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BBC Science Music, Radio podcasts. Hello, I'm Lauren Laverne, and this is the Desert Island Discs podcast. Every week I ask my guests to choose the eight tracks book and luxury they'd want to take with them if they were castaway to a desert island. And for right reasons, the music is shorter than the original broadcast. I hope you enjoy listening. My castaway this week is the historian and broadcaster David on a Sugar, he's a familiar presence on the small screen these days, presenting hit series like A House Through Time Civilizations and Black and British A Forgotten History.


Although his work in broadcasting began behind the camera, he was in his mid 20s when, in his words, he ran away from academia to join the television circus. Perhaps it was inevitable it was television that ignited his passion for history in the first place. He was a teenager in his bedroom and a gate said council house when one night in 1986, his mother persuaded him to watch a BBC two documentary artists and models. It was an epiphany that promised what he's called a World Beyond My Circumstances.


Just two years earlier, he and his family had been forced out of their home by a sustained campaign of violent attacks by members of the National Front. Unlocking his own history as a self-described Geordie Nigerian was an important first step. Now, as professor of public history at Manchester University, the discipline is still about making the past personal. He says the public historians job is to be the piece of circuitry that links the academic world as the engine room of history and public history, which I think is the showroom people like myself.


Are the mannequins trying to make this stuff look good. David Sugar, welcome to Desert Island Discs. Thank you very much.


So you're the mannequin then, trying to make this stuff look good. What's your starting point when you're trying to engage the public?


I think there's a really simple rule with me in history, which is that if as a presenter or as a writer of history, if you don't really care about these people, then I think you've got no business expecting a reader or the audience of a TV program to care. You have to really want to meet these people. We can't talk to the dead, but we can listen to them and we can try to feel something of what they felt. So to me, it is all America sometimes call it method presenting.


It is about caring. I really, really want to know about these people. I visit the graves of people who are making programs about because I need to in some way transport myself and not just think about what they said and what they did, but what it meant to them emotionally.


I've got a quote from David. History for me is all about those shiver down the spine moments. I wonder if you had a couple of favourite examples that you could share with us.


Well, I spent a lot of time making programmes. I've written a book about the First World War, and there are places on the Western Front where if you can't feel the presence of a generation of doomed youth, then I think there's something wrong with you. There's fields where you can see fragments of metal. And if you think for a second what that metal did or might have done and you can't connect with the horror of what happened in Flanders a century ago, then maybe history is not for you.


We think of documents and archives as boring places where boring people do boring stuff. Well, actually, if you really understand the story and the people behind a document, there's nothing like opening a document and seeing the signatures and seeing the names of people who again, would just as real as we are, just as actual as well. And those documents very often are the turning points the corner turns in their lives. Did they lived there, died? Did their child, lived their child die?


Were they ruined or did they become wealthy? That spin of the dial moment with a document can be immensely powerful.


Let's get started then. Tell me about this. Number one, this is a track called Zombie by the Nigerian musician Fela Kuti. It is the track that I play in and the car or my headphones. When I landed in Lagos, I'm half Nigerian of my family. Some of my brothers and sisters live in Lagos. And this track is a way of sort of slapping myself awake and realizing that I'm in this megacity. This is the sound of Lagos, the Lagos Street.


So de de de de de de la la la la la la la la la la la la la la la la la la la. Fela Kuti and zombie taking you to Lagos. David on Sugar. So tell me about your parents then. How did they meet?


So my parents met in Newcastle in the 1960s. My father was from a town called Everybody in Nigeria and he'd come to go to university in Britain. He was at Newcastle University and he met my mom and they spent a bit of time living in the Northeast and then they lived in Leeds and then they went to Nigeria, where my older sister, myself, upon your parents, separated when you were very young and your mother brought you and your sister to the UK, to Gateshead, where she was from and an.


I know that your mother was and remains a very strong presence in your life, you've said of her. She made me who I am.


