Matt Houlbrook: mobile historian; beard growing, head shaving; occasional cycling.
1. Mobile historian
Over the past twelve months I have needed history to be a consolation and a solace more than ever. It has been a brutal year in many ways. As one of the most important things in my life has fallen apart around me I have often struggled to understand what was happening or even to know which way was up. Writing and riding have been things that I have clung onto—finding moments of escape and stability in thinking about the past or getting out on my bike. Neither can compensate for everything that has happened, but they are at least there.
It has often been hard to see it, but all this means that I have been lucky that 2013 has been a good year to be a historian. Ironically, perhaps, success in that part of my life has been a perverse echo of failure in others. After struggling with my writing for many years, I have made real progress with two projects. It is often the case that we write in a vacuum. Labouring for years on projects and people that we think are exciting and important—even essential to how we might understand modern British history. But as much as our intuition (and vainglory) tells us that is the case, we never know for certain that other people will actually agree. The moment at which a project goes public carries as much—perhaps more—anxiety as it does excitement.
This year, however, brought at least some reassurance that other people agreed with my own historical obsessions. At the start of the year I signed contracts for two books. The Prince of Tricksters: Cultures of Confidence in Interwar Britain grows out of research I have done over the past ten years and my ever-growing infatuation with the confidence trickster Netley Lucas. I am proud and excited to be working again with the wonderful Douglas Mitchell, Tim McGovern and their colleagues at the University of Chicago Press. I am just as excited to have the opportunity to work with Daniel Crewe and Profile Books on something with the working title The Aftermath: The Great War and the Making of 1920s Britain. In different ways I have been thinking about this book—a new cultural history of 1920s Britain—for most of my career as a researcher and teacher. Now, finally, I have a chance to make it happen. All that thinking will come to fruition further down the line. In the short-term, however, a Mid-Career Fellowship from the British Academy has given me the time and space to complete the Prince of Tricksters: a genuine privilege in the current climate. As those of you who have followed this blog will realize, it has been slow going, but the beginning of the end is in sight. Two chapters to go until I have a full draft to revise, rewrite and cut…
This year I also took the idea of mobility seriously: at the start of September I moved to a new job at the University of Birmingham. At times it has also been hard to see this, but in amongst all the turmoil I have been lucky enough to leave a job in which I was often unhappy and bored, and never felt anything other than out of place, for an intellectual environment (and a city) which is already bringing opportunities that are challenging and exciting in equal measure.
Research leave brings time and space to think and write, but that comes along with a kind of necessary isolation that brings its own pressures. A spectacular public falling-out-of-love with Netley Lucas is perhaps a sign that my crazy is building and any sense of the boundaries between then and now is collapsing. Through this period I have also been lucky in the amazing group of friends, acquaintances, colleagues, students and virtual commentators who have challenged and sustained me—who have provided the compelling intellectual encounters without which my life as a historian would be much impoverished. The conversations that have grown out of my attempts to use this blog to reflect on the process of writing a book from behind the scenes, in particular, have been a more rewarding and productive experience than I ever imagined.
2. / 3. Beard growing, head shaving
Not a vintage year.
4. Occasional cycling
At some point I’m going to have to drop the ‘occasional’ tag: I rode 5145 miles in 2012. In 2013 I set myself the target of getting over 6000 miles for the first time ever. I got there on the morning of Boxing Day, working off a Christmas hangover in the wintery sun chasing my brother around the flatlands of North Lincolnshire.
Some facts and figures:
2013 has been a good year and a strange year on the bike. I have missed—in so many and varied ways—the chance to get on the open road on a proper tour. At the same I’ve ridden a lot and enjoyed pushing myself harder and further than ever. My top five cycling things of 2013:
5. In the middle of the summer I realized that history was not enough and ran away. Escaping on my own to spend a few days slowly cycling down the Lon Las Cymru from Holyhead to Hereford was exactly what I needed. Solitude in big hills and the sense of making progress from A to B are rare pleasures.
4. Good weather of very different kinds for my two big bikepacking trips with Adam: sub-zero temperatures but no rain for El-an-Back in January contrasted with bright blue skies and sunburn for the Welsh Ride Thing in June.
3. Escaping the cold and the rain of the UK for a few fantastic days in Mallorca with Dave. There was less rain but I was probably the coldest I’ve been all year. It was still a great chance to put in some big miles in proper mountains. I’m looking forward to this spring’s trip already.
2. The company: a group of close riding friends who have been as smart, funny and interesting as ever (to say nothing of annoyingly quick) and made the miles fly by however grim the weather got. Thanks to Adam, Ben, Dave, Erika, Hannah, Mark, Nick and Roger; thanks also to Luke and all the other people we met out in the hills on assorted events in mid-Wales.
1. And the winner: without a doubt finishing the Bearbones 200. Beforehand I would have been happy just to get round. Making it back to the finish in the time we did (and in the kind of company we were in) was a big surprise but has given me an even bigger sense of achievement.
Thank you to everyone who has read or commented on this blog or chatted (or argued) with me on Twitter: your engagement and ideas are all very much appreciated. Happy New Year and all the best wishes for 2014.