The one lesson I've learned from life: David Olusoga

The one lesson I’ve learned from life: David Olusoga says insecurity can drive your success

  • David Olusoga, 50, who lives in Bristol, presents A House Through Time on BBC2
  • Historian explained how his entire career has been shaped by insecurity 
  • He was brought up on a council estate and stopped having weekends at age 16

Historian David Olusoga OBE, 50, presents A House Through Time on BBC2. He lives with his partner and their daughter in Bristol. 

I was brought up on a council estate in Gateshead. Through university, I worked in bars and in a power station. I stopped having a two-day weekend aged 16.

I realised becoming an academic felt like never leaving school, and instead I wanted to work for the BBC and make history documentaries. I didn’t necessarily think I could do it. But it’s important to try something before you complain you weren’t given the chance.

When I did work experience in London, I slept on my sister Yinka’s sofa. That gave me just four months to get a paid media job. When I was on the brink of having to admit defeat, I got a job as a temporary researcher at BBC Radio 4, then later I became a radio producer.

David Olusoga, 50, (pictured) who lives in Bristol, revealed his career has been shaped by insecurity and the feeling that he can’t take his foot off the pedal

I think it’s impossible for anyone of my background to not feel they have a lot to prove. I still don’t feel I can take my foot off the pedal. In some ways my entire career has been shaped by insecurity, that feeling that I’m not part of that inner club with the old school ties.

When I write about the Empire or slavery or racism in Britain, I sometimes get criticised for being unpatriotic. I love this country, but a mature nation can be honest about its inglorious chapters.

For the new series of A House Through Time, we look at an 18th-century sea captain’s house in Bristol and uncover stories of piracy, slavery and doomed romance. We also talk about World War II, which makes you think about the demands made on people in wartime.

Lockdown has been oppressive, but we’re not being asked to work in a munitions factory or endure rationing.

In the 20th and 21st century, we’ve been able to imagine our futures with a fair degree of confidence that we’re going to be able to build the lives we want. Most generations have not had that level of security. They lived with the risk of war, pestilence, harvests failing.

It’s a huge shift to go from the idea that the future awaits us, to the future isn’t certain. But we’ve been able to keep in touch. My mother loves the IT revolution. If I have a problem with my computer, I phone my mum. The world as it was is not coming back. But as a historian I’m struck by how people are able to adapt.

A House Through Time starts on BBC2 on Tuesday. 

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