How did she do it entirely? I'm a product of my mother's tenacity in getting her children educated with very little in the way of resources, tenacity, of forcing my schools. I mean, I am educated despite not because of my skills. I'm educated because of my mother, because I have dyslexia and very serious problems at school. And they were recognized, eventually diagnosed and eventually treated because of the tenacity of my mother. So even even with my learning difficulties still, you know, encouraged me to believe that I could go to university, encouraged me to believe that the world of the mind, the world of art, the world of history was something that I could aspire to be part of, to feel an interest in.


So that was the familial micro culture that I think you've spoken about. Tell me a little bit more about that. What was in it?


It was books, books, newspapers and television programs. My mother made sure that we had newspapers in the house. She would buy The Observer and the Sunday Times every Sunday, and we were encouraged to read the newspapers. So the idea that the news was of relevance to me, whether I really wanted it to be or not, was there from my childhood.


You were very close to your grandparents, to your mom's parents. What role did they play in your life?


My mother was working to look after her children, so we spent a lot of time with my grandparents. My grandfather played violin and he was a very literate man. He read lots. He'd encouraged his daughters who'd gone to grammar schools and had very good educations. You know, it's very easy to be sentimental, and I'm afraid sentimentality is, you might agree, a feature of people from the Northeast. We are terribly sentimental people, but I can't not feel sentimental about my grandparents and that generation of working class Geordie's who really struggled, who struggle through poverty, struggle through the war, and who were just remarkably tough and humane and beautiful people.


And I miss my grandparents terribly. There's a picture that one of my siblings sent of me recently of my my grandfather carrying me on a beach. I think it's probably colored coats or maybe Tynemouth. And it could be could be from the 1950s. He sort of got Brylcreem on his hair and he's wearing a suit and he's carrying this little mixed race boy. And it's a beautiful picture because it just reminds me just how much they supported their daughter and cared for their grandchildren in a time when there was so much racial hostility.


Time for desk number two today. David, what are we going to hear and why are you taking this to the island with you?


I really love music. Everyone says that, obviously, but it's played a real role in my life. But it's also fused with my love of history. And this is a song that was recorded in New York and in nineteen thirty nine. And it's by a woman called and Molly Jackson and Molly Jackson was this sort of remarkable political figure, a sort of union organizer and also this collector of folk songs. And she just sings about tragedy, about the music from her childhood.


She was born in Kentucky, the music of poor white working class people in the in the 19th and 20th centuries. And it's a it's a field recording. I've never played this song to anybody who didn't instantly recognize. It's just absolutely innate beauty I.


Looked at the stomach and the stomach. Oh, I looked at my mom and she said, Oh, go, oh. You look for me and I'll be gone by. Roland Buddy and Molly Jackson, David Alan Sugar, I know that as a historian, it's important to you to confront uncomfortable truths and to tell the truth about difficult aspects of your own life, too. And that includes the appalling racism that you experienced as a child. How common a feature of daily life was it for you when you were growing up?


This was just the background hum of life. And in some ways, the most frightening thing about it is we got used to it. I did martial arts and there's a reason why, you know, black guys my age did martial arts excuse me, living in a violent situation. I mean, school was violent, but as a teacher who had a mug that had a Union Jack and a slogan that I later discovered was one of the national front slogans on it, there was a teacher who assaulted me when we were on a camping trip.


And I did watch children who are frightened do. I hid it from my mom. I didn't confront it. I didn't confront him. I internalized the idea that this is the way the society around around me was going to treat me and people like me.


And in your early teens, you were and your family were actually driven out of your home by members of the National Front, which must have been horrific. What happened?


We were living in a house that was opposite a cemetery, and one night bricks were thrown through the windows and on the bricks were strapped to the bricks, were notes with racist insults and demanding that we we went home and eventually we had no choice. We were under attack. We had no choice but to leave, and we were rushed to a new house. I think it says something quite remarkable about the power of the idea of race, because these these guys were probably not much older than me and my siblings.


They went to the same shops and the same cinemas that supported the same football team. And they decided that the right thing to do was to get up in the middle of the night and throw bricks through the glass windows of bedrooms in which children were sleeping.


