We asked James Hamilton-Paterson to comment on his current work and ideas that have influenced him…

Which of your own ideas have you been thinking about most recently?
In advance of the impending Strategic Defence Review, I have been wondering exactly why we need our armed forces at all, ditto our nuclear deterrent, given our threadbare presence on the world scene. And as a corollary to that, whether we as a society have the remotest idea of where we are going and why. I don’t believe anyone has thought seriously about this at the level of public debate since 1945.

What idea of someone else has made most impact on you recently?
Matthew Engel’s recent book about the history of Britain’s railways made a big impact on me, and I wish I had read it before finishing my own book, Empire of the Clouds. It simply confirms my own conclusion, that not only have we defaulted in making sensible national transport decisions, but that our entire political structure is fatally flawed. We have never really understood how to get the best out of industry and have never developed the management skills necessary to do so.

What is the most important book/article of ideas that everyone should read and why?
Almost anything that properly and scientifically attacks pseudoscience gets my vote. Any of the late Martin Gardner’s books would do admirably, and so would James (‘The Amazing’) Randi’s An Encyclopaedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural. Anything that helps to promote informed scepticism in an age which unquestioningly puts its faith and money into homeopathy, crystals, cults and religions of every kind is performing a vital service.

And finally, each year we ask everyone involved – audiences as well as speakers – one question. Charles Masterman, Liberal Party politician and journalist, asked in his book The Condition of England 100 Years Ago: “What will the future make of the present?” What is your answer to this?
Incomprehension, basically. We always stand in awe of the future and patronise the past. But that doesn’t mean we understand it: we no longer speak the language.