How to write

Interview with Stephen Bungay: historian, writer and management guru

Stephen BungayStephen Bungay is a management consultant, academic and author of two remarkable books about the Second World War: The Most Dangerous Enemy and Alamein. I met him recently and enjoyed the opportunity of asking him a few questions.

You’ve described The Most Dangerous Enemy as an ironic epic – can you elaborate?

Non-fiction is fundamentally the same as fiction except that your plot is not your own. The Battle of Britain is part of Britain’s national mythos and I wanted to explore (but not debunk) it. It has huge odds, mighty contests and great heroes. I deliberately modelled the structure of the book on Homer’s Iliad as a way of ordering the mass of data I had accumulated. For example, my chapter on ‘the reason why’ mirrors the argument between the Greeks and Trojans. In Book 2 of the Iliad, Homer reviews the forces. I do that in chapters 3-6 - I need more space than Homer because modern forces are more complex. My Achilles is Park. It’s ironic because many of the received wisdoms about the Battle of Britain turn out to be wrong but that makes the truth more inspiring than the myth we’ve inherited.

How do you make it come to life?

In the prologue and postscript, I link the whole story of the battle into my own personal story, as a child reading the canonical history of the battle and, as an adult, watching a fly past for the 50th Anniversary of the Battle outside Buckingham Palace.

My priorities are 1) clarity, 2) accuracy and 3) memorability. I spend a lot of time trying to find the exact phrase.

For example, I use understatement: “Twenty seven British fighters plunged into the formation of 475, ‘undaunted by odds’ once again.” In fact, they claimed 14 enemy aircraft for the loss of one of their own. It turns out that if you had height and surprise it was a tactical advantage to be outnumbered in a dogfight. It gave you a target rich environment.

Allusion and reference also works. For example, hinting at Henry V and, of course, Churchill when I describe them as “the intrepid ‘few’,” one of the leitmotifs of the story.

The last sentence in the book deliberately ties into another quotation used by Elgar to bring out the full emotion of the point I am making: “Perhaps you too, especially if you are not British, should not completely forget about the Battle of Britain. For this, if anything of ours, is worth your memory.”

Tell me about writing the book.

It started off as the book ‘I was going to write when I retired’ but I decided to make a start during a six month career break in late 1996 and early 1997. When I was writing it, I worked harder than I have ever worked - 16 to 18 hours a day. I went back to my job and it wasn’t until I left The Boston Consulting Group in 1999 that I could take three months off to complete it.

I would type until 10pm, print off that day’s copy and go to bed. The composition was more like a download – an extended intellectual orgasm. I didn’t interrupt myself, even to correct typos. I would wake up at 4am the next morning and read over what I had written. I would put a red ring around repeated words, lost threads, missing pronouns, broken rhythms, overlong sentences. Then I used to correct. Always correct to clarify.

How did you research the book?

I wanted to get into the German decision-making process. I read pretty much everything that is available, including Milch’s inspection report from the end of August and Osterkamp’s biography, which is very hard to get hold of. No-one else seems to have bothered with a lot of this stuff. Also, I grew up in Kent, underneath the battlefield!

You chose a different structure for Alamein. How did that come about?

The book is structured around a series of answers to questions I had. For example: ‘why fight in the western desert? (where no army had ever fought before),’ ‘what determined success?’ and so on.

What was the hardest thing to write?

I spent the best part of half a day on the end of Chapter 4 of Alamein.

“The desert offered baking heat and chilly nights, but it did not offer weeks of rain, steaming jungle or months of snow and ice. It offered flies and dysentery, not mosquitoes and malaria, desert sores not trenchfoot or frostbite. There was less sniping and mortaring than in other theatres. The landscape was open, so death did not constantly lurk round the next hedge or behind the next tree. Quarter was usually given, and prisoners were not massacred. In a global conflict unprecedented in its comprehensive awfulness, the desert was the nice bit of the war.”

The last sentence had to underscore the contrast with the rest of the world without diminishing the ghastliness of war so I balanced polysyllabic latin-derived words with short Anglo-Saxon words and a stronger rhythm. I also pair words: global vs. bit, awfulness vs. nice to enhance the contrast.

How did you get past writer’s block?

I don’t really suffer from it but sometimes I have to go for away from writing for a bit. Do some reading, go for a walk, go shopping. Also, when I’m puzzling out a problem, I’m a great believer in a good night’s sleep. My mind has usually sorted it out by morning.

How does your consulting experience influence your writing?

The consulting helps a lot with TV work. I tend to think in bullet points. I’m using tostarting with a conclusion and then giving reasons, either inductive or deductive.

It also makes me wary of the inappropriate metaphor. Was Alamein ‘the turning of the tide’? Not really. A tide goes in and out. Turning the tide isn’t much good if it will return again. After Alamein the tide stopped ebbing and flowing. A better metaphor is that Rommel builds a dam and Montgomery crumbles it. There’s still a water metaphor but it is more accurate.

Matthew Stibbe

Matthew is founder and CEO of Articulate Marketing.