It must have been such a difficult time for all of you. Were you able to find moment of escape and happiness and normality during that period?


Well, I'm from a big family with lots of brothers and sisters, and we left and we had a wonderful time and we had some bad experiences. But, you know, I had a wonderful childhood in lots of ways.


You also experienced some small acts of human kindness at school. I think one of them came from a future England football star. Tell me about that.


My older sister, Yanka, was three years ahead of me, and in her class was Paul Gascoigne. I have one memory of Paul, one strong memory, which is of lying on my back, having been pushed over and hit in the playground. And this kid with light coloured hair and very bright blue eyes leaned over. He was beside my sister and he gave me his hand and he pulled me up. He must have been maybe nine. I must have been maybe six or seven, something like that.


Now, he was one of the kind of tough kids. You won't be surprised to learn somebody. It didn't really wasn't really in his interest to be looking after these this couple of black kids. And I'm very grateful for that.


Time for desk number three. David, what's it going to be and why have you chosen it?


When I was I was growing up, we lived opposite the library and that labor was also a music library, record library. And so I was able to get out, you know, next to nothing, all of these records. And that's when I discovered the music of African-Americans and blues music. And one of the first musicians that I I fell deeply in love with was was Bessie Smith. There's a very obscure song called Black Mountain Blues. It's lyrical.


It tells a story of this place called Black Mountain. It's incredibly tough town where the people are.


These kind of these rugged individualists. It's just it's it's hysterically funny.


Back in Black Mountain. Yeah. Magubane that Black Mountain. Yeah. Magubane maybe grandpa makeup and all the bad things in Black Mountain.


People are buried.


They can be Bessie Smith and Black Mountain Blues. David, I'll show you said that all through your schooling your teachers had low expectations of you, but somewhere along the line you discovered a passion for history. How did it happen?


Well, I had one great teacher in my school and I had other great teachers on television, so I had a teacher called Mr Fox. I'm still in in touch with Guy Falkiner, who was the only teacher I have any affection for in my early schooling, and he was a history teacher and he made this subject matter to me. And I think because he made it interesting, because he made it matter. I started watching history on television, encouraged by my mom.


And there, you know, there was this incredible way. Of delivering history, and there was also one of the coolest historians there's ever been, which is Michael Worked, who was the sort of incredibly windswept and fascinating figure who would sort of get in helicopters and fly around the country and he would decipher the landscape and he would take a document in his hands, in his programs and suddenly convince you that this document was the key to understanding the world in an entirely new way.


I know that your mom was fond of leaving a copy of the Radio Times out with things ringing for you to watch. Tell me about that documentary then. Artists and models. It was an epiphany. Yeah. Why?


It was three films about artists around the The French Revolution and the neoclassical Art of Sharkawi DVDs, the incredible epic paintings of Taedong. They were just suddenly these things that I'm at it and I could go to the library opposite my house and I could get books out about art and go on this journey. And then when I was in my late teens, as kids did, then I went into railing and me and my best friend, you know, we went to the Louvre and I went and stood in front of these paintings whose existence had been brought to my attention by this documentary one night on BBC two.


And at what point did you realize that this was the place that you were going to find the answers about your own past, your own family history?


I went into history because I thought it was interesting and that there were good stories. I didn't go into history thinking that there would be any answers to what it meant to be a black person in Britain in the 70s and 80s, what black and Britishness meant, what my identity meant. And then when I was 16, I bought a book called Staying Power, which was the first encyclopedic book on the black presence in Britain by a brilliant journalist called Peter Frier and suddenly discovered that there was this whole back story to being black and British.


Because I was three things. I was Nigerian and I understood that and I understood my father's family and where they'd come from. And I understood my mother's white working class family and what they'd been through and who they were. But I was a third thing and I'm a third thing. I'm black and British and that had no back story when I was growing up. It was not something that was even tolerated or accepted as an identity. And suddenly to have this book of almost a thousand pages that went back to the third century and laid out this incredible narrative of which I was and am part, that was the greatest intellectual gift I could have been given.


