The Trickster Prince

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

The kindness of academic strangers

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.

  • 2015: Bakelite and the Confidence Man: Problems of Knowledge in an Age of Disguise.
  • 1999: The Private World of Public Urinals: London, 1918-57.

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:

  • If you are shaking with fear the steps down through a steeply banked lecture theatre are treacherous.
  • It is possible to grip the sides of a lectern so tightly that your knuckles turn white (but this can be a good way of stopping yourself shaking).

I have learnt other things over the years since March 1999:

  • It is worth choosing your first conference paper carefully: it can take a few years to shake off a reputation as the ‘toilet historian.’
  • Speaking in public never really gets any easier, but there are always things to hang onto. If not then sit down.
  • Walking into the bustling crowds at a conference break is always a scary moment. It’s time to take a deep breath and move forward – or, in my case, to look awkward and heard for the coffee. Knowing more historians (and so having chance to catch up with old friends) makes a difference, but sixteen years on and my social skills haven’t much improved.

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.


3 comments on “The kindness of academic strangers

  1. bmdoyle2014
    April 7, 2015

    Reblogged this on CHPHMblog and commented:
    A reflection of what academic life is really like – likeminded people working together.

  2. McLarenJen
    April 8, 2015

    Thanks for this – it made me laugh out loud, & a good reminder that kindness goes a long way. I will remember your words about first conference presentations as I prepare mine. And I really enjoyed watching the film clip – I’d never seen it (but can’t pretend never to have heard the song before).

  3. Pingback: What is a successful book? | The Trickster Prince

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