, insisting: “We’re not one of those families who say, ‘I was at Balliol, so my son will go there.’” But
I loved what I’d seen and I made my own decision.

I used to dream of marrying a Cuban salsa dancer and living in Hawaii, but it won’t happen. I love my close family, our house — where my sister Katie still lives — and my friends too much. Coming from a functional, incredibly happy family means it’s not easy for me to find something to match up to what I’ve had. I don’t understand friends who only see their parents twice a year. And relationships can be hard, especially with girls or friends who haven’t been as lucky as me with their families. I can’t empathise. I don’t feel I have a right to say anything. I struggle with that. But maybe I’m just a rubbish boyfriend.

It was never our plan for Dad and I to work together. I thought about doing a PhD and normal jobs — management consultant or a lawyer. Then somebody at the BBC rang Dad to say he’d seen a video-diary TV film I’d made about the 2000 Oxford-and-Cambridge boat race. Then he asked Dad if he wanted to do a history series with his son. Dad said it was a ridiculous idea, but I talked him round to doing a pilot. I didn’t find the work easy. I was very wooden and I had to go on a steep learning curve. In the process I developed a huge respect for Dad’s ability to explain really complex things in simple language, without ever dumbing anything down.

We’ve travelled the world making the Greatest 20th Century Battles series. There’s no other way I’d have seen a tenth of the places we’ve been to — Stalingrad, Pearl Harbor, Korea, Hawaii and the Middle East. Dad has a problem with heights, but he’s much too intellectually curious and professional to worry about going up in helicopters, and just gets on with it. We sometimes fight and drive each other mad over work. In the Middle East I fell out with him because he refused to drink enough water. He got tired and run down, so I was angry because I could see he was hurting himself. And we bickered about the significance of certain battles — from the Spanish Armada at Gravelines to Israel and Egypt and who won the Yom Kippur war. The production crew would back off
and let us get on with it.

We each wrote half of the book — arguing and making suggestions. He gets stressed about the way I work. If something lands on Dad’s desk — even if it’s not due for six months — he’ll do it there and then. The delivery date for the book was June. By January, Dad’s half was finished. I work much more to deadline. I kept telling him to chill out.
I have no problem sleeping eight hours a night, but Dad’s such a perfectionist, he lies awake worrying. He’s supposed to be retired, but he’s busier than ever. Dad will go on until he drops


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