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School of History

Desert Island Discs appearance for Queen Mary Contemporary British Historian

Professor Peter Hennessy from the School of History at Queen Mary University of London, recently appeared as a guest on the BBC Radio4 programme, Desert Island Discs. On the show each guest, referred to as a "castaway", is asked to choose eight recordings, a book and a luxury item that they would take if they were to be cast away on a desert island.


During the course of an engaging interview, Professor Hennessy reflected on his life chronicling post-war Britain and his respect and affection for Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

“I’m now going to do the biggest name drop, you’ve ever had on your wonderful programme” Professor Peter Hennessy told host Lauren Laverne. “Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth came into my seminar in 1992 just after I got to Queen Mary down the Mile End Road, to open our new building, she’s patron of the university she was, rest her soul.”  

Professor of contemporary British history at Queen Mary University of London, and a fellow of the British Academy, Peter Hennessy is one of the most respected contemporary historians in the United Kingdom. He has authored numerous books on British politics, the intelligence agencies, the civil service, and the British constitution, on which he is an expert.

Born in London in 1947, Peter studied history at St John's College, Cambridge, before starting his career in journalism in the mid-1970s. At that time, he covered the inner workings of Whitehall, whose activities were shrouded in secrecy. His reports were seen with suspicion by some members of the civil service, and the then-Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, issued an edict banning them from talking to him.

In 1986, Peter co-founded the Institute of Contemporary British History, and six years later, he transitioned from journalism to academia at Queen Mary, where he currently serves as Attlee Professor of Contemporary British History. In 2010, he was made a crossbench life peer.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Peter began keeping a diary to assess post-World War II history as "Before Covid" or "After Covid," an "aid to humility" in his own words.

As a guest on BBC Radio 4's Desert Island Discs, Peter Hennessy shared his favourite musical and literary picks as well as his luxury item. Here are his selections:

Disc One: Slow Train - Flanders & Swann

Disc Two: Italian Concerto in F, BWV 971, composed by Johann Sebastian Bach and performed by George Malcolm

Disc Three: Why Don’t Women Like Me? - George Formby

Disc Four: Schubert String Quintet In C Major, D. 956 - 2. Adagio, composed by Franz Schubert, performed by Robert Cohen (cello) and Amadeus Quartet

Disc Five: The Elements - Tom Lehrer

Disc Six: London Girls - Chas & Dave

Disc Seven: Skye Boat Song - The Pipes and Drums Of Leanisch

Disc Eight: How Lovely is Thy Dwelling Place, composed by Johannes Brahms, performed by Festival Choir And Orchestra, conducted by Thomas D. Rossin

Book Choice: Poetry in the Making by Ted Hughes

Luxury Item: A fountain pen, ink, and paper

Listen to full episode here



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