Dropped & Bowled by Tom Holland

Tom Holland

Dropped & Bowled

 

As a romantic-minded teenager, it never crossed my mind that publicising a book might be a crucial part of a writer’s career. Wordsworth had wandered lonely as a cloud. The Brontë sisters had published under pseudonyms. Emily Dickinson had made a virtue of never meeting anyone at all. I certainly couldn’t imagine any of them going on local radio to push their latest book.

This naive view persisted even after I had sold my first novel. Sent a form by the publisher’s publicity department, I was bewildered by a question asking me whether I had any famous relatives. I racked my brains. The only person I could think of was Charles Holland, an uncle of my father’s who had been one of the first Englishmen to participate in the Tour de France – so I duly put him down. When a publicist then emailed me in a tone of some excitement to ask whether he would give my novel a quote, I had to confess that he was long dead. Only when, having been packed off on a lengthy train ride to a distant bookshop, I found myself giving a talk on my novel to an audience that briefly peaked at four before subsiding by the end of the event to two did the penny finally drop. I vowed there and then to become a media whore.

*

And so I did. Although writing has always been the supreme focus of my career, I have never done it exclusively. Whenever an opportunity presented itself to boost the profile of my books, I would seize it shamelessly. There were literary festivals, of course, and talks in bookshops and lectures in museums. There was radio and television. A decade ago, I signed up to Twitter. Three years ago, when Covid hit, I joined everyone else by leaping onto Zoom. And then, midway through the pandemic, I embarked on a wholly new project: I started a podcast, The Rest is History.

It has been going for two and a half years now. My friend Dominic Sandbrook, the historian of modern Britain and America who presents the show with me, has always been as red-blooded in his determination to promote his books as I am, so I never doubted that we would make a good team. What neither of us expected, however, was just how prodigiously The Rest is History would come to dominate our lives. When we recorded our first episode, neither of us had ever listened to a podcast. We certainly did not think of ourselves as podcasters. Yet this, in effect, is what we have become. We have now recorded almost 350 episodes. We have had over eighty million downloads. We are taking the podcast on tour to Ireland, the United States and Australia. This represents, to our mingled delight and consternation, a level of success far in excess of anything we have enjoyed as writers.

Naturally, we have used the podcast to promote our books. Since we started The Rest is History, Dominic has brought out a series of children’s histories on subjects ranging from Henry VIII to Cleopatra to the Vikings – and lo and behold, we have done episodes on subjects ranging from Henry VIII to Cleopatra to the Vikings. I have two new books out this year and am quietly confident that listeners of the podcast will not end up unaware of them. Yet the demands of The Rest is History – research,
recording, touring – are increasingly such that neither of us can look on it as a mere sideline. Next week, for instance, we are going to Amsterdam and Paris, there to record episodes on location. This is simultaneously a dream come true (who wouldn’t want an excuse to tour 17th-century canals, or sit in cafes on the Rive Gauche?), and a commitment not conducive to literary endeavour. How to balance writing and podcasting is a challenge with which both of us are having to wrestle.

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This summer, when not writing or recording podcasts, I will be playing cricket. I am now fifty-four – older even than Jimmy Anderson, England’s veteran but evergreen fast bowler. Fortunately, unlike Anderson or other international players, I do not need to worry about any decline in my sporting ability. This is because I never had any in the first place. Although, by dint of sheer effort, I did manage to haul myself up from uselessness to serviceable mediocrity as a bowler, for a long time my complete lack of ability at batting made it unimaginable that I would ever get into quality teams.

A decade ago, though, all that changed. Two writers with a keen interest in cricket history, Charlie Campbell and Nicholas Hogg, began to wonder what had happened to one of the most famous of English amateur teams, the Authors XI. Founded in the early 20th century, the Authors XI featured some of the most celebrated writers of the day. Arthur Conan Doyle opened the batting with P G Wodehouse. A A Milne took a series of blinding catches and J M Barrie dropped a sequence of sitters. The team played regular fixtures at Lord’s against teams made up of actors, publishers and jockeys. But then the First World War intervened and something of its glory was diminished. Although the Authors XI was still playing as late as the 1950s, the team ended up folding. But why, asked Campbell and Hogg, shouldn’t the Authors XI take the field again?

And so it did. As in the Edwardian age, so now: the Authors XI is flourishing. Ultimately, the surest measure of success in amateur cricket is not how many matches are won or lost, how many centuries are scored or how many five-wicket hauls are taken, but how much teammates enjoy playing with one another. By that measure more than any other, the restoration to life of the Authors XI has been a stunning success. Playing alongside me in the Authors XI is an astonishing array of writers: novelists and poets, historians and nature writers. I have fielded in the slips next to Sebastian Faulks, who has just been elevated to the presidency of the team; I’ve batted with Peter Frankopan, whose new history of humanity’s relationship to the climate has been kept off the top of the bestseller list only by a book about air fryers; I’ve bowled in tandem with Shehan Karunatilaka, winner of the 2022 Booker Prize, whose Chinaman is probably the greatest novel about cricket ever written. Writing is often a lonely business, and authors rarely have the chance to meet one another, outside of literary festivals and launch parties. Cricket – as the Edwardians well understood – constitutes a glorious exception.

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