It's time for your fourth disc. David, what are we going to hear next and why? I was working in a record shop in my teens, and when it was your turn, you could put on records you'd never heard before. And one day we put on a record called Best Dressed Chicken in Town by Dr Aliment Adu. And I think it's testimony to how versatile reggae is because it's in this song. Doctor Dr the Muntadhar is complaining about retail price inflation in the mid 70s, Jamaica, and it's it's just hysterically funny.


The baby, by your phone of means, the Notre Dame, you gonna buy it for 15, the shopkeepers say no. For me, that would be what are gonna do today. I'm gonna go cause I got my family with me and we then charge it to every man that would say, you got no open, no one.


Just the other day by Dr. Amontillado, David Alan Sugar, you studied history at university and then took a masters degree in journalism and you began making radio and television documentaries for the BBC. What were you hoping that audiences would take away from the programs that you were making?


Well, I found myself, I think, quite fortunate position, because all of the stuff that I'd been studying, history of the empire, black history with subjects that had never been explored before on television, we made a programme about the Indian indentured labor system, the form of unfree labor that was used to replace enslavement in the Caribbean in the 1940s. Amazingly, you know, important in my view, slices of history that just had never been touched before on television.


It was brilliant. Such fun.


You gave the MacTaggart lecture at the Edinburgh Television Festival last year, and you've described it as one of the most difficult and demanding tasks of your career. Why?


I mean, it's a big deal. It's the TV industry's most important annual lecture, and it came in 2020, the Year of Black Lives Matter. And if I was going to do this lecture, I decided I had to be honest about the industry's failings. And I'm afraid there are many failings when it comes to diversity in the television industry. And to be honest, meant being personal because it would have been dishonest to talk about these issues, this historic failure in diversity in the abstract.


I guess I've spent a lot of my career feeling lonely, where I've been the only black person on a team. And I've been trying to explain why a certain line of argument or a certain image for portraying people in certain ways comes with racial baggage, that there is subconscious racial thinking in that the number of times I've made programmes in Africa where there's been a determination to film people dancing rather than people working in offices or people in universities, the number of times that I've been involved in filming sequences about black people and black history, where there's been a determination to put children, black children rather than black adults at centre stage.


And I think that comes from somewhere. I think it comes from the the racial thinking which saturates our society because of our history. And that's not an assault on individuals. It's not a condemnation. These are very often people I very much admire. It's the fact that if you're brought up in Britain and you're black and you are immersed in black history and thinking about race and experiencing race, you see the world differently and you see things that aren't apparent otherwise.


So it was a difficult choice to make. But you made it. How did it feel to do it? Was there a sense of release talking about experiencing isolation and depression during your career the most?


Positive thing about that experience, as well as I think lots of positive reactions by people in the industry who do want change, the most positive experience was that I got lots of emails and letters from black and brown people who had left television because they found it an environment when they couldn't advance or they didn't feel valued, where they felt damaged in some cases. And they wrote to me to say that my experiences are courted with their experiences and that they were glad that I'd said what I'd said.


And that made me feel vindicated in having agreed to do this lecture and talked about myself so candidly and so personally. And it also made me hopeful that my lecture was a small part of what hopefully is a tipping point for the industry that I care about very deeply.


David, it's time to go to the next track. I watched a recent online lecture of yours from your study where I think you are now, and I couldn't help but notice an impressive collection of guitars, blues guitars, I think, in the background. Are they yours? They are, yeah.


They are very much neglected because I'm too busy these days. And even when they're not neglected, they are not played with very much talent, but with lots of enthusiasm. Because when I got into the blues music of of the south of the period before the Second World War, I wanted to play guitar and I wanted to play particularly the sort of fingerpicking blues style, but also slide guitar with a with a glass slide and the bollocked. Yeah. And that's what this is the greatest piece of slide guitar music that has ever been created.


And it's by Blind Willie Johnson.


Oh oh oh oh oh. Love Blind Willie Johnson's Dark was the night, cold was the ground, you've lived in Bristol for over 20 years now, David Alan Sugar.


