Richard Cohen is a former publishing director of Hutchinson and Hodder & Stoughton. He is the author of By the Sword: a history of Gladiators, Musketeers, Samurai, Swashbucklers and Olympic Champions, has written for the Times, the Guardian, the Independent and most other leading London newspapers, and has appeared on BBC radio and television. He lives in New York City. His more recent book is Chasing the Sun.
— a question I used to ask when I was at school, which in fact I managed to get through without taking a single class in chemistry, biology, botany or zoology. I did have one year of physics, at the end of which I got 83% in the exam. My teacher, a Mr Richards, look at me suspiciously and said, ‘You were lucky. But from now on you won’t have to do any more physics. Putting you in for O level would be a waste of time.’ But eight years ago I became suddenly aware of an overwhelmingly gap in what I knew, and in writing about the Sun have had to teach myself something of physics, chemistry, biology, astronomy, cosmology, oceanography, geography, ecology…. Truth to tell, it was great fun. And I don’t ask ‘Why science?’ now.
Why this book?
Because a comprehensive study of the Sun, with all the science but also examining the star’s impact in literature, music, art, architecture, myth – even in modern politics – had never been covered in a single volume. People tend to specialize, and a trip to the New York Public Library revealed that there were nearly 6000 books about the Sun – but none was the one that I wanted to read. Luckily, I’ve been fortunate to have been given advice by a daunting number of specialist experts, and now at least there exists the book that I coveted. I also received a grant from the Sloan Foundation, which changed the range of what I was able to cover, enabling me to travel to more than 20 countries asking questions about the Sun.
I like looking at large themes that range across centuries and cut across cultures. My next book is titled ‘The History of Historians,’ and will probe into the major works of history – worldwide – written over man’s time on Earth, and what influenced their authors, from their love lives to their rivalries to their health or the cultural conditions of the day. I start with Herodotus and end with modern TV historians. Already the research is fascinating.
What’s exciting you at the moment?
I teach creative writing at the University of Kingston Upon Thames, which I greatly enjoy, and which has prompted me to start a book about how to write. I’ve also just returned from the Commonwealth Fencing Championships in Melbourne (held every four years, like the main Commonwealth Games that just ended in New Delhi, but no longer part of the main games, sadly). I represented Northern Ireland at sabre, while my 23-year-old daughter Mary fenced for England at epee. She almost got a medal, while I came 12th (but then I am 63). For the two of us to be in the same championships was a special thrill. Being on holiday in Australia was pretty cool too. Plenty of sun, only this time I wasn’t writing about it.