Sunday, May 22, 2011
World class historian heads from Wellington to Oxford
This weekend's "your weekend" (produced by award-winning local paper Dominion Post) has a very well-written and rather heartwarming story by award-winning journo Tom Fizsimons, headlined WORLD CLASS.
It stems from an interview with James Belich, currently professor of history at Victoria University (with a staff of ten), who has landed the Beit Professorship of Commonwealth at the history department of Oxford University (which has a staff of 100).
"Even though he has just been appointed to one of the world's more prestigious academic jobs, James Belich doesn't exactly look overjoyed," it begins, and launches into a quote from the man himself. "I suppose it's always good to get the top one," Belich confesses. "But, you know, it's going to be quite a shock to the system."
There is the English winter, for a start. And there definitely will be challenges: only seven people have held the chair since if was created in 1905.
The interviewee also reveals a self-deprecating sense of humor. Belich's internationally acclaimed Replenishing the Earth received stunning reviews. "I couldn't have dreamed of better reviews," he says. [Pause for a beat.] "I won't say the sales are causing J.K. Rowling any loss of sleep."
As Fitzsimons goes on to say, Belich is one of New Zealand's most distinguished historians. In 1998 his landmark book, The New Zealand Wars, was made into a terrific TV series, which I had the pleasure of watching again just recently. Jamie Belich, the presenter, was perhaps not as gray 12 years ago as he is now, but the ebulliance and enthusiasm were just as remembered.
I owe a personal debt to James Belich. While I was researching and writing Tupaia, The Remarkable Story of Captain Cook's Polynesian Navigator, he showed an unfailing benign interest, and was always willing to discuss points and answer questions. He certainly has my best wishes for what promises to be a very exciting future.