And you said you felt exhilarated when the statue of the 17th century slave trader Edward Coulston was pulled down and dumped in the harbour last year. What was it about its removal that you applauded?


This is a man who was the deputy governor of the Royal African Company that transported more people into slavery than any in British history who was responsible or complicit in the deaths of, we estimate, around 19000 people. And I think his statue pretended that the only story about him was his philanthropy, which is undoubted. He was a man who gave lots of money to Bristol, but that money came from slavery and that statue that told one side of his story and denied the existence of his victims.


I think that was an appalling, appalling thing to have on public display. It was always something that bothered me about Bristol. And I think Bristol is a better place without it.


There were, of course, so many arguments and views about the events that took place at the time. And there were people who, while not venerating Colston, didn't like to see the destruction of the statue. There were people who felt that it was part of Bristol's history and it should have been left standing to tell Bristol story. What would you say to them?


I think this argument has been falsely generated that this is an attack on history. This is part of history. This is a society reassessing the life of a man who did terrible things and removing a statue in a way that many people found shocking and I wish hadn't happened because I wish it had been removed 20, 30 years ago by the authorities. And it would have been had there not been people in Bristol determined to defend the life of a mass murderer.


And the statue hasn't been destroyed. Of course, it will end up in the museum in Bristol. It'll be on public display. And, of course, there are hundreds of thousands of statues around the world in museums, in the vaults and the storage facilities of museums because we remove statues all the time. All societies throughout history have looked again at the people. And it's always, almost always men in marble and bronze and thought maybe it's worth reassessing whether they should be celebrated time, similar music.


David, what's the story behind this number six?


It's by a woman called Geeshie Wiley that we we know very little about. And that's very often the case with these African-American musicians from the 20s, 30s and 40s. But we do know that in the 1930s, she got in a studio and she recorded a series of songs. And this very biographical song about her relationship with her father is the voice of an African-American woman and the tragedies of her life from almost a century ago. The last word I hear in my.


De they. The last word I hear in my head. If I die. La la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la la la la.


Now last kind words by Geeshie Wiley, David Shoka. You talked in one online lecture recently about the inherent dilemma that faces anyone from a BMI background who studies race slavery and empire of being pigeonholed, only studying subjects that relate to the black experience. How big a dilemma is that and how have you chosen to tackle it?


The big area of history. I was obsessed with as a boy was the Second World War. So I always had this this broader hinterland. But I am also, you know, deeply committed to the history of the Empire. So I'm not in a brilliant position to worry about being pigeonholed myself because I'm genuinely interested in those histories. But on social media, people constantly will attack me as someone who only cares about one form of history. They'll accuse me of not caring about white working class people.


And that's really what has the Times about half my my heritage. There are people who without doing any research, they will make those assumptions. They will imagine that my interest in history comes from a far more politically directed place. So there's no shortage of people who want to pigeonhole me. I've just got too much of a sort of butterfly mind and I'm too many things I'm interested in for that to be something that bothers me because I know that my bigger problem is actually settling down to do one subject at one point rather than sort of constantly trying to develop ideas about something else.


And there in all sorts of different subjects. And I think also knowledge of the past is just enriching of life. I did a master's degree in urban history, and whenever I'm in the back of a taxi or walking around the city, I don't know. I'm trying to read the landscape and try to understand the forces that shaped it. Whenever I'm walking around London, I'm looking up and looking at the edges of the buildings. And, you know, there were parts of London where if you cast your gaze up past the first floor and all of the colourful shops, you know, you see sites that would have been there in the 80s.


I find it massively enriching.


Time for some more music right now, David, it's desk number seven. What's it going to be and why are you taking it with you today?


It's a song called Can't Blame the Youth. It was written by Peter Tosh when he was with the Wailers, the original band that became Bob Marley and the Wailers. And it's a song that shows that the history they've been taught at school, that they descendents of enslaved people, they've been taught a version of British history that was sanitized and they'd seen through it. And they mock the curriculum in a reggae song recorded in 1973. I think that's fantastic.


