Adam Hart-Davis explains his mission to inform and entertain us.
Next time you see the tax ad with Adam Hart-Davis suspended from a tall building, take pity on him. “I’m terrified of heights,” admits the What The Romans Did For Us front man. “When I was filming for the Inland Revenue, they asked me to abseil down a building. They took me up to the top floor of a 15-storey building, roped me up and made me step out onto the edge of a balcony.”
Teetering on the balcony, trussed up like a Christmas turkey, a coil of rope in hand, the author and broadcaster had to deliver the line: “Humans are often beset by irrational fears.” Before stepping off into thin air. But looking down several hundred feet, Hart-Davis was beset by his own fears – not at all irrational. The director had no sympathy. “He just said, ‘Try not to sound so frightened’.”
Hart-Davis laughs. Being suspended from buildings, dunked in freezing seas or roasted by giant furnaces is a hazard of his job. Besides, despite the acrophobia, he loves it, because it gives him a chance to show that not only is science and technology vital, it is fun too.
His latest book, Just Another Day: The Science and Technology of our Everyday Lives shows just how vital it is. “What I really like is low technology, which people don’t really look at,” he explains. By low tech he means everything from the flushing of a toilet to the spokes on a wheel – everything that stop modern life from grinding to a halt.
The book opens with the rattle of an alarm clock. If you thought alarm clocks were noisy interruptions to a good night dreaming, you are quickly disabused. Within a few pages Hart-Davis reveals their incredible evolution through a story taking in Roman prostitute Klepshydra, international shipping and the murder of Captain Cook.
It sets the tone for a diverting trip through an average day, peppered with anecdotes from history, personal recollections and practical science – what other celebrities’ book this autumn will tell you how to make your own loo?
Loos are something of a theme for Hart-Davis, and Just Another Day’s pages on astronauts’ toilet arrangements will ensure you never look at Neil Armstrong in the same way again. Why the fascination? “It all started because I did a little television piece about Thomas Crapper. Everyone thinks he invented the flushing lavatory. He didn’t, he was a perfectly ordinary Victorian plumber,” he explains.
It is hard to overestimate how far that interest has gone: since the TV piece, he has written a book about loos (and has a second, Taking the Piss, out later this year), done TV shows on the subject, become an honorary member of the British Toilets Association and spoken to audiences across the country about loos.
Far from a taboo subject, the British public can’t hear enough about it, he says. “This year I’ve given 37 talks to all sorts of groups of people from Aberdeen to Southampton and in almost every talk I bring up lavatories. People love the disgusting details!”
What Hart-Davis’s ancestors would think is hard to tell. I imagine one would be rather amused. Mrs Jordan was the infamous mistress of William IV. No stranger to breaking taboos herself – she was a classier 18th-century Nell Gwyn – she spawned a long line of illustrious descendents.
That books would be an important part of Hart-Davis’s life seems inevitable. His father was the famous publisher, Sir Alan Hart-Davis. One of his earliest memories is of children’s author Arthur Ransome visiting the family farm. “He was short and bald and didn’t like children very much,” he recalls.
Though best known as a presenter now, Hart-Davis Jnr has written over 25 books. He fell into television almost by accident. He had planned to be an academic, but jobs were short, so he tried publishing before moving to television as a researcher. “I am a triple dropout,” he jokes. As dropouts go, he has done remarkably well, fronting scores of shows that make science and technology accessible to the average punter.
He admits he is on a “bit of a mission”, not just to make science popular, but to banish ignorance. His campaigning zeal shows in Just Another Day when he writes about “snake oil merchants”, who try and persuade women to part with thousands of pounds for oils and creams they promise turn back the effects of gravity. They won’t, he says adamantly.
“In January I went to Kenya,” he tells me to explain his hostility to the claims of certain cosmetics. “There I met Masai, who were the most beautiful people. They are slim, elegant and fit. I am prepared to bet you an enormous sum of money that they never use wrinkle cream or special soaps, and yet they remain clean-smelling and beautiful.”
As well as debunking beauty myths, Just Another Day offers expert tips on everything from how to clean you teeth to how to make the perfect cuppa. I suggest his enthusiasm for the minutiae of daily life suggests he is in touch with his inner anorak. He laughs. “That is a good way of putting it,” he replies. “I’ve a mental age of eight!”
As the popularity of his shows and books among all ages implies, most of us are secretly eight on the inside. He agrees. “Everyone has that innate curiosity, it is just that it is stamped out,” he adds wistfully.
The book is just one of the projects he is involved in this autumn. We should see him on TV screens fronting a history of London later in the year. He is also hoping to make a series about the cosmos. That is on top of radio projects and more books. No doubt further adventures up masts and skyscrapers will follow. If they are, he will be happy. “I do love talking to the camera in stressful conditions,” he confesses. “If I am rowing a Viking boat, paddling a Roman water wheel or abseiling down a building, it is wonderful because it looks and sounds so much more real.”