The Snow men: a family history

Written by Rachel on March 21st, 2010

From the Guardian:
Historian Dan Snow and his broadcaster father Peter have a joint fascination with politics and the past. But do they also share the same outlook on love? Interviews by Carlene Thomas-Bailey

Father and son enjoying a bike ride in the early 80s.

My dad: by Dan Snow, historian

Dad never made any allowances for anyone. From the age of four he was asking me, “Who do you think should win the next general election?”, just because I happened to be the only person in the room. He always wanted his kids to take part in his life, and share his passions, from a young age.

Dad had a very traditional British upbringing: he never had any physical contact with his dad, he only shook hands with him. But when Dad was bringing my siblings and I up, he was very hands-on. He was not typical of his generation: he didn’t stay out and play golf all the time, he talked to his kids and engaged with them.

This was partly my mum’s influence [the journalist Ann MacMillian]. She is Canadian, so she doesn’t have the typically British sensibilities. She grew up in the 60s, she’s modern, liberal and believes in hugging, so she made Dad do that with us.

While I look and sound like my dad, my personality is just the same as my mum’s. That can confuse people. Dad and I have the same mannerisms, the same way of speaking, shouting, and laughing, but you scratch the surface and I’m my mum.

My dad has six kids by three women, but he settled down with my mum. I’m the oldest of mum’s kids – I have two younger sisters, Rebecca and Kate – so I have this split personality. I’m the oldest son one moment then, when my two half-brothers turn up, I’m the youngest son. It’s quite weird. I feel my personality change a bit as the family group ebbs and flows. I feel myself talking less, becoming a little more introverted.

My oldest brother, Matthieu, entered our lives in the late 90s. My dad had conceived him with a girlfriend before he married his first wife. He never knew he had a child. Matthieu is really successful with a settled family and a flat in Paris. For most of his life, he didn’t know who his father was. When he arrived it was brilliant, not awkward or weird. I’m very close to him. We joke about the fact that, like Dad and I, he has terrible teeth, a big nose, narrow eyes and is fascinated by the past.

I share my father’s love of history, and two years ago we worked on the Twentieth Century Battlefields series for BBC2. We bickered a lot, especially about who was in charge when we were driving or sailing around, but I think that’s just a very male thing. We’ve also stayed up until the early hours of the morning debating whether the English or the wind defeated the Spanish Armada. That said, I really enjoyed watching Dad as we worked. I think he is one of the greatest communicators I’ve ever witnessed. He has this brilliant ability to take a very complicated idea and communicate it fully in about 30 seconds.

When I was younger, I never really went to Dad about girls, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve thought he would have been good at that stuff, listening and giving advice. Like Dad, I would love to have lots of kids; although the appearance of his love child has always made me very careful.

Dan Snow’s book Death or Victory: The Battle of Quebec and the Birth of Empire is published by HarperPress


My son: by Peter Snow

I’ve never worried about Dan, from the day he was born. The moment he appeared he had a look on his face as if to say, “Well, what’s the world got to offer me?” A great big grin came soon after. He always had self-confidence and he is a wonderfully friendly and loving person. He gets on with everyone.

As a child, Dan threw himself into everything he did. When he was five or six, we went sailing. We were crossing the Channel and the boat was bumping around a bit. Dan got seasick over the side of the boat and I was worried that he wouldn’t like sailing after that. But he came back up and said: “This is fun, isn’t it Dad?” That’s been his motto ever since.

Dan’s enthusiasm for sailing carried on throughout his childhood and into adulthood. It’s nice to have a passion we share. The most important thing that I learned from my parents was that they had a lot to pass on and I never felt I was wasting time listening to what they knew and cared about.

I was 17 when I first learned to sail. My father took me to a little harbour in Gibraltar. We took dinghies out to sea and we turned over a few times. He was not all that good at it and I was quite useless, but I did learn the excitement of deciding at what angle to sail to the wind and how far to let the sail out. Before my father died, I tried to get him to buy a boat so the whole family could go out, but he said: “Not on your Nelly.” So I bought one shortly after he died and took Dan and the family out in it.

When Dan finished university he did a yachtmaster course, which he passed with flying colours. Now he can skipper our boat, actually rather better than I can. In fact we get rather competitive on the boat and it’s gotten quite tense once or twice: I try to show him that I’m in charge but he’s usually right.

History is another passion Dan and I share. When Dan was about 12 or 13, he and I travelled around historical sites in Greece, camping at night. Dan was lapping it up: he was at that wonderful age when children hang on your every word, saying, “Yes Dad,” whereas two years later there was more, “No Dad, certainly not.” Although Dan never lost enthusiasm for things we both enjoyed doing.

Even as a teenager, Dan was never standoffish. He wouldn’t sulk around the house saying, “I don’t like parents,” or “Get a life, Dad,” which was a joy to my wife Ann and I. The only time I had to tick him off was when he was 16 and his girlfriend invited him to spend the night. I took him up the stairs, sat him down and said: “I don’t like saying no to you very often, but I think I’m going to have to say no to this one.” And he said: “OK, Dad. Cool.”

Recently we’ve started working together, and I’ve been able to see what a good historian Dan is. He knows so much and he goes into huge depth and detail on historical events. He has a capacious memory, which I often tap into when we are doing the same work. What is also great about him, and where we differ, is that he has judgement in plenty, whether it’s about life or history. I am much more reluctant to commit myself quickly to a clear view – to say if something is right or wrong – so we have some lively discussions. Dan will quickly come up with the answer and will win out simply by insisting that he is right (and he usually is).

Peter Snow is currently working on some history programmes for Radio 4 and writing a book about the Napoleonic War.


1 Comments so far ↓

  1. seja says:

    Both of you are such inspirational people in your own right, warm and kind. It’s great to see real people with intelligent things to say on our tv screens. May you both of you remain a blessing for each other and your audience