Matt Houlbrook: mobile historian; beard growing, head shaving; occasional cycling.
This is a cartoon of me giving a paper at the ‘First World War and Popular Culture Conference’ at the University of Newcastle in the spring of 2006. It’s been on the wall of my office ever since. It’s a great drawing but there are lots of other reasons that I like it:
It was drawn by one of my oldest friends who I’ve known since we were at sixth form college in Scunthorpe almost twenty years ago. Perhaps I’m over-reading, but I like to think there’s a nice mix of affection and irreverent piss-taking in there that pretty much sums up our friendship. Ann lived in Whitley Bay back then: I stayed with her and she came along to watch me speak. It was one of those moments at which different parts of my life came together and we retired to a pub where she could take the piss out of me some more. The ‘I’m a bit of a shit historian’ is something I said when I had to admit to being terrible at dealing with chronology and change over time. Apparently that’s important for historians.
It’s an uncanny image of what I looked like back then. Somehow I suspect a then versus now comparison would be one way of measuring my own ageing: I probably have less hair but more beard—though there’s more white in that than I’d like.
It catches me in the act of giving the very first version of the research project that has turned into my current book. My paper was called ‘Con Men.’ I was trying explain why there were so many reports of confidence tricks in popular newspapers in 1919 and 1920. I argued then—I’m still arguing now—that these reports were always far more than simply stories about confidence tricks, deceptions and petty criminality. Public discussions of the conman were always about the war—about its legacy, impact and memory. They were one expression of a nation trying to make sense of what had happened to it and of Britain’s hopes and fears for the future. I was talking about ‘less class distinctions’ to emphasize the war’s disruptive effects on relations of class, gender and race and the way in which the chameleonlike confidence trickster focused anxious discussion about the outcome of this process.
I didn’t know it at the time, but it was also the first occasion I talked in public about the Prince of Tricksters—the conman and writer on whose life my work now focuses. Back then, I was drawing just on a couple of newspaper reports of the scams he was working in 1920 as he masqueraded as a decorated army office and wealthy man-about-town. I used him simply as an example of what I saw as broader patterns of criminality and deception in that period. If the image suggests how I’ve changed in the past six years, then it also captures how my project itself has changed out of all recognition. In 2006 I had no idea at the extent of the Prince of Tricksters’s criminal and literary deceptions and the international scope of his activities. I had no idea that I would end up writing a book about just one man or spending my time chasing down files in the Royal Archives in the Windsor Castle. I had no idea how much material I would end up accumulating from archives and libraries across the world.
This summer I’ve managed to finish writing two of the five essays around which the book will be organized. As I drew closer to having something like a decent first draft of these essays—something that I never expected a couple of months ago—I started thinking about Ann’s cartoon and the history (and the historian) that it captured. Somehow that moment feels both very familiar and very distant. Perhaps that sums up how our research can develop and change over time.