The Trickster Prince

Matt Houlbrook: mobile historian; beard growing, head shaving; occasional cycling.

Mobile historian; beard growing, head shaving; occasional cycling (2014 version)


Mobile historian

2014 was the year I finished the book. It only took me the best part of a decade to get The Prince of Tricksters: Cultures of Confidence in 1920s and 1930s Britain into something that looks like a finished manuscript (when viewed from a certain angle under a fading light). And when I say finished I don’t mean finished. My publisher likes it, the readers like it, but there’s still the not-so-small matter of a few words to lose before I can really let it be someone else’s problem.

It might still be a bit of a baggy monster; I know many people are going to really hate it; but I’m actually quite pleased with how this book has turned out – perhaps more than with my first book. That’s not something I ever imagined I would say.

I thought I would feel something when the manuscript went off. That hasn’t really happened and I am not sure why. Perhaps I’ve just been too busy as the demands and challenges of working in a new department kicked in. After a year on research leave I have loved getting back into the rhythm of teaching and administration. Working with new students and my colleagues in Modern British Studies at Birmingham has been exciting and energising at exactly the time when I needed it. Leave brings the necessary time and space to think and write. Leave also brings solitude and soft clothes, distance and meals you can eat with a spoon. I could not have finished this book without it (and the support of the British Academy and my department). Still, leave has made me more aware then ever of how thinking and working together makes us more than the sum of our parts.

Never the most sociable, hiding out meant my social skills disappeared and my conversation atrophied: the feral historian with the thousand-yard stare. Sorry if I looked confused and anxious when you tried to talk to me: I forgot what I was supposed to do. All being well I’ll be able to learn again.

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Sometimes even working from home or sneaking into the office and shutting the door are not enough. In April blogging and the incessant buzz of social media became too much and I pulled the plug on the world for a few weeks. Thanks to a visiting fellowship at Berkeley I hid out in north Oakland – writing in a summerhouse, riding in the sun, eating all the sushi and burritos and fresh fruit and salad I could, drinking my way through the craft beers of the west coast. I emerged with a first draft of the book and the chance to explore my ideas with smart and interesting people at Berkeley. Heading back east I stopped off to explore my ideas with my amazing publishers and smart and interesting people at Northwestern and the University of Chicago.

From solitude to the highs that can only come from talking about history with people that are passionate and reflective about it. I have been lucky enough that my mobility as a historian so often brings me into contact with people like this. All writing is co-writing. The book might have my name on it, but it would be impoverished without the conversations that have sustained and stimulated me over the past year. It would not exist.

If I have talked history with you over the past year – thank you

Beard growing, head shaving

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The white continues to spread: I’m aiming for distinguished. It can’t hurt to dream.

Occasional cycling

Books get in the way of bikes.

I made it to 5000 miles for the year with 30 minutes of daylight to spare on New Year’s Eve. Snow and ice and headwinds on the Lincolnshire steppes were not the best way to end 2014. It was not the best year on the bike though: too little time and too little motivation left me 1000 miles down on last year and with way less in my legs than I would like. It’s time to take stock, dig out the turbo trainer, and start again. I don’t like being slow.

Some facts and figures:

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Cycling highlights:

Big hills and bigger views; switchbacks and redwoods; cities and sea; bays and bridges: four weeks riding in north California.

Roads and rail trails; rustbelt archaeology and Lake Michigan; 95 miles, 3 states, and 4 brewpubs; lightless freeway riding in the dark; the perfect way to spend the day before a long haul flight.

Type 2 fun; bikepacking in big hills; torrential rain and rivers in flood; fallen trees and tussocks; Bearbones 200, There ‘n’ Back, a failed attempt on the Pennine Bridleway ITT. It has to be character building, surely.

4 days + 2 great friends + 229 miles + 2 Olympians & World Champions (Marianne Vos and Bradley Wiggins) + 1 Madison Genesis race team + countless German triathletes = thank you Mallorca.

Riding friends who make the miles fly by; riding friends who are great company and perfect to put the world to rights with; riding friends who make me feel slow and out of shape; riding friends who make me feel fast (there are fewer of these); riding friends who I learn very many things from along the way. Thanks to Adam, Avi, Dave, Kevin, Sarah, and Tim. Thanks also to everyone who complimented me on my pink socks along the way.

Things I want to do in 2015: ride further, ride in different places, ride adventures into big hills for big days out whether it is on the road bike, mountain bike, or touring bike. Panniers and wild camping; climbs and vistas; bring it.

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Other things I want to do in 2015: write another book. A moving target is harder to hit and I’ve been thinking about The Aftermath: The Great War and the Making of 1920s Britain for long enough already.


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