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Greg Jenner is a British public historian with a particular interest in exploring history through pop culture, film and television. He is the Historical Consultant to all six series of CBBC’s multi-award-winning Horrible Histories, taking sole responsibility for the factual accuracy of over 1,200 sketches and more than 70 comedy songs. Over the past 10 years, Jenner has contributed to a wide range of historical documentaries, dramas, comedies and digital interactive projects for the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5, Discovery USA and History USA. He has written articles for BBC History Magazine, History Revealed Magazine, Britain Magazine, The Radio Times and The Huffington Post. Jenner is the author of A Million Years In A Day: A Curious History of Ordinary Life, From Stone Age To Phone Age – an interesting and fun book that explores the evolution of our daily routines. Jenner was kind enough to set some time aside to talk to TrueStory.bg.
How would you describe yourself?
Greg Jenner: I am a historian with a strong sense of humour. I take the study and communication of history very seriously, because it’s so important, but my career is built on the idea that people learn things more easily when they are relaxed and enjoying themselves. So, I try to use jokes and pop culture references in my writing and lectures, to help people think about history without being bored.
How did you come up with the idea about A Million Years In a Day: A Curious History of Ordinary Life, From Stone Age To Phone Age?
Greg Jenner: I had spent 11 years making historical TV programmes, including 5 years working on a very successful BBC comedy show called Horrible Histories, and I wanted to find a way to share a lot of the facts I had discovered in my research. I decided that I wanted to write a book that would be interesting to everyone, so it seemed a history of ordinary daily life was the best concept for that.
What did you plan to accomplish by writing this book? What was your main goal?
Greg Jenner: I wanted to reach people who don’t usually like history books, perhaps because they think history is boring or irrelevant to their lives? My ambition was to show them that history is fascinating, and that our lives are hugely shaped by the past.
Of all the pieces of information you came across while researching, which one do you find the funniest/weirdest? What about the most shocking?
Greg Jenner: I think the funniest fact was that King Tutankhamun was buried with 145 spare pairs of underwear! That just seemed very strange and very ordinary compared to his famous gold treasures. I was most shocked by how old dentistry is – people were doing dental drilling and putting fillings in their teeth way back in the Stone Age. In fact, so much of my book is surprising, because people in the Stone Age were so similar to us.
In your opinion, why do we, contemporary human beings, tend to see ourselves as super intelligent and our predecessors as very primitive? Are our predecessors really far behind us in terms of intellectual capacity and skills?
Greg Jenner: This is a great question! In the European Renaissance of the 14th-16th centuries, scholars believed that things were getting worse, which is why they tried to revive the classical learning of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Now, however, we tend to believe in an idea of progress, probably because science and technology is constantly innovating. So I think our understanding of the past is confused because we associate modern gadgets with modern intelligence, and therefore past people must have been stupid because they didn’t have gadgets. But our ancestors were just as intelligent as us, and our knowledge is often built on their experiments, some of which were successful and some not. But what I try to show in my book is that every human who has ever existed (and there have been 108 billion people!) had to do the same things to survive: stay warm, keep clean, eat, drink, urinate, defecate, communicate, sleep, learn manners to not offend other people, laugh, joke, dance, sing, get drunk, love their pets! Every society in history has answered those questions differently, but every person has these things in common.
To what extent do we appreciate the amenities we benefit from in our daily lives today?
Greg Jenner: We are incredibly lucky to live in an age of antibiotics. Until the 1940s, millions of people died every year from minor infections. I think being able to read and write is also hugely important to our lives, and electricity and the Internet means that I can talk to you in beautiful Bulgaria all the way from England! It’s a wonderful thing – the speed and range of communication has made the world so much smaller, allowing for much more interaction and sharing of ideas. We also have cars, trains, and planes which can take us to new places very quickly. Only 150 years ago, it used to take 8 months to send a letter and get a reply from Australia – can you imagine that?
Anything interesting I have not asked you or you simply want to tell our readers?
Greg Jenner: I was very lucky to visit Bulgaria in 2006 to make a television documentary about the ancient Thracians – not only is Bulgaria a beautiful country with amazing scenery, but your heritage is truly astonishing. I filmed in various Thracian tombs, witnessed ornate gold and silver rhytons, and learned a huge amount about the great King Seuthes III. But I was also able to see archaeological sites from the much earlier chalcolithic period, and that was a real honour for me – in fact, I am one of only a few people in Britain with knowledge of ancient Bulgaria and I am very proud of that!
Main photo: Greg Jenner. By James Gifford-Meed/Gregjenner.com