Reviews & Endorsements
This is a fascinating memoir of a great polymath. Daniel displays a vast range of interests, as both a historian and music enthusiast. A noted producer at the BBC, he has subsequently led tours and given numerous lectures on cultural topics. His warmth and humanity shine through.
Daniel Snowman’s latest book grips one from the outset and moves with great momentum. The fluent flowing style keeps the attention riveted and his wit is engaging – all of which make this well-illustrated book so readable and enjoyable.
Just passing through? Never! Daniel (Snowman) stops, admires the scenery, interprets the high notes and the low, and we all pass on the better for it.
Daniel Snowman’s well-lived life – as broadcaster, historian, singer, lecturer, opera-buff – has taken him around the world and brought him in contact with many of the cultural and political greats of the modern world. His warmly empathetic, intelligent and open-minded personality informs every page of this insightful and civilised memoir.
Daniel says somewhere that he doesn’t want to judge people. And he doesn’t. He writes candidly about his orthodox Jewish background, the benefits brought by German refugees, the evils of McCarthyism, the racism of the American South. He has been everywhere. As a musician and broadcaster, he has interviewed politicians like Crossman, luminaries like Barbirolli, and befriended singers like Domingo. He has even calmly discussed ‘the bomb’ with Harry Truman. He is a writer, producer, performer, historian and human being all in one and this book deserves to be read widely.
This is a truly delightful and fascinating memoir. Having known Daniel from school and Cambridge, I have always followed his later life with particular interest, and thus took personal pleasure in reading this account of his professional career.
What a polymath Daniel has proved himself to be. He describes in a frank and entertaining way his enormous range of interests and knowledge, particularly as a historian and music enthusiast. He demonstrates with many engaging anecdotes how he has proved himself a committed educator and communicator through his time at the BBC and subsequently leading cultural tours and giving and arranging lectures. He even reproduces a couple of poems to mark his farewell parties at the BBC and the London Philharmonic Choir (where he had been a member for forty years).
I believe the title of his book does something of a disservice to the variety of Daniel’s achievements. The range of his previously published books attests to the fact that he has achieved far more than “just passing through” in his interactions with the world. He has thrown himself whole-heartedly into everything he has done and written. When he submitted the manuscript of his first book, his publisher told him that he couldn’t possibly be a serious academic but was obviously suited to the BBC, where he was about to begin life as a radio producer. The reason? Academics never produce books on time, whereas at the BBC programmes have to be done on time.
The book ends with some uneasy reflections on the current condition of our post-Brexit, pandemic-riven, politically correct world. The essence of these valedictory thoughts may best be summed up in his quotation from the French historian Marc Bloch, who was murdered by the Nazis: “Misunderstanding of the present is the inevitable consequence of ignorance of the past.” Daniel regrets the widespread selective ignorance of the past that has informed so many of today’s political errors. (I write this on the day British troops have completed their ignominious departure from Afghanistan–following in the footsteps of so many previous armies sent to that unfortunate country.)
On the final page Daniel has produced a semi-light-hearted obituary of himself. It ends with the words, “He knew he had had a good innings.” The nature of that innings is apparent throughout this memoir of a man who has made humanity his subject and gave all he had to helping others to understand what it means to be human.
I have known Daniel over 70 years, but had no idea what a rich and full life he has led. I found it so impressive how he has managed to combine his two loves, history and music, largely through his world-wide travels and research, and his fascinating interviews (about some of which I would have liked to have learned more!). The book is beautifully presented, easy to read and well illustrated. I particularly appreciated the shortish chapters.
I would happily award Daniel the alpha star he apparently always wanted!
A masterpiece by a profound thinker: wonder and wisdom, grace and beauty, sprinkled with the human condition, dazzle the senses.
An appreciation: “Just Passing Through, Interaction with the World 1958-2021” by Daniel Snowman.
