The library shelves of our universities hold miles of worthy books, some of them brilliant, containing the fruit of their authors' lifetimes of patient research and source expertise.
But how can people who lead busy lives devote the time needed to learn from this vast body of material?
That's where I believe I can help.
And where can interested and intelligent individuals easily gain access to serious historical material of a high intellectual standard, of solid evidential grounding, that is not sensationalised, dumbed-down, or inflated up with machismo?
I suggest that you can find such a rarity here.
And how can one find quality material in a technical format that is easily accessible, and easily absorbed, as we sit with our laptops, watch on a plane, or listen to on our devices as we walk, stand in line or commute?
If you've ever felt the need for factual material that provides rich nourishment for the mind and the soul, I believe you've come to the right place.
I spend a lot of time in university libraries and in studying in my own home library. The amount of reading and note-taking required for each episode is very demanding.
My approach is to concentrate on those period-specialists who have gained high respect in their field for their source-expertise and historical authority. Among these I select a few who impress me by the intelligence of their way of dealing with historical events, with issues of source reliability and with present-day presuppositions about the past.
These I buy or consult in the university, to study closely and take notes from. I read every footnote and citation. I use a whole circle of lesser sources for background, corroboration and quick dives into detail. I very much like to lay my hands on primary sources of the period, with parallel translation if possible, to give the authentic voice of the times, and to check for that all-too-frequent loss by translators of the sense and resonance of the ancient writer's words.
An additional dimension of my approach is that over the years I have taken pains to learn French, German, Italian and some Danish, and about half of the works I study are in these languages. This facility opens up a far richer field of authors than are available in English alone, and gives access to different perspectives on our shared past. For example, an Italian historian of the Middle Ages will have a far deeper knowledge of, and appreciation of the importance of, the city of Constantinople.
I do not regard it as my function merely to summarise the content gleaned from my reading. I endeavour always to weigh, savour and assess what I learn, and to incorporate it into my own thought, to produce an over-arching explanation that satisfies my personal standards of historical verisimilitude and faithfulness to the realities of the time, and to give a balanced view of the long-term significance of what happened. My personal interest is to weave together the work of many period specialists into a whole fabric of coherent, long-perspective, historical explanation.
Audience members should be (and generally are) aware that what I narrate is my own and that I consider it worthy enough of consideration, and that I stand over it. I welcome, of course, any contestation and especially any factual correction that may be perceived as needed.
They say mathematicians do their best work before the age of 25. Historians deal in the opposite type of knowledge – many believe that age and experience are prerequisites for good work. I am now in my early 60s, so maybe I meet one of the criteria.
I was born and grew up in Dublin, Ireland, in a social and political culture that at that time was saturated in Catholicism and Nationalism. At the age of eight, I remember that the first book I took upon myself to learn to read from was 'The Story of Rome', a child's history, as chance, or Fate, would have it.
My father sent me to the Jesuits at a tender age, who had me to mould for ten years. The school taught Latin and Greek to its better students, and was once attended by James Joyce, I am proud to say, whereas the Jesuits weren't. As a teenager I developed a precocious interest in what is called 'high culture', including classical literature and music. My father, though bemused and gently supportive, felt it necessary to warn me against the moral dangers of Wagner. An early independence of mind prompted me at 13 to a rejection both the Catholicism and the Irish nationalism of the society around me. I became and remain a non-believer ... in either creed.
I spent four years as an undergraduate in Trinity College, Dublin, studying Economics & Sociology. I was lucky in my professors of Sociology, who opened our minds to French and German thought on epistemology, or "how do we know what we believe we know?" (Phenomenology). This was a crucial intellectual enrichment. Unfortunately I allowed myself be seduced by one of the more radical strains of the then dominant Leftist youth culture in Europe – Maoism, which spoiled my studies for a time, before I jettisoned it.
My first jobs were at the heart of official Dublin, being an economist advocate for the then-powerful farmers' lobby group, and subsequently being Commercial Secretary at the Danish Embassy.
I threw all this up to 'pursue the Arts' and went to California to do a Master's in English Literature at U.C. Berkeley. It was at Berkeley that I began my life-long scholarly journey among the History stacks of libraries.
Returning to Europe, I lived in Heidelberg, in the then West Germany. Back in Dublin I worked in Trinity College, on European Union reconciliation programmes for the then-raging conflict in Northern Ireland, and in the office of the European Movement, working for the cooperation and the coming together of the European people. In the end, however, I adopted a career in Technical Education in telecommunications software, working in Ireland and the United States. I lived in Cambridge, Mass. in 2001-2, spending all my free time in the book stores and libraries around Harvard.
Years of directed reading eventually forced me, over a decade ago, to take up the act of writing. Fortunately, the technological possibilities have matured to enable me to write, produce and publish independently, thanks to the Internet, to Apple's excellent hardware and applications, and to the workings of Moore's law.
Several reviewers have felt that my early online material betrayed an agenda that was pro-Christian and even pro-Catholic!
There are many professional Christians (in religious colleges and elsewhere), of differing denominations, who have written in appreciation of the series. But it is a mistake to think that I write as a believing Christian.
I write from the position of modern evidential historiography, with no credence given to a supernatural realm or of divine agency. But I also write out of a profound love of European culture and its historical heritage. For well over a thousand years that culture was Christian. I do not reject that historical experience. It is in the past now, but it was glorious, and we cannot escape its still potent influence. I think that to reject the Middle Ages because they were Christian is intellectually shallow and like sawing off the branch one sits on.
My belief, my personal transcendentalism if you will, is a cherishing of the entirety of the European heritage, and by extension of Western culture as a whole, which as the world evolves is under challenge from many sides, both external and internal.
'Europe from its Origins' is the explication in detail of what I mean by that need to cherish.
A different angle of criticism has focused on my account not being in harmony with much of the contemporary thrust towards a narrative of reconciliation between civilisations. I believe that people should unflinchingly be informed about the truth of what once took place. Self-censorship on the grounds of moral benevolence is harmful to understanding. History is about the search for the truth, not about bending it to fit a moralistic project.
I fully acknowledge the civilisational achievements of the islamic world. However there is another side to the matter, which Islam's well-meaning Western interpreters often contrive to obfuscate. Looking back on the detail of what I wrote four years ago about the practices and attitudes of historic Islam, this now reads like a kind of primer for the thinking behind the atrocities currently being committed by millenarianist jihādists in Syria-Iraq, and elsewhere. Such historical knowledge would have been useful to those advising power.
One final remark. I have found that one can explain complicated history but one cannot control how some people will use it. I have noticed a few Facebook 'Likes' from extreme Right-wing individuals, people whose profile shows a brutish mind in the grip of dark, hate-filled fantasies. I abhor such poisonous attitudes and completely disassociate myself from the phenomenon.