The world according to… Ray Mears
People know me as a historian, but I’ve also had a lifelong passion for music, specifically Delta blues – early blues from Mississippi – and jazz. My teenage years were the mid-1980s and so much of the music I heard on Top of the Pops was awful. So, I started exploring the records in the library across the road from our house in Gateshead.
Flicking through the sleeves and coming across [blues guitarist] Robert Johnson or [jazz trumpeter] Donald Byrd was like… music from another world. When my mates came round to my house, they’d talk about Bruce Springsteen or Dire Straits, and I was listening to a 20-minute sax solo. My favourite musicians are Blind Willie McTell and Geeshie Wiley, who were playing in the 1920s and 30s.
That library was part of the leisure centre and from the age of 13 or 14, I discovered martial arts, basketball and working out in the gym. I carried on through my twenties, thirties and forties, but cut back on competitive sports after I hit 50. It’s easier to get injured and I don’t want to spend weeks in bed recovering from a broken ankle. But I’ve still got a gym at my house in Bristol for regular weights and cardio.
Being half-Nigerian, I’m prone to diabetes, so I also keep to a fairly strict no-sugar diet and have been vegetarian since I was 17.
My latest TV project was Union, a four-part BBC Two series about the British Isles, class inequality and the north-south divide.
Growing up in the deprived north-east, there were parts of Britain that felt like they were in different countries and eras. We’d see people from London on TV talking about fashion or showing off a piece of aesthetic furniture and I just didn’t get it. Clothes were what your parents could afford and chairs were for sitting on. Who cared what they looked like?
It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that black history is all about biography: dates, places, this person achieved such-and-such an accolade. But I’ve been working on a book aimed at children and realised that making history accessible for younger readers means you have to tell a story.
The book is called Black History for Every Day of the Year [co-written with his sister, Yinka, a lecturer at Sheffield University, published in 2024] and it features 365 people who’ve made a difference.
As well as obvious names – Michelle Obama, rap group Public Enemy – you’ll find Second World War spy Josephine Baker, and John Edmonstone, a former slave who taught Charles Darwin taxidermy. People asked if I struggled to get enough names but the difficulty was keeping it down to 365.
There’s a new series of A House Through Time out soon. The show has evolved over the past five years. Initially, it was meant to be a sort of Who Do You Think You Are?, concentrating on people, but my background is urban history, deconstructing buildings and the layout of towns. In most cases, our homes have been around longer than us. We sometimes forget the monumental changes those buildings have been through.
As a child, home was a place of refuge. Outside, in the world, there was racism and danger; inside, my mother made sure my siblings and I were safe, happy and educated. Yes, the abuse I endured back then has had an impact on my life, but I try not to live in the shadow of something that happened long ago. It’s better to focus on the future.
There are wonderful things about this modern era, but I think that future generations will look back at our attitude to the environment and say, ‘What was wrong with you people?’
Technological developments in insulation, solar panels and heat pumps mean that we could be building the most ecologically efficient and sustainable houses the world has ever seen; houses that would help save lives. But no, we carry on as usual and we’ll be retrofitting solar panels and heat pumps in ten years’ time. It’s insane.
Black and British: An Illustrated History is published by Macmillan Children’s Books, £16.99; Union is on BBC iPlayer this autumn