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by Staff reporter
06 May 2021
Getting to know you: Prof Sir John Curtice

Holyrood

Getting to know you: Prof Sir John Curtice

What’s your earliest memory?

I can’t remember much before going to school. This is taking me back to the 1950s, I can remember being allowed to walk to school on my own at five or six. It wasn’t that far. I don’t think I really remember much before then.

I was born and brought up in Cornwall. My parents lived in St Austell, and the nearest infant school was called Carclaze which was towards the northwest of a relatively modest town in what was at that stage a very peripheral part of England.

What were you like at school?

There was a big difference between the age of five and the age of 19. I varied a great deal during the course of that period in time.

I suppose the only thing I would say is I only really began to enjoy academic work from about fifteen, once we moved from the relative rote learning of the O-level system in England to A-levels, where it’s not just about repeating what other people said, but it’s about thinking for yourself and turning up and learning arguments.

At that point I went ahh, oh right this is much more interesting. 

Were you not a great student before you turned 16?

I’ll simply say my O-level record was modest.

Who would be your dream dinner date?

My wife. Especially at the moment seeing as we haven’t been out to dinner for a very long time. 

What’s your greatest fear?

Inevitably ill health. Particularly ill health that would leave me mentally incapacitated. Once you get to my age, you think about it and worry about it.

Something like dementia is potentially not just horrendous to the people around you, but horrendous to you as well.

So that’s undoubtedly the thing one would look forward to least during older age.

What’s the worst thing that anyone’s ever said to you?

Doubtlessly things would have been said at some point in time but there isn’t anybody out there I am still bearing a lifelong grudge because of something they said. I might get annoyed occasionally but I hopefully move on very fast.

Your profile has increased fairly massively over the last couple of decades...

Yeah, and I take all the jokes and criticism. So far it’s all good fun; I don’t take it seriously. You’re not going to say anything that wounds me. 

What’s your most treasured possession?

My whole life revolves around my laptop. That’s where I write and these days, of course, it’s how I communicate. So my laptop is virtually with me all day every day, and if anybody were ever to do anything to it then I might bear a grudge against them. 

What do you dislike about your appearance?

My hair can be unruly if I’m not able to get to the hairdressers, but, thank God, I’ve just been to the hairdresser. Otherwise, I’m follicly challenged like many men of my age – I don’t particularly enjoy that.

Do you have any guilty pleasures?

No.

If you could go back in time, where would you go?

Going back to pre-First World War Britain because that is just such a different world. Britain’s economic dominance was beginning to be challenged by the United States, but we’re still really profiting a great deal from the benefits of the early stage of the industrial revolution.

We are just beginning to see cars, but this is a society still where domestic service is commonplace, and it’s a society which is just about to be completely transformed by the First World War.

I don’t want to go through the First World War, but to go back and actually experience [the period before], having some understanding of what is to come. 

And of course the arguments about home rule in Scotland and home rule in Ireland and all that was going on. I think that would be a fascinating period to go to. 

And also the opportunity to experience political debate in a pre-television era.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever had?

Learn statistics and know how to use a computer. That was from my supervisor, Sir David Butler.

What skill should every person have?

It flows from the last answer. To be able to read a table of numbers and make sense of it.

What’s the worst pain you’ve ever experienced?

The repeated pain that was actually an inflamed appendix. So again, going back to the 1950s, when the only way then to deal with it was through surgery. As a young child repeated pain in the stomach is kind of fairly difficult to cope with.

What’s your top film or TV programme of all time?

I’m struggling with this. I will give you the play that kind of had the most impact on me which will be Ibsen’s The Wild Duck. It’s a beautifully nuanced play, in which you just see the debate about the role of truth and white lies, and the role they play in family relationships being played out.

I just read that and thought about it for a long time and it’s one of the things that got me into realising that academic work could be about nuance, trying to develop your own understanding, etc, etc, and reading that was certainly one of the things that got me on that journey.

Are you not much of a TV man?

Like everybody else, I’ll watch the odd thing on Netflix but only occasionally. The only television I watch really is the evening news and Newsnight and I usually go to sleep during it.

My wife and I occasionally will watch a television series. The last thing we watched was Unforgotten and we did that on catch up.

I’ve still got an old ancient cathode ray television; I haven’t bothered to get an LCD television. I mean it still works, you can plug the box into it, and it’s fine.

What was your best holiday ever?

My best memories of holidays are having done quite an arduous walk all day and then ending up somewhere amazing. That certainly happened to my wife and I a couple of times. 

One was when we were walking the coastal path in Cornwall, which was quite arduous because it goes up and down. You might think it’s easy, but it’s not. 

We ended up at a hotel, not a million miles away from the Lizard [peninsula]. It was a beautiful, sunny August evening, at a hotel with an amazing view and brilliant food.

The other one was we went walking one year in Slovenia, which was interesting, I knew nothing about the place. On the last day we walked to Lake Bled, and arrived at the world’s most amazing hotel which I think was once somebody’s palace and probably during the communist era was probably the party headquarters. 

I guess it’s the old story of if you make a bit of effort, what comes at the end of it is something which sticks in the memory.

What was the last book you read?

The last book I tried to read - I’m still only halfway through - was Jonathan Coe’s Little England. It’s a portrayal of England during Brexit. What I’ve read so far I’ve enjoyed. The characters do very nicely play out the various aspects of the divisions that were exposed in England during the Brexit debate. 

Read the most recent article written by Staff reporter - Holyrood picks up four gongs and a highly commended at annual magazine awards

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