You got you got you play you you're teaching you still in school and teaching used to learn in school.


So you can't blame you can't blame the youth, Bob Marley and the Wailers.


David, you have a young daughter now. What are your hopes, I wonder, for her future?


I hope that she is somebody whose life is not impeded by her gender or by any racial issues. And above all, I hope that she's happy. She's going to have a very and is having a very different childhood to my own. I'm trying not to imprint upon her things from my childhood. I had a very bad time at school and she loved school. And I feel very defensive about her in school, which is my problem, not hers. She's perfectly happy.


I had an awful time at school. So to me, sending my child to school felt very traumatic. She comes out of school with her face, smiling, lots of friends. It's not a problem. It's it's my hang about my past.


We've talked a lot about your past today. I wonder how you feel about that. You've made peace with it.


I think I have.


I mean, I don't talk about it because I'm still shaped by it. I talk about it because I think there's there's value in discussing it. There's value in talking about experiences from a person as well as from a professional and intellectual perspective. And I talk about it because other people feel these are valid questions to ask for my own experiences. I know it's empowering when other people talk about things that they've been through, that I've also been through. And I feel it's important to be part of that dialogue.


Now, David, I'm about to cast you away to our island. What will be the biggest challenge for you there, do you think?


I'm pretty good at solitude, but I'm very bad at boredom. So I think I'd probably throw myself into building projects for which I have absolutely no skill and aptitude. Yeah, I would come up with plans and projects. I would think back to every story I've ever heard. Never read. About what to do in that situation, every, you know, disaster movie I've ever watched and come up and probably draw the exact wrong conclusions and and set myself to an early grave would be my guess.


Well, it's coming up. Here we go. Get ready for that. Before we send you off there, though, we've got one more disk to go.


What's it going to be? This is a record that I bought when I was a student, and it's Aretha Franklin, the live recording that she did in the early 70s in her father's church. And it's a song called My Precious Lord Take My Hand, which has been spliced with the song You've Got a Friend by James Taylor in a way that is just perfect and seamless.


And it's it is just spectacularly real and raw and honest.


Right at.


I wish I. Precious Lord, take my hand, you've got a friend, Aretha Franklin. So, David, Alan Sugar, I'm going to send you away to the island. I'll be giving you the Bible, the complete works of Shakespeare. And you can take one other book of your choice. What will it be?


Partly because it's enormous. I would take the two volume collection of George Orwell's essays and journalism because I don't really believe in heroes, but George Orwell be the closest I have to a hero.


You can also have a luxury item. What would you like? I'd want Martin. Acoustic guitar. It's yours. And finally, which one of the eight tracks that you've shared with us today would you save from the waves without any hesitation?


That would be dark was the night cold was the ground by Willie Johnson. It's just the most incredible and beautiful and haunting pieces of music.


David Alan Sugar, thank you very much for letting us hear your Desert Island Discs.


Thank you for having me. I hope you enjoyed my conversation with David, and I hope that he has a better time on the island than he's anticipating, surely some of his building projects will work out. We've cast many historians away to our island before, including Sir Simon Schama and Professor Margaret Macmillan and Eric Hobsbawm. You can hear their programs via the Desert Island Discs website. And on BBC Sang's Next Time, my guest will be the author and academic Samantha Power, former American ambassador to the UN in Barack Obama's administration.


I do hope you'll join us.


This is how the pandemic ends, not with a bang, but with a shot or rather billions of shots.


I'm Tim Harford, the presenter of More or Less and 50 Things That Made the Modern Economy. And in a new podcast series from the BBC, we'll be covering the defining story of the crisis, the search for a vaccine.


We look at the cutting edge biotechnology behind these vaccines and the underrated business of fridges and vials and Portakabins that will be essential in a huge public health campaign. And, of course, there are the other questions. Who's going to pay for this? How will we persuade people to take the vaccine? And who gets to go to the front of the queue of several billion people? That's how to vaccinate the world. Available now on BBC Science.