“Joshua Levine’s background as an actor, barrister and historian makes him the ideal interlocutor. The actor catches his interviewees moods, putting them at their ease and teasing out more than they seemed willing to reveal at the outset. The lawyer draws out the implications of what they are saying, and the historian puts it all into perspective.” – Sunday Times
Nine years ago, Joshua Levine had the idea for his first book. Forgotten Voices of the Blitz and the Battle for Britain was published by Ebury Press in the autumn of 2006. Other oral histories, on the Battle of the Somme and Dunkirk followed.
Joshua’s long-standing interest in the pilots and aircraft of the First World War led to his first narrative history – On a Wing and a Prayer – published by Collins. The book was adapted into a Channel 4 documentary called Fighting the Red Baron in which Joshua told the story of the war in the air. Other television work has followed.
Joshua spent a fascinating year in the north of Ireland researching his next book – Beauty and Atrocity – a history of the Troubles through interviews with ex-members of the IRA, INLA, UVF and UDA (to cover most bases) as well as their victims, police, politicians and British soldiers. The book was shortlisted for the Writer’s Guild Non-Fiction Book of the Year award.
His next book – Operation Fortitude – was the story of the British spy operation which ensured the success of D-Day by misleading Hitler as to when and where the D-Day landings would take place. Most recently, he has written The Secret History of the Blitz for Simon and Schuster, an account of eight-and-a-half months in which relationships changed, boundaries were pushed, and British people’s lives became more intensely lived. It was published at the end of July 2015 and has been nominated for the 2016 PEN Hessell-Tiltman Prize; this extract gives a flavour:
Life was dangerous, hard, and lived in the shadow of invasion and death. It was also exciting and shot through with optimism. People pulled together and helped strangers; they broke rules and exploited neighbours. They bonded with, and stole from one another, they grew to understand, and to dislike each other. They tolerated without complaint and they complained without tolerance. They were scared and fearless, they coped and they cracked. They lost all hope, and they looked to the future. They behaved, in short, like a lot of human beings.
Joshua is currently working as the Historical Advisor on Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan’s epic adventure movie set during the Dunkirk evacuation of May/June 1940. Inspired by Joshua’s oral history Forgotten Voices of Dunkirk, the film features Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh, Tom Hardy and Cillian Murphy, and is due to be released in July 2017.
Joshua has recently written and presented two Radio 4 documentaries. The Real Rachman: Lord of the Slums sought the truth about notorious slum landlord Peter Rachman, while The Little Stamp That Became the Most Valuable Thing in the World told the extraordinary story of the smudgy little postage stamp that sold recently for $9.5 million at Sotheby’s New York. For the former programme, Joshua interviewed Nicholas van Hoogstraten, a man on whose Old Bailey murder trial he had worked many years before. Joshua rather likes this fact; it seems to highlight both the continuity and the novelty of the path he is on. To give you a sense of that path, here are a handful of Joshua Levine’s most recent reviews:
The Real Rachman: Lord of the Slums (BBC Radio 4)
“Joshua Levine’s outstanding profile is admirable in the way it challenges conventional belief.” Paul Donovan, Sunday Times
“Levine’s programme was fascinating and thoroughly entertaining.” Miranda Sawyer, The Observer
“A little gem of a programme. A fascinating social history.” Sarah Vine, The Times
Beauty and Atrocity (Collins)
“Scrupulously researched, Beauty and Atrocity conveys the smell and feel of Northern Ireland’s journey to peace. It is the sort of book that should be thrust into the hands of a minister arriving in Northern Ireland who needs to get a handle on how things have reached that point and where they might be heading next.” Liam Clarke, Sunday Times
‘This superb book, based on a wide range of interviews, not only gives a clear explanation of how the peace process developed but also serves as a grisly reminder of the tribal violence, bigotry and hatred that so badly scarred Northern Ireland. Joshua Levine has a natural gift for narrative description.” Leo McKinstry, Daily Express
Operation Fortitude (Collins)
“Joshua Levine’s absorbing and readable book is about the people who crafted the lies that protected the truth about D-Day in 1944.” Nick Rennison, Sunday Times
“The whole, utterly intriguing story is fantastically convoluted but is related with great clarity and precision, supported by quite fascinating illustrations. I enjoyed the book enormously.” Air Chief Marshall Sir Stuart Peach, Chief of Defence Intelligence
The Secret History of the Blitz (Simon and Schuster)
***** Five Stars. A first-class portrait of this traumatic and tragic time. Spiced with sexual and criminal statistics, Levine reveals a Britain of loose morals, opportunistic pilfering and cheating, and hedonistic pleasure, alongside the more familiar virtues of courage and community. Nigel Jones, Sunday Telegraph
One of the most enduring myths of World War II is that the people of London behaved with astonishing fortitude as bombs rained down on them. The truth, as Joshua Levine reveals in this constantly revealing, richly entertaining book, was rather more complicated. John Preston, Daily Mail
Drawing on a rich array of witnesses, The Secret History of the Blitz paints a compelling portrait of a time of extremes, whose strangeness and intensity shocked people out of their rhythms. Josh Ireland, Times Literary Supplement
Best Books about London 2015 – The Secret History of the Blitz reveals what Londoners really got up to during the bombing raids. Joshua Levine’s eye-opening history describes a time of looting and loving, heroism and hedonism. Mark Sanderson, Evening Standard
Joshua Levine’s contribution is both balanced and highly readable. There are particularly interesting sections on how government attitudes towards those bombed into homelessness were forced to change almost overnight. Throw in covert oil drilling, secret spy trials, sexual abandon and some horrific accounts of air raids and it’s hard to find a moment to put it down. Alastair Mabbot, Sunday Herald
You want to know more about Joshua’s path? All right. He was born in the Bahamas. He took a degree in law, and in 1993 he was called to the Bar in London. He practised for several years as a criminal barrister, defending the innocent as well as the guilty in courtrooms from Bow Street to Court No.1 at the Old Bailey. He remembers celebrating his first acquittal (at Marlborough Street Magistrates Court) by wandering into Soho and paying for a tiny tattoo which very few people have seen.
Throughout his years at the Bar, Joshua went on appearing in amateur theatre productions. One evening, in a pub near the Temple, he helped an unsteady George Carman QC to slot his scattered coins into the cigarette machine, and then sat with a table of older barristers as they spoke sadly of their thwarted ambitions. Not long afterwards, Joshua left the Bar. He became an actor.
Joshua’s many acting roles took him from a pre-war Polish shtetl in Jack Rosenthal’s Dreyfus at the Tricycle Theatre to 1950s New York in George S Kaufman’s The Solid Gold Cadillac at the Garrick Theatre. In the midst of this he was surprised to find himself onstage at the London Coliseum, playing a disciple of Jesus in an ENO production of St. John’s Passion. He remembers this chiefly for being told to move away from Christ as he was pulling focus.
During this time, Joshua spent a few months at BBC Classical Music Television working as assistant producer on a documentary about Handel’s Water Music. He received a co-writing credit, which motivated him to begin work on a stage play (Crash) about a foul-mouthed modern disc jockey which he took to the Edinburgh Festival. The play attracted attention and was bought by a West End producer. He was then approached to write a play for Radio 4. Intent to Supply, starring Bill Nighy, was set in a barristers’ chambers. Some of its scenes – including one in which a young member of chambers is employed as a human sunshade to keep the glare from a senior barrister’s computer screen – didn’t stretch the author’s imagination.
It was shortly after this that Joshua approached Ebury Press with the idea for his first book. And the rest (to date, anyway) is history…