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Patrick Dillon

As a child

I was born in London and I’ve always loved London. There are so many people to see there, and you know every one of them has a story. I still live in London now, with my wife and two children (and a cat). We live near the river. Each day, crossing it is different because the river’s always moving up and down with the tide. It’s like something breathing in the heart of the city. The river has changed a lot since I was a child. Then it was dirty, and there were no boats, and all the docks were abandoned. Now the river’s full of life, there are boats going up and down, and the river walk’s crowded with people. As a child I loved going to the middle of town to see the shops, and then going to Hyde Park and feeling as if I was in the country. I had a toy boat called Endeavour that I sailed on the Round Pond. Each time I let it go I’d watch it sail off and wonder if it would ever get to the other side. As I grew up I started to work out how London fitted together – how to get from Oxford Street to Trafalgar Square, which bit was the City, with St Paul’s in it, and how the river curved through everything. When I was writing The Story of Britain, I sometimes thought that getting to know history is a bit like getting to know a town. You understand one bit, then another, and then you see how they all fit together. I didn’t spend all my childhood in London, though. My family loved boats and sailing. My father had been in the navy once. His father was a captain, and his grandfather was an admiral. Meanwhile my mother’s family, who were Scottish, had boats on the Firth of Forth. So I grew up reading Swallows and Amazons, and Captain Hornblower, and all the sea stories I could find. We spent our holidays sailing dinghies on the Norfolk broads. We had a red dinghy called Tyrian and a white one called March Hare. Later my father wanted to go to sea so we moved to Suffolk, near the coast. I remember sailing to Holland at night, and being all alone in the darkness, with nothing but waves around us and the stars overhead, and sometimes, in the distance, the lights of a steamer. Today we have a boat of our own, and I sail across the North Sea with my own children, and it’s still just as magical as ever.

As an adult

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t write stories. My first books were thrillers for grown-ups. One was called Truth, and the other Lies, but I couldn’t think of a name for the third so I stopped. Anyway, by then I knew I wanted to write about history. My first history book was about London at a time when there was so much crime and chaos that the whole city nearly came apart. There was a craze for drinking gin. The government tried to stop it by banning gin but it didn’t work – people just started making their own and selling it secretly. They couldn’t talk about gin so they called it ‘Madam Geneva’, and my book was called The Much-Lamented Death of Madam Geneva. It’s the longest name I’ve ever given a book. I was so fascinated by why London had ended up like that that I started studying what happened immediately beforehand. There’d been a revolution when the King was driven off his throne and a Dutchman called William of Orange became king instead. Parliament started meeting regularly and lots of other changes took place. It was the last time we really had a revolution like that so I called my book The Last Revolution. I love writing history books for grown-ups. I love researching in libraries, finding old documents and reading letters written by people hundreds of years ago (to be a historian you have to be very nosy). But I wanted the next book I wrote to be for children. When my children were very small I started telling them stories. We go to France on holiday and from the house where we stay we can see a castle. We went for walks in the forests and I told them stories about the castle – about how they tricked the wicked Duke who lived there, and sometimes about how he tricked them. One day my son noticed the stone of the castle was stained pink and asked why. I knew stone goes pink in a fire, so I told them the story of the war between the French and the English, and how an English army attacked the castle and burnt it down. That was a true story, and whenever we visited places after that, I’d tell my children what happened there. We went to Versailles and I told them about the French revolution. We went to the Tower of London and I told them about Henry VIII who had six wives and killed two of them. I decided to take all the stories I knew from history and put them together in a book. And then I realised that all the stories fitted together to make one big story, and that was what I called the book – The Story of Britain. I don’t spend all my time writing. I’ve always loved buildings as well as books. As I grew up I could never decide whether to be a writer or an architect, so in the end I did both. As an architect I’ve designed houses, a theatre, a museum and a concert hall, and at the moment I’m working at the National Theatre in London. I’ve decided that my next book’s going to be about buildings, so I can put together the two things I love best – designing buildings and telling stories.

Ten things you didn't know about Patrick Dillon>

  1. I play the guitar very badly. When I’m playing my whole family has to go to the top of the house and stuff handkerchiefs in their ears.
  2. My first pet was a budgerigar called Felix. I was terrified of him. I don’t know what he thought about me.
  3. When I’d finished college I lived in Rome for a year. I taught English and my students called me Mr Patrick.
  4. I love cooking but I’m no good at cakes.
  5. Once, my wife and I went holiday in a car that wouldn’t start. Every night we’d park it at the top of a multi-storey car park, and in the morning we’d roll down the ramps until it started.
  6. I love Greece. Last summer we were in Greece, and a friend of mine took me to a monastery and showed me the skull of his great-grandfather.
  7. A long time ago I taught Latin in Australia. I taught netball as well but I didn’t know the rules, so the kids had to teach me first, then I could teach them back.
  8. My favourite place is in a boat, in the middle of the North Sea, with my family.
  9. I don’t draw very well, but I love drawing things, particularly buildings, because it makes you look at them much more carefully.
  10. When I was very small I got stuck in a bathroom because the lock jammed. Firemen brought a ladder and rescued me through the window.

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