Matt Houlbrook: mobile historian; beard growing, head shaving; occasional cycling.
Right now I am very tired.
A long term, a shit year, and too many months playing catch-up since my Dad was in hospital. This is why I am very tired. And along with that, the dull ache and low grade anxiety that comes with not writing, not reading, not doing history. As of last week, I think the last time I made it into an archive or library was way back in the summer.
The addictiveness of history; the sensation of going cold turkey.
One consolation — something to hold onto: smart students, exciting conversations, new and challenging ways of thinking about things I thought I had a handle on. It turns out that 1920s and 1930s culture is all about Keeping up with the Kardashians on the Hogwarts Express. Or am I getting the pop culture reference wrong again?
I know the sensation and frustration of going cold turkey, just as I know the lethargy and twitchiness that comes when I don’t get out on the bike for a few days, so on Tuesday I took myself off to London to do some history gain. There is a weird kind of relief in queuing for a library and getting into “my” usual seat. There is also relief in the smell and feel of an old book and the once familiar rhythms of reading. Someone on Twitter said it was just like riding a bike: I think I’ve forgotten how to do that as well.
I read. I read a 1933 guide to the British Museum to figure out where the Gallery of Indian Religions was and get a sense of what it might have contained. This is the best way to understand why a disreputable journalist might have staged a bomb hoax there in 1930, isn’t it? I read a self-proclaimed “quack doctor’s” rambling racist prescriptions of 1919, some terrible literary criticism on narratives of the 1918 influenza pandemic (why only 1918?), and a lot of epidemiology and medical history that went way over my head. This is how you go about understanding the pocket diary of a young woman who got flu in autumn 1918, isn’t it? I scratched back through my notes and sources on fake news and bogus biographies, scams and tricksters, and leafed through a book on the remaking of the global order between 1916 and 1931. Where does this take you?
Usually a day like this is all it takes to clear my head. Not to get my head back into writing, reading, doing history, but to make the aches and anxiety go away for long enough so I can get back into it. That didn’t happen this week.
Right now I am very tired, and I have to make choices.
A book is done and gone and someone else’s problem, but I can feel its absence still. What do I do next?
The question is not as straightforward as it seems, and I have got the answers spectacularly wrong at different points in the past. Turning down the wrong paths of research and inquiry might seem productive with hindsight, but that can’t compensate for the sense of having fucked up at the time.
What do I do next?
Do I turn to the book on British culture in the 1920s which I am under contract for and which I first tried to write almost a decade ago? Do I try to quickly finish the article on the bomb at the British museum for which I and a researcher assistant have done most of the research and a lot of thinking? Do I seek out the exquisite pleasures of the archive and pursue a small idea for a big book — a cultural history of decline — wherever that might take me? In my head that pocket diary is a way into my new monograph project, though now I am not so sure.
I have to make choices.
In some ways, these choices are small. They are about the shifting intellectual genealogies I have pursued throughout my career as a historian — the logics of choices I have made, questions I have explored, periods I have tried to make my own. In the most immediate sense, they are about what interests me right now — what I want to read and think about right now, when I am very tired and grumpy and trying to think my way back into a historian. With all the usual caveats about checking my privilege, these choices are about what I might enjoy.
They are small choices shaped by what I can read, and think, and write about right now: there is no point in getting back into history by taking on something so big and daunting it becomes impossible. Start small and go from there.
Here is the thing: if we don’t get something out of our everyday lives as historians, then how the fuck do we motivate ourselves to keep on doing it?
In some ways, these choices are big. 1920s culture or a cultural history of decline? Influenza or the politics of fake news? More confidence tricksters or something else entirely? Whatever decision I make now will shape the kind of historian I might become, the articles, essays, I might publish (and when and where they will appear), and the research grants I might — and will have to — apply for over the next few years. Start small, and shit quickly gets serious.
In some ways, of course, these choices are not mine to make. As much as we labour until the partial illusion of intellectual self-determination, we all know the pressures that shape our research and writing. A book contract is a great and exciting thing, but the deadlines that come with it push us to prioritise some histories above others. There is very little exciting about the REF, but it too frames our decisions within a relentless repetitive rhythm. History is work, with everything that that entails.
Choices fuelled by a gnawing anxiety. Will that book be double weighted? When do I have to submit that manuscript if it is going to be published by 2020? Is there time to try the AHR?
And always, of course, where can this blog fit in alongside all those other choices? I might be tired, but I’m much more tired of not writing, not reading, not doing history.