Matt Houlbrook: mobile historian; beard growing, head shaving; occasional cycling.
It’s almost four weeks since I moved now. I arrived in Birmingham at the start of September, leaving Oxford behind for a new job in a new city—and, I hope, some exciting new opportunities. The process of moving was as much of a nightmare as it always is. But now the boxes are unpacked at home and the books are on the shelves at work and the logistical hassle of starting again almost seems like a distant memory.
It is strange being in a new city. Strangest of all is the sense of not knowing what is around you. Even when I’m at home my mental map of Birmingham is so partial that I cannot imagine what lies in at least one direction. That familiarity will come with time and exploring, however, and already getting out on my bike has given me some now-familiar rat routes into the quiet roads to the south. It is strange being in a new job, as well. Getting to know colleagues and institutions and processes somehow manages to be exciting and unnerving in equal measure. The strangeness is compounded right now because I’m on research leave for the next twelve months. While other people are throwing themselves into the rhythms of the new academic year, I feel almost semi-detached and watch from the outside. Leave brings the time and space to finish one book and begin another, but it draws me out of the thick of things.
I have no regrets about moving jobs: to be honest, I didn’t think I would. Five years in Oxford brought me the chance to work with some fantastic colleagues, doctoral students and undergraduates. It also brought me a much clearer sense of what I value in my professional life and the kind of institution in which I feel most at home. There are, I guess, many reasons that we can feel detached from the working environment we inhabit. Birmingham brings exciting and challenging opportunities to work with a group of modern British historians whose work I admire and whose interests are closer to mine. Birmingham will also allow me to develop new courses out of my current research—and to explore the new and different ways in which those courses might be taught. It will be hard work, but my hope is that these opportunities will, in turn, help me develop again as a historian and a teacher. And although I miss the friends I’ve made through years of cycling (and socialising) in Oxford I was more than ready to move to a bigger city.
Moving has also made me more aware of the relationship between place, routine and writing. Even now I feel the pressure of incoming deadlines acutely: from experience I know that twelve months can pass with terrifying speed, and I would like to begin my book on the 1920s as well as complete the Prince of Tricksters in that time. To begin with I tried to keep writing at the same time as packing and sorting out the mundane details of council tax and utility bills. That was a disaster: it meant I neither got my life sorted nor made progress with the book—and having two reasons to worry is never good. So I put the book to one side and moved. And then once I’d moved and unpacked with frantic haste I put life to one side and wrote. That was a better way of doing things.
Since then I have been struck by how quickly I got back into the rhythm of writing. Last Friday I finished the first draft of a long chapter on criminology and the emergence of the crime reporter as a professional type in the 1920s. It felt good to have ticked that off. The long days and hiding out were tough, but now I have three more chapters to go (out of nine) until a full first draft of the book as a whole. Getting that kind of momentum again feels good: it takes the pressure off and gives me some justification to go explore. In many ways the move now seems to have helped. In Oxford I associated my office with clearing emails, teaching and the administrative detritus of working in higher education. Over the years that I struggled to write after moving there, the office took on many of the qualities of a wall: an immovable objected that blocked my progress and left me feeling intellectually trapped. If not a wall it became a blank screen in which my imagination and ideas diffused into nothing. It’s strange, how the associations a place takes on can linger and obstruct—even during those vacation periods when there were no students around and the emails dried up. In the end, the only way I broke out of this cycle was by renting a friend’s house in rural Massachusetts and retreating to the woods for a couple of months. That worked: 70,000 words and 1400 miles on the bike in one of my favourite parts of the world suggest that it worked. I’m not sure it’s the kind of thing I can do every time I struggle to write though.
In Williamstown I wrote looking out on trees and roaming chipmunks; in Birmingham, now, I write either looking out on the university library or on the traffic that moves backwards and forwards past my kitchen window. All of these seem productive places to write, for me. Things like quiet or a view matter much less than familiarity and routine. Give me my Hemingway quote postcard (“The first draft of everything is shit”) and the strangely motivating poem my Dad sent me when I was eighteen and went to university and everything works just fine. After I moved, a real turning point was the afternoon when I finally unpacked my boxes of books and box files and the random historical postcards, adverts, photographs and ephemera that I’ve accumulated over the years. Books on the shelves; postcards on a noticeboard, photographs of interwar urinals and nightclubs on the walls: all of a sudden somewhere strange becomes instantly familiar. I know that all this might change when I come back from leave and start teaching again next autumn. Right now, however, this feels like a good place to write. Moving has made me realise how we make that place, wherever or whatever that may be.
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.