Matt Houlbrook: mobile historian; beard growing, head shaving; occasional cycling.
I’m on a train from Colchester to Liverpool Street, rolling above the east London neighbourhoods I used to know so well from other train journeys. Ilford, Manor Park, Bethnal Green; tangled streets of Victorian brick and long parades of mock-Tudor shops; familiar snapshots of kids playing in parks; unfamiliar panoramas of shining glass and metal. Heading home, eventually.
It’s been fourteen years, I think, since I was last at the University of Essex. That was for my viva. Little of that occasion has stayed in my mind, other than that it was tough and I wore a cheap suit because I thought I should at least look the part. Now I’ve been back to examine someone else’s PhD thesis in a room with no natural light in what might be the same block where Mike Roper and John Tosh grilled me. Perhaps I’ve also asked one of the same questions that I was asked. Modernity is still a slippery category of analysis.
As the train rolls on Essex gives way to London through the filter of the muddy grey light that I associate with this journey. And the ghosts of my past come back to me as flashes of light. The lanes of these memories run in a straight line through the sixties tower blocks that became a tunnel for the wind when it blew in the right direction.
Essex made me. As much as I relished the opportunities to work with the great historians who taught me as an undergraduate, I never really felt like I belonged in Cambridge. Moving to Essex was a fresh start and a chance to grow up and find my voice. From Pam Cox and Geoff Crossick, my supervisors, I learned how to research, how to think, and how to write; and of the importance of thinking critically and theoretically. From Pam and Geoff’s example, I also realised what a difference being intellectually curious and open to other people’s ideas can make. Even when my ideas were at their most inchoate, they listened and engaged.
When I arrived at Essex in the late-1990s it was no longer quite the same institution that had driven the development of the sociology and history of sexuality in Britain. By then Jeffrey Weeks had moved on and Mary McIntosh had just retired. Mary was still around though – I saw her talk about her famous paper on the ‘homosexual role’ in my first term. So was Ken Plummer, whose classes I went to and who asked me difficult questions each year on my progression panel. It was a good place to become a historian of sexuality.
I taught my first undergraduate seminar at Essex two weeks before my twenty-second birthday. Hopelessly unqualified, hopelessly inexperienced, hopelessly terrified; drawing desperately on a roll-up as if that would make everything right.
Rolling above Bethnal Green, Manor Park, and Ilford on the train from Liverpool Street to Colchester I tried to make sense of the police and court files I had found in the PRO and LMA. Looking out of the window I sought inspiration from the streets and buildings of the city I was also trying to understand.
On another train heading in the opposite direction I struggled with a sense of being overwhelmed by what I did not know and the daunting towers of Home Office files waiting for me at the other end.
I was offered my first academic job on that train. Somewhere between Liverpool Street and Bethnal Green I answered a call on a clunky blue mobile phone. It was weeks before my funding ran out and I cried in relief at knowing that I wasn’t yet through.
I think of all these things as the train rolls on. Most of all I think of my friend Vanessa Coombe. Ness and I shared a birthday, an interest in random bits of twentieth century pop culture, and an obsession with Montgomery Clift (with whom we also shared a birthday). I did not share her passion for Gram Parsons, but could see where she was coming from.
Ness must have been in her late-forties when I first met her, falling out of the paternoster elevator towards the Inter-Library-Loan desk on the first floor of the Albert Sloman Library. For Ness, I think, that desk was something approaching a stage. Striking in appearance and always ready with a flamboyant phrase, she described herself as a camp man in a butch lesbian’s body. She seemed to read everything I ordered before I did – that’s how we realised our shared interests in Noel Coward and Binkie Beaumont. Along with my books, she dispensed questions, ideas, and items from her own shelves. My first copy of Basil Dearden’s 1961 film Victim came from a VHS recording Ness made. Once I’d negotiated the paternoster it was always a treat to lean on the desk and put the world to rights together.
Later, when I had moved away from Colchester, I stayed with Ness in her bungalow in Wivenhoe when I came back for supervisions. We exchanged emails and letters often, but I always looked forward to catching up properly. When it was finally finished I emailed Ness my PhD thesis. She printed out the whole thing in the library, read it from start to finish, and shared her thoughts. That thesis wouldn’t have existed without her friendship and support. After my viva we celebrated together in a café on campus. I remember her delight as she hugged me in congratulations.
Until today my viva was the last time I was at the University of Essex. It was also the last time I saw Ness. Our emails have vanished but at least some of the cards she sent me – written in a looping scrawl that can only be hers – are tucked away in a box at home. Skip forward a few years and more flashes. A message on the phone in my flat in Liverpool from a voice I do not know tells me Ness is OK and that I should not worry. An email from a colleague in the Albert Sloman library tells me she is dead.
Somehow a sentence in the acknowledgments to my first book doesn’t seem enough to mark everything I owe my friend Vanessa.