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Routine Has Become History for Niall Ferguson

November 13, 2012


Photo by Dewald Aukema

Article for The Wall Street Journal Europe

The British historian and Harvard University professor talks to The Wall Street Journal Europe about how he starts his weekend.

Best-selling author Niall Ferguson’s travel schedule is out of hand. “I often don’t even know what day it is,” he says, only half mockingly.

When he isn’t shuttling all over the world to give speeches, do research or film documentaries, the financial and economics historian splits his time between Boston and London. His most recent book “High Financier: The Lives and Times of Siegmund Warburg” has been critically acclaimed, and his documentary “Civilization: the West and the Rest” will be released next spring.

A regular television commentator whose debating style, controversial views and telegenic looks have led to his being referred to as the “rock-star historian,” Mr. Ferguson is currently on a year away from Harvard to teach at the London School of Economics and to work on a biography of Henry Kissinger.

Over a glass of wine and nibbles (“I love these things” he says, picking up a handful of nuts and raisins) in a hotel bar in Westminster, Mr. Ferguson confides that, despite divorce proceedings, one reason he returned to London was to see more of his children, aged 11, 15 and 16. “I’m trying to improve—travel less, seem more of my children, have more time to write.” 

How do you unwind?

Music is important to me and I play the double bass, although I have no pretensions to be a good musician. I run in the mornings and often, if I’m filming abroad, I like to go on a run before dinner to explore the local area. Reading is the pleasure that comes most naturally to me. I don’t read much modern fiction because I operate on the principle that there’s a sifting process that happens over time. If something’s still being read from 50 years ago, the chances are its pretty good. I love reading Dickens because I know I’m clearly in the company of a genius.

Do you have a weekend routine?

I don’t have one, so it entirely depends. I spend many of my weekends traveling and a lot of time on planes. When I’m filming a series, I don’t get any time off; we film every day. My favorite weekends are always the ones I spend with my children.

How do you spend your weekends when you’re with your children?

I don’t see them as often as I’d like, so when I am with them, I try to make it fun. My daughter is very artistic, so we go to art exhibitions. I also took her to Lady Gaga in concert, which we both loved. I go shooting with my eldest son—birds, animals, clays. He’s macho in a way I never was. My youngest son likes sports, so we play football, go swimming, surfing and skiing.

What do you do on Friday nights?

My most notorious vice is opera. So if I was in America, I might go to the Met, which is always a treat—even if it meant flying from Boston to New York for a really good opera. In the U.K., I love playing football with my children, having some dinner and then reading “Lucky Luke” with my son.

What’s your ideal weekend?

Going with my children to my friend’s farmhouse in the middle of nowhere in Italy. I don’t know of anywhere more soothing, any landscape more pleasing or any culture more agreeable.

Do you have any special meals?

I’m not one of those people who has to have a Sunday roast or a cooked breakfast. I find it boring. I positively enjoy variety and my philosophy is “when in Rome.” Because of my travel, I’ve eaten some incredible things. Breakfast in Venezuela is amazing. Food is hugely important to me. I’m not a good cook because I’m not patient enough. I loved being cooked for and love eating.

Do you meet up with friends on the weekend?

I’m one of the most antisocial people you’ll ever meet. I’m not at all gregarious and have a real horror of cocktail parties. It’s nice to have dinner with friends on a Saturday evening, but I can’t do many because there’s always an element of performance and I find it hard not to be drawn into playing a role. There’s a very small group of friends with whom I can relax. I do occasionally go to a nice restaurant at the weekend and there’s an amazing Asian-fusion restaurant in New York called Buddakan. I love the food there and the ambience is very New York. I like restaurants; I way prefer them to parties.

– Mr. Ferguson was speaking with Lucy Pawle

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