Matt Houlbrook: mobile historian; beard growing, head shaving; occasional cycling.
I have two very different reactions when I re-read work that I wrote a few months or years ago.
Sometimes I’m genuinely amazed by how much I knew back then. Going back to the sections of Queer London about Edgware Road’s dance halls and pubs or the coffee stalls, cheap hotels and street cruising around Waterloo Road is like reading someone else’s work. There are people and places that I forgot a long time ago. The footnotes, in particular, are packed with the minutes of LCC committees, records of the Lambeth magistrate’s court and the activities of the Central South London Free Church Council. How the hell did I find all this? Where did it all go?
This doesn’t happen very often. And my sense of respect for my younger historian self is usually about what I knew rather than what I said or how I said it. As some reviewers kindly pointed out, Queer London is heavy on the jargon and the theoretical clichés: there’s an awful nine-syllable word in there for god’s sake. Respect is always undercut by embarrassment.
More often re-reading older work prompts nothing but horror. This is particularly the case when I return to older drafts of articles and chapters to revise them for publication. It’s a cliché to say that all writing is rewriting—it’s true though, and anything that we publish has usually been through the grinder again and again and again before it sees daylight. What we rarely acknowledge, however, is that the distance between then and now brings two different historians into an uneasy and often fractious relationship.
A few months ago I wrote a post that was prompted by a line from The Smiths’s The Queen is Dead: has the world changed or have I changed? In various ways I’ve been working on the project that has become The Prince of Tricksters: Cultures of Confidence in Interwar Britain for almost a decade now. The project and I have both changed over that period. For a start, I’ve done a lot more research—chasing Netley Lucas through archives in Britain, Australia, Canada and the United States. It’s not just that I know more, though: I know and think in very different ways now. Teaching, writing, thinking, talking, sharing with students and scholars has made me a completely different historian. Ten years ago my younger self did not anticipate becoming interested in questions of subjectivity, authenticity and the practices and processes of mass culture and politics between the wars. Today I look back on my obsession with urban modernity and wonder what the hell I was thinking. If I think differently then I also write differently. Trying to finish this book means that I have to go back and rework conference papers and chapters that I drafted months and years ago now. To do that, however, I have to confront a ghost of bad history past. Right now I think of writing as rewriting as like working with a co-author who is a complete idiot.
Somehow I have to work with that idiot. If our relationship deteriorates any more then the book will just fall apart. I know of colleagues—wonderful, imaginative historians—who have taken so long over the process of rewriting that the historiographical and theoretical world we inhabit has changed beyond all recognition around them. Intellectual turns of all sorts and conditions threaten to render our projects irrelevant or anachronistic. Being open to new ideas is what keeps us fresh. Yet the risk is always that rewriting becomes impossible: the only choice is to start again from scratch. With my deadline looming that doesn’t seem like much of a choice at all.
So that idiot and I need to learn to get along somehow. I’m not asking for some intellectual version of modern love; I don’t expect that we’ll disappear into the historical sunset hand-in-hand in fourteen months time. A functional working relationship would be just fine right now. I’m not sure where that relationship comes from though. Recognizing our mutual idiosyncrasies and failings would be a start. When we rewrite it’s important to acknowledge when we were wrong, or naïve, or wrote something clunky or irrelevant: that allows us to exercise the judgment necessary to cut or revise completely. It’s also important to know that something might not be perfect, but if it’s good enough it can be left well alone. There’s no sense in rewriting too much, is there? Perhaps I also need to get over myself. Not everything I wrote back then is quite as bad as it first seems; interrogating what I have written today against what I wrote five years ago is a productive and often bracing exercise. My co-author isn’t such an idiot after all.
I’ll let you know how we get on.
The idea for this post was prompted by the barbed phrase coined by Erika Hanna: as smart and insightful as always.
This blog is part of my ongoing attempts to share the process of writing a book from behind the scenes. You can find out more about the project here.