Simon Sebag Montefiore: 'I used to be the most shambolic person...'





Simon Sebag Montefiore's young son, Sasha, knows what it feels like to live with a dictator. When his dad came down to breakfast the other day, the four-year-old chirped up: "Morning, Young Stalin!'' Like the rest of us, he is finding his father's obsession difficult to ignore.

Between recommendations for hair loss treatments, vasectomies and the musical Spamalot, Stalin's sinister portrait is currently hogging five consecutive escalator advert boards on the London Tube. "Child. Man. Monster. Find out How it Happened.'' Sebag Montefiore's new book, Young Stalin, is being plugged as the intellectual's beach read this summer, a ground-breaking work of thrilling energy and scholastic thoroughness that has turned up a wealth of new material on the early sexual, political and criminal career of Josef Stalin - never mind that it will break most people's baggage weight allowance.

Sebag, as he is generally known, is all nervous excitement - while his family are simply relieved to be out of the shadow of a murderous tyrant. "I am ashamed to say that both my children knew Stalin before they knew Thomas the Tank Engine,'' he admits. His wife, Santa, a prolific writer of romantic novels, found the blood-soaked presence of Stalin in their marriage a trial of endurance but, in a touching coda to five pages of acknowledgements, he praises her endlessly "sunny encouragement and serene charm''. All of them, he says, are now thankfully entering their own period of deStalinisation.

Santa and Sebag, a cottage industry of literary productivity, sound like characters in a novel themselves. He, a buccaneering sort of adventurer-turned-historian, youngest of four sons, his doctor father a Lithuanian Jew, his mother from Poland, not a drop of English blood in his veins. She, the daughter of an old English farming family, the Palmer-Tomkinsons, friends of the Prince of Wales, perennial source of gossip column interest.

By the time they met, he had several lives behind him - failed investment banker, novelist, self-appointed war reporter, journalist. His best man, journalist Robert Hardman, memorably described him at their wedding as a cross between Woody Allen and Biggles. Although he was starting to reinvent himself as the historian he'd always wanted to be, based on his knowledge of Russian affairs, it was a haphazard stab at being the homme serieux. Then, a friend told him about this amazing girl who worked in a perfume shop on Walton Street...

"Before Santa, I used to be the most shambolic person. I was all over the place, trying to do too many things, dating about 10 girls at the same time, travelling chaotically and missing aeroplanes, never settling down to anything, failing to meet deadlines. I was a complete mess. She grounded me. I have become very disciplined now. I would never have written the books without her. Definitely the cleverest thing I ever did was to marry Santa. Maybe it's the only clever thing I did.''...


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