Matt Houlbrook: mobile historian; beard growing, head shaving; occasional cycling.
It’s happening again.
I read the diary written by Gwen Wells in which she records her courtship and marriage, the minutiae of life at work and play, the tumultuous final months of the Great War, and her experience of becoming seriously ill with influenza. A colleague tells me that Jack Neave – professional bohemian, Soho ‘character,’ and proprietor of the notorious Caravan Club when police raided it in 1934 –appears in a file in the archives of the National Council for Civil Liberties. I realize that the burglar Mark Benney transformed himself from a confessing ex-crook into a published sociologist who landed himself a teaching job at the University of Chicago in the 1950s. Confronted by each of these individuals, I find myself struggling with the inexorable urge to write a book about them.
Ordinarily none of this would have bothered me, but I have read Joanne Bailey’s wonderful blog about the difficulties of seeing and challenging her assumptions as a historian and become deeply uneasy about my own ingrained ways of working. A new sense of self-awareness brings with it a healthy dose of withering, exasperated, berating self-criticism.
Why do I always end up writing the same kind of history?
Habits shape and constrain how we work as historians. From the rhythms of the working day to the seats in libraries and archives we claim as own, our working lives are shaped by repetition and routine. This is as true of the ways in which we think as much as the practices of daily life. In this sense habits are necessary, but also get in the way of thinking imaginatively, creatively, and differently about the past.
I have blogged elsewhere about my fascination with individual lives, stories, and histories – the ways in which focusing upon ordinary and extraordinary women and men can give us new ways of thinking about the past worlds they made and inhabited. What I didn’t quite realise then was how far my writing had slipped into a kind of holding pattern. Cyril’s broken heart and Queer London; Thomas’s powder puff and the Metropolitan Police’s obsession with material objects; Edith Thompson’s letters and the emotional power of reading cheap fiction; and now (via Sydney Harry Fox and Josephine O’Dare), Netley Lucas, Prince of Tricksters, and the crisis of confidence that characterized Britain in the 1920s and 1930s. Court cases and legal records, scandals and newspaper sensations. Same tune, different words.
Stop me if you think you’ve heard this one before.
No really, do: I never wanted to become a one trick historian. After Queer London was published it would have been easy for me to keep reading, researching, and writing histories of sexuality in modern Britain. Back then I knew the literature and the sources (and had things to say about them). Hell – there was a time when people even asked me to write things like that.
That might have been the easiest thing to do. If I wanted to get ahead it certainly would have been the quickest and most productive thing to do. As much as I didn’t know what I was going to work on in the mid-2000s, I was always pretty clear it wasn’t going to be anything to do with the history of sexuality. Been there, done that – I wanted to do something different.
At its best, writing history is like teaching history: it should push you out of your comfort zone, make you uncomfortable, raise questions you cannot answer – and do not even know how to begin to answer. Turning these new tricks might make us think and do history differently.
From histories of sexuality to histories of subjectivity; from urban cultures to culture and self-fashioning; from mid-century Britain to the 1920s and 1930s –new challenges, new questions, new readings, new tricks.
It is not easy to turn new tricks in the world we inhabit. Starting from scratch is an uncomfortable experience – it means admitting our ignorance, addressing the reading we have not done, relying upon the kindness of academic strangers.
It takes time.
Time is in short supply for the historian. The pleasures and challenges of teaching and administration squeeze the space we have to read and think. A relentless academic treadmill carries us on, driven by the demands of the Research Excellence Framework and the pressure to publish. Routine and repetition offer comfort and an easy way out.
Old habits die hard. The old tricks can still work, if you polish them up a bit.
I don’t want to be a one trick historian.
Many years later I came back to the field in which my research began. Not as a revival gig, back with the ageing faded jaded band for one night only, but because it felt like I had something new to say about histories of sexuality. Then, finally, I began to see how the queer theories I had refused to think about – because I had been there and done that, because they were part of my old intellectual life – could carry the threads around which my new book was taking shape. It might not be immediately obvious, but Prince of Tricksters is a queer history, after a fashion.
Now that book is done (and, temporarily, someone else’s problem) I guess it is time to learn some more new tricks. Writing a cultural history of decline in modern Britain or exploring how the global crisis of 1917 to 1922 was felt and experienced – from the outset these are projects to challenge and confound the one trick historian. Stretching the scales of time and space around which I am used to working is a terrifying prospect. Dealing with issues of causation and change over time seems impossible to someone who (confession time) really can’t handle chronology. Different questions demand different sources and archives. Everything about these projects is set up to make me do history differently.
And yet still I desperately hunt for the individual lives through which to work and think. Not quite familiar, but comfortable nonetheless. Strange and strangely compelling, to me at least. If I pick up the threads of Gwen Wells’ diary, and following them wherever they might lead, I’ll end up somewhere different, won’t I?