Matt Houlbrook: mobile historian; beard growing, head shaving; occasional cycling.
I’ve spent much of the past fortnight being reminded that I’m getting old.
First up: I started a lecture on our second year History in Theory and Practice course by playing Billy Bragg’s 1991 ‘Sexuality’. As well as being a great song it sets up interesting questions around the politics of sex and the tensions between subjectivities and governance. Cue Foucault vs. Billy Bragg mash-up PowerPoint slide:
Strong and warm and wild and free
Your laws do not apply to me
What do you think, Michel?
I was pleased with that one.
When I asked if anyone knew the song the response was a resounding silence. Nobody had heard of Billy Bragg; or Johnny Marr; or Kirsty MacColl. Why should they, when ‘Sexuality’ was released a few years before any of them were born?
As I approach 40 the perils of playing the popular songs of my Scunthorpe-Baths-Hall-indie-kid youth have become many and varied.
Then I went to Telford to give the opening keynote for the Urban History Group’s annual conference. Sixteen years beforehand, pretty much to the day, I gave my first ever conference paper to that conference – taking a train from Colchester to Oxford to confront my terrors and share my research.
Over the years my titles seem to have got worse, at the same time as my hair as disappeared and my beard turned white.
I learnt many things in Oxford in March 1999:
I have learnt other things over the years since March 1999:
The first two articles I published came out of that paper to the Urban History Group – ‘The Private World of Public Urinals’ in the London Journal and the catchy ‘For Whose Convenience? Gay Guides, Cognitive Maps, and the Construction of Homosexual London, 1917-67’ in Simon Gunn and Bob Morris’s collection Identities in Space (2001). No wonder I got known as the toilet historian.
I saw both Simon and Bob at the conference in Telford a couple of weeks ago, and was reminded again of their intellectual generosity and openness – the support that was so crucial in the very earliest stages of my career.
Barry Doyle – now one of the Urban History Group’s academic organisers, together with Rebecca Madgin – introduced my talk. I met Barry for the first time at the conference in 1999: he came to my paper and then, on the way home, I bumped into him on the platform at Oxford station. He said well done – that my paper was good and interesting. To a young PhD student words like this make such a difference.
Being reminded that I am getting old goes hand-in-hand with being reminded of the importance of the kindness of academic strangers. That isn’t such a bad trade off.