Story Teller: Chris Lloyd
Updated: Apr 23
Chris Lloyd is a storyteller – he tells true stories about the world and our place in it. Chris is also the CEO and founder of What on Earth Publishing.
When I was a baby (and every year since), my parents took me to the Oxford Literary Festival. Chris was there, with a giant, colourful timeline, telling stories about history. He wore an enormous black cloak with big colourful pockets full of interesting things. I felt so excited listening to his stories.
Each day at 3.30pm, during the festival, Chris gave his free lecture in the huge marquee looking out over Christchurch Meadow. It was so exciting. I made my parents take me to hear him tell his stories, every day of the festival. In fact, Chris’ lectures are really the only thing I remember from when I was a baby!
I wanted to share the way Chris tells stories with my friends. So I was thrilled when Chris agreed to be interviewed. I spoke to Chris via Zoom on Thursday 22 July and I’ve written up the interview below. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
You write history books. History is usually written by victors; do you consider yourself a victor?
It’s true that history is usually written by the victors. That is because victors, for the most part, leave the records. They write history from a perspective that suits themselves; they weave a narrative that morally justifies anything they may have done. These histories are usually the primary sources that are picked up and mythologised by future generations.
For the Romans, Alexander the Great was an amazing hero. They left records that depicted Alexander the Great as a heroic figure. What he was actually like and whether he was worthy of our adoration or not, who knows?
Similarly, Shakespeare wrote his plays, in many ways, to justify Henry Tudor’s defeat of Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485. That justification and motive comes across strongly and became the folklore.
Magna Carta’s another great example of that. The Magna Carta is eulogised as a sort of key moment in the story of freedoms and rights. It’s seen as the start of the protection of the rule of law for ordinary people against an autocrat or a dictator like King John. But at the time, it was just a convenient way for the aristocracy to get back at the king.
So these things get distorted and changed, like a kaleidoscope; constantly shifting. That’s why history has to be written again and again and again. Our perspectives change, sources are re-evaluated and revised. For example, today in Oxford, you’ve got students rebelling against the fact that there’s a statue of Cecil Rhodes. This is because we’re rewriting history through the lens of our own experience and our own moral framework.
Do I consider myself a victor? I do personally in that I love history. History has defined my whole sense of self, where I belong and where I fit in. Without it, I’d be lost as an individual. I wouldn’t know how to evaluate things or where to put anything in terms of new information.
I don’t consider myself a victor in some kind of triumphant way, like a Roman emperor. I certainly don’t crave to be universally acknowledged or anything like that. I think fame is a real curse to be honest. Knowing that what I do has had something of an impact on young people gives me pleasure and purpose. So for that reason, I do consider myself a victor.
Your Wallbooks are huge timelines, which summarise important events. How do you do those summaries?
When I write a small paragraph to summarise an important event in history, I try to think of it as a piece in a jigsaw puzzle. I try to write that paragraph in a way that will help people to connect it to something else in the timeline.
For example, the earthquake in Fukushima, which is right at the end of the The Big History Timeline Wallbook. I wrote about that earthquake in a way that I hope allows people to connect it to events earlier in the timeline – 150 million years earlier, when the tectonic plates caused the continents to collide.
Photo New Zealand Geographic.
Each event in history is like a tree. Together, these trees make up the forest of history. On the surface, you see the forest is made up of separate trees. But if you look deeper, if you look underground, you see that each tree’s roots are connected by fungi with mycorrhiza. In fact, there’s some amazing research about forests – each forest has a mother tree. That mother tree will ensure that, underground through its roots and through its little networks of branching fungi, it will supply more sugars and glucose to trees that most genetically and closely related to itself. Isn’t that amazing?
I like to think that the Wallbooks are a bit like a forest. Lots of spot art, images and captions, but underneath, there are connections everywhere for you to discover.
You’ve had lots of different, non-conventional jobs. What advice would you give to people who want to have a non-conventional job?
Conventional jobs are disappearing. They have been for decades. At the moment, we’re building the plane while we’re flying it. As a species, we don’t know what’s round the corner, we never really did, to be honest. Until quite recently, we had this idea of progress, but now, that idea has fallen to pieces.
The most important thing is to be adaptable. If you look back in human history, adaptability is what’s made our species great. During the ice ages, we used our brains and our hands to discover things – how to light a fire, how to make clothes – these new skills allowed us to survive.
For young people thinking about a career, it’s best to be curious and embrace change. Young people should be thrilled at the idea of a new environment - the kind of mindset that a baby has when it’s born. Sometimes, this mindset gets knocked out of us, at school or other places. We then become fearful and don’t try anything we don’t know. But that’s not how we were born, that’s not our natural selves.
For me personally, I climb one tree, jump down, climb half of another tree, then climb down and find another tree! Every five years I find myself doing something different. I don’t want to just go straight up one tree.
I think that the world needs lots of people who are happy to jump off their trees and try another one, because the world needs creative solutions to very, very challenging problems.
People are saying that creativity is the most important thing because everything else will be done by robots.
Absolutely, automation is a huge issue. Many jobs in the future will be accomplished by artificial intelligence and by robots. That can be good thing, because robots can do some things better than us, and we won’t have to waste our time doing those things
I’m a great believer in children being allowed to learn the key skills they need through whatever interests them. I don’t think adults should tell children whatever it is the adults think children need to know.
That big shift in education that hasn’t really happened yet. I’m interested in helping to switch that mindset in education to a “learn what you’re interested in”. You can learn anything through what you’re interested in.
