IT'S A tricky business, negotiating the space between the past, present and future, as no one knows better than the world's pre-eminent war historian, Antony Beevor.
While mastering millions of facts from acres of archives and countless hours of survivor interviews, he has developed a hierarchy of credibility. Contemporary accounts are more reliable than recollected ones, as you'd expect, but women's are also more reliable than men's.
''It's mainly because at the time, [women] kept their mouths shut and their eyes open and they weren't trying to prove anything.'' By contrast, men when retelling their stories often take the chance to ''reimpose control over their own past''. Beevor believes it's a way of dealing with the powerlessness and humiliation they often felt at the hands of their superiors or at the mercy of historic events.
Beevor, whose latest book is The Second World War, is in Australia to speak at the Melbourne Writer's Festival today and give a keynote address at the Australian War Memorial's conference ''Kokoda, Beyond the Legend'' in Canberra on September 6 and 7.
With five million sales from nine books, including Stalingrad, Berlin and D-Day, he is credited with wresting the genre from the confines of crusty colonels and armchair obsessives. He found it an audience far larger than any publisher imagined, and not just male. But he says his books found their mark through luck as much as skill.
His way of telling war stories in rich detail from both directions - from the top brass down through official records, and from the foot soldiers and their families up through letters and diaries - caught a widespread shift in thinking away from the group and towards the individual, he believes.
The hits started with Stalingrad in 1995, with two million copies sold in 30 languagesg. Its publication coincided with huge social changes ushered in by the end of the Cold War and the invention of the world wide web, including ''a less deferential society certainly in Britain, and above all, a decline in collective loyalty''. Trade unions collapsed and so did regimental identities.
Individuals chronicling their lives over the internet might seem a boon for future historians, but Beevor fears future wars will be even harder to chronicle. For one thing, electronic records tend to be short-lived and are easily wiped.
His next book is on the Battle of the Bulge, followed by a biography of Napoleon, and then a novel set between 1917 and 1945. On the novel, he says: ''Put it this way. I don't think I will have to do very much research.''
Antony Beevor is in conversation with Mike Carlton at Hayden Orpheum Picture Palace in Cremorne on Tuesday.