Daniel Snowman’s latest book, about his contacts and his life, grips one from the outset and moves with great momentum, never dwelling too long on anything. So it should: the author, who sees himself as first and foremost as a highly respected historian, spent around forty years as a programme designer, creator and presenter with the BBC, where, in its heyday, and endowed with the Corporation’s magic purse, he could travel the world, wine and dine, and use his imagination to his heart’s content, and indulge his passion for music, opera and choral music in particular.
The BBC visiting card enabled him to meet whoever he wanted to, from the Arctic and Antarctic to the East and West, from Bangladesh to Cuba, and he seems never to have failed to take advantage of the opportunity. For him, there are no boundaries, and shyness and reticence do not feature in his DNA.
The interviewer’s role is to illuminate those he interviews rather than himself, but Daniel never allows the spotlight on himself to become too pallid or dim, although here it only weakly illuminates his own engaging and vibrant personality.
Precocious as a child, he set off through life as a meteor moving tangentially near stars. Perhaps a more appropriate simile however would be like a bee who buzzes relentlessly from one flower to another, with a strong emphasis on musical flowers, if there are such things. The title of the book is well chosen. There is never a moment of idleness, indeed his fluency is breathless, his wit engaging, all of which make the well-illustrated book so readable and enjoyable.
Born into a North London Jewish family of distinction, he started life with a double first at Cambridge where he immediately got involved in the Cambridge University European Group and the Music Society. This set him up and led to a host of contacts. “Ask and it shall be delivered to you…” Has anything ever stopped Daniel asking for an interview with, say, President Truman, or De Valera. Or merely asking Vaughan Williams for his autograph. They all somehow found time for Daniel, and he was to be found among activists on Civil Rights, Vietnam, Europe, on it goes.
He came a cropper at Cornell where the academics interviewing him for progress to a higher degree seemed upsettingly interested in their own minutiae and squabbles rather than in Daniel. But a quick rebound and contact with Asa Briggs found him instead at the new University of Sussex. There, as at Cornell, he taught material which he had mugged up an alarmingly short time before he presented it to his pupils, and he could develop his enthusiasm for cross-learning between disciplines. His technique stood him in good stead when he moved to his permanent job with the BBC.
He had time for his opera and cricket. And the London Philharmonic Choir of which he became chairman, characteristically shortly after joining it. Each of his activities, as with contacts, fed off the other, so we find him meeting and interviewing a veritable phonebook of celebrities north, south east and west. Lord Snowdon and the Pope. But many are musical, Menuhin, Boult, Barbarolli, Haitink, Davis, Rattle, Barenboim and Du Pre, the Amadeus, Winifred Wagner, among others. He even interviewed someone who took musical dictation when in communication with Liszt, Brahms, and the like.
Do they remember him? Did he get to know them? From the early interview of De Valera by the Cambridge student, it would seem that he had little inkling of how bitterly contentious this man was in his own country. And there is often a feeling that as Daniel rushed from one flower to another, he was skimming the top, rather than delving deep, a characteristic caustically observed by Placido Domingo’s wife. And even by himself when he acknowledges “while supposedly expert, I frankly did not at the time know anything like enough”. Of course, this is a feature unavoidable in tv and radio programmes, particularly on history, generally.
The fluent flowing style keeps the attention riveted until shortly before the final pages when his retirement activities, lecturing and going on tours, come to the fore. By now, Daniel was back in north London, and the final pages present strongly-held views on current affairs. These seem to have a distinct flavour of North London, which undoubtedly constitutes a fertile market.
It is Daniel’s own life that one admires as he relaxes among the flowers in his garden, and at last thinks of his own family who, apart from in his youth, and despite his occasional eye for the girls, do not seem to feature greatly among the flowers. This is a most enjoyable book about a phenomenon, who like the bee and the flower will die and wither away, like us all. Meanwhile it provides an excellent Christmas present. His index will also provide a comprehensive list of those who surely will want it to read.