If everybody’s learning different things, because everybody’s interested in different things, then they get interested in each other. Then they discover things and suddenly the asymmetrical learning environment unleashes a whole square root of extra learning.
The internet is disrupting traditional education too because it’s very easy to find out things the teacher doesn’t know. So teachers need to think differently about empowering young people to become learners themselves, self-learners, not just when they get to university, but when they’re at primary school too.
I’ve heard a lot of people say that humans haven’t done anything for the environment and so it wouldn’t be a bad things if humans died off completely. What do you think?
Well, obviously it depends on your perspective. Most species, other than humans, are having a very, very torrid time. Nature’s balance has been disrupted. This disruption hasn’t just happened recently. It started in the Holocene era, I suppose, ten thousand years ago, when we started farming and domesticating animals.
If you read Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, the whole book starts off with the domestication of plants and animals. That’s how he introduces the idea of natural selection, by showing how artificial selection has subverted this natural process.
Humans have brought untold damage onto the environment. It hasn’t been consciously done until quite recently. And even now, some people are still in denial. It’s only relatively recently that we’ve become aware that we’re damaging the planet. In America in the 60s, two cultural things happened that I think sparked a change in attitude. The first was Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring, which she wrote in 1962. This talks about the day there will be no birds because of pesticides. That shocked America.
Then there was the photograph, Earthrise, taken from space in 1968. No one had ever seen the earth rise before. Suddenly, people were seeing a very, vulnerable, delicate, blue, fragile jewel in the blackness of space. People realised that everything that exists in our environment is in a very thin, fragile kind of blanket around a rock. It made people think, “My goodness, we’re all in this together.”
There’s a really interesting book I can recommend to you by Alan Weisman called The World Without Us. It imagines a world where suddenly there’s no humans. It’s such an interesting thought experiment. I think your readers would enjoy it.
What would you say to people who think that humans shouldn’t be alive?
We’ve got to be careful. For young people, there’s a lot of anxiety about the world and the challenges that we’re facing in the next 50 years as we try to de-carbonise. Politicians and businesspeople are reluctant to embrace change and work together. There are also divisions between cultures and nationalities.
These are all very depressing things but getting depressed about it isn’t going to help anybody.
In fact that’s what my new book is about, it’s called It's Up to Us: A Children’s Terra Carta for Nature, People and Planet. I’m writing it with Prince Charles. His idea of a Terra Carta, like the Magna Carta, is that we have a new set of vows or pledges that we will make to restore nature to balance.
Prince Charles wrote this for business leaders, but I said to his team that we should do a children’s book, because they’re the ones who have the greatest potential to make a difference. Fortunately Prince Chares agreed and so we’ve written this book.
Give your friends a little pinch on the arm if they get into that hopeless mindset. Tell them lets go, let’s do this. It’s up to us.
How much do you think children should know, like Black Lives Matter, coronavirus and Sarah Everard?
I don’t think there’s anything children shouldn’t know.
I’ve always believed that by the time of proper self-awareness, which I would say is about 7 to 8, then there’s nothing children shouldn’t know. By that age, children have a natural curiosity and are asking the important questions about life and death.
Once we hit puberty, this curiosity tends to diminish as we become focussed on other things. The teenage brain is a whole different deal. Then we become adults, we have the stresses of getting a job, creating relationships, getting a mortgage, that sort of thing. All these things get in the way of that beautiful natural curiosity that we have aged 7-13.
That’s why I write children’s books. I try to tell stories in an open and honest way, without prejudice or fear.
What advice would you give to people to develop their love of reading?
I would say that if you don’t like reading, don’t worry about it. You shouldn’t feel as though you’re somehow an impoverished human. It’s not a problem. Reading is very new and modern. For 99% of human existence, humans didn’t read. Reading is not natural. Reading hasn’t been created by the natural world. We don’t need to be able to read to have wellbeing.
To have wellbeing, we need to be close to the natural world – to know what plants are, to grow food and make a meal, to be close to animals. It’s those things that give you wellbeing, not reading.
Reading is a means to an end; having curiosity is the key. If educators put curiosity first, and then provide reading as an opportunity to pursue that curiosity, then they’d find that all children would want to read.
Humans are visual - we dream in pictures; we don’t dream in words or numbers. Our brains convert words into pictures. When you read a book, you can see the place in your imagination, and it’s called an imagination because its full of images. That’s what our brains are, they are text and number converters.
So nobody should feel bad if they don’t like reading.
How would you develop your curiosity?
I believe that everybody is born with curiosity – it’s innate. That’s because we need curiosity to survive. A baby born without curiosity would be immediately identified as having a problem. However, curiosity can be beaten out of people by bad environments, culture or even through taking drugs. Drugs, I think, can take you into another place where your brain loses its natural curiosity. The best way to nurture your curiosity is to learn about what you’re interested in, without fear, in a way that’s natural to you and then celebrate your successes.
Young reviewer, Charlotte Trichard, has been going to the theatre, galleries and concerts since she was a baby. Charlotte is happy that restrictions have been lifted and she can go back to events in real life. Charlotte loves fencing and plays the piano.
Photos used with permission of What on Earth Publishing. Photo of Alexander the Great, 2011 Japan Shake Map, Nao Robot, Malala, Greta Thunberg and Climate Protesters used under Creative Commons Licence. Picture of Nero used under Pixabay Licence.
Safeguarding procedures were in place throughout the interview process.