Matt Houlbrook: mobile historian; beard growing, head shaving; occasional cycling.
As strange as it seems, I never meant to write a book about one man.
It started with another man – an offcut from my PhD that didn’t make the book, a matricidal confidence man, a “sodomite” whose fair hair was inclined to crinkle.
Sydney Fox murdered his mother. He was executed for it – aged thirty-one – in 1930. A former bank clerk and manservant, in and out of prison since 1919, and desperate for money, he insured Rosaline’s life for £3000 then suffocated her in the Hotel Metropole in Margate.
Sydney Fox was not a pleasant man, but I was still interested in him. I read a lot about him. Flickering microfilmed newspapers; tatty Metropolitan Police files; pencil sketches and photographs. I talked about him to whoever would listen, giving papers to historians and trying to convince my students that Sydney held the key to understanding the 1920s.
Then I dropped him. I dropped Sydney Fox just like he had been dropped by the army officers and aristocrats he had charmed and who eased his passage into metropolitan Society. Like Noel Coward, Sydney was a close friend of Lord Lathom; like Christopher Isherwood, Sydney associated with the dissolute Gerald Hamilton. Did he ever change trains with Mr Norris?
None of this was another to keep me interested, however. For a decade Sydney Fox no longer held my gaze or focused me reading. A couple of years ago I came back to him – faint memories, lost files, the pressure of the REF to publish something anything that thing fast. I wrote an article, but that is a very different thing to a book.
Sydney Fox did something for a book though. A prompt, a nudge, a whispered suggestion – something bigger, something interesting, something beyond him – a starting point for Faking It: Modernity and Self-Fashioning in the Roaring Twenties. This is what I told interview panels I meant to write. This is what I told myself I meant to write. Sydney Fox was not alone in claiming to be someone he was not. In those restless times after the Great War, fantasy and deception appeared everywhere. This book was about chancers, tricksters, and vamps; reading and the delightful pleasures of the imagination; make-up and remaking yourself to be ‘as glorious as Theda Bara.’
All history writing is biographical in some way. Worried that I was faking it as a historian, I chose to write a book about those who faked it in the past. Words on a screen pushed away the voices that taunted me with the prospect of getting found out.
All history writing is biographical in some way. I think my Mum was glad that I left Sydney Fox behind.
Libraries and archives; reading and research; disappearing into the dust of the past. Hiding in Edith Thompson’s letters, colourful adverts for lipsticks and powder puffs; immersed in Edwardian romantic fiction and 1920s cinema fandom. I meant to write a book, but I got side-tracked into researching one.
Faking It was meant to be another Serious book — an Academic book, whatever that might mean. Side-tracked then scared then side-tracked once more. People liked my first book – that should be pleasing rather than intimidating, surely? No. I can’t. I can’t write anything that lives up to that. Not now.
Another book – a history of 1920s Britain that anyone could read and was safe for me to write. Hiding in a book so different to the first that no one could compare them.
Thirty-five thousand words and months of work later that book reached a dead-end. The story of the books we write is as much a story of the books we do not write. Books and manuscripts are haunted by the ghosts of the other books and manuscripts they have left behind. Our success contains within it the traces of all our failures.
An aside: after eight years I have come back to that book about Britain in the 1920s that anyone can read. I mean to write it. This time, perhaps, I mean to write it for the right reason.
Back to the archive. Tabloid sensation and the Empire News; scientific treatises and modern technologies for producing face powder; more colourful cosmetic advertising; a rogues gallery of confidence tricksters; tatty Met and Home Office and Old Bailey files; Gerald Riviere; Michael Corrigan. Box files expanding, bulging, relabelled, reused.
A book I meant to write in boxes I have never opened.
A book that was too big for those boxes. Too big for me to write – tricksters, cosmetics, reading and fantasy between the same covers makes for a heady cocktail. It is also, as my oh-so-wise then Head of Department pointed out, the stuff that makes a career rather than a book.
A dead-end: that cannot work. Now what? Now what the fuck do I do?
I wrote about Edith Thompson’s letters and the romantic fiction that was so important to her everyday life and sense of self; I wrote about the man with the powder puff in 1920s London. These, however, are very different things to a book.
What do you do with those projects that fail? In the dead-ends and mistakes and wrong turns I see also my own failings as a scholar. Unopened boxes, un-read notes, forgotten hard drive files mark moments we – I – have got it wrong.
Then I meant to write a book about confidence tricksters and vamps in 1920s and 1930s Britain. Was my heart ever in this? I am not sure. Who wants to write a book that is obviously the bit left over after the other bits have withered and died? Following the last man standing does not seem like the best way forward. But I had done the work, wasted the years, accumulated the always-taunting files and boxes. Sometimes it is impossible to walk away.
The REF makes it is impossible to walk away.
I never meant to write a book about one man.
Then I met him, and – though I did not know it at the time – a book came from an encounter in a library on an autumn afternoon. Good luck, or an encounter over-determined by all those other archival encounters that had come before?
Netley Lucas was not always a pleasant man, but he could turn on the charm when he wanted to and his lives were unlikely and extraordinary and he interested me. Perhaps intrigued is a better word for it. You cannot write a book about one man if they bore you.
Reading, writing, thinking, talking. Reading, writing, thinking, talking. The cycle has been the same for the book-that-never-was about Sydney Fox, the book-that-never-was about 1920s Britain, the-book-that-never-was about faking it, the book-that never-was about the confidence trickster and the vamp. This time the cycle has turned to a book that will be. I cannot tell you want the difference is.
I never meant to write a book about one man, but that is what I have done.
Just as family trees link us to long-dead long-forgotten ancestors in the past, so the genealogies of a book link it to all those books-that-could-not-be that have come before them, and to our mistakes and fuck-ups and crises and anxieties. Ghosts and spectres bring a book to life, and then haunt it.