The Trickster Prince

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


12-02-1930 (The Museum 'Bomb') copy

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.


6 comments on “Choices

  1. chrysaliswithaview
    April 1, 2016

    ‘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?’

    Hello, I don’t know you, but I have similar issues re choosing what to focus on and getting satisfaction from what I do. Two things sprang to mind as I read your post. The first is in response to the quote above. I think the answer is love. You need more dabbling, you need more fun. You shouldn’t do history as some noble pursuit. You should be doing it because you love it. So you need to be spending more time with it, remembering why you loved it in the first place. Secondly, about things that sit there weightily needing to be done: It seems to me like you do the smallest thing first, to clear that off your desk? Then, turn to the bigger one, which will take time anyway, and while you are assembling that, you fit in lots of dalliances and breaks and dates with history, so that you are ticking things off and having fun at the same time.

    There you go, unsolicited advice (well, no, actually you did ask 🙂 ) from a stranger.

    • The Trickster Prince
      April 1, 2016

      Thank you: this is what I meant by starting small and building from there, and focusing on what can be done (and enjoyed in the doing).

  2. Alison Twells
    April 1, 2016

    I know the feeling Matt. I’ve not done any ‘Norah’ since September due to a year of domestic flux (good flux, but massively unsettling all the same.) Getting some space to think and be inspired at ESSHC is good, sort of restoring me to myself. My view (I’m full of advice): any decision should be deferred until after Tramuntana. Take care x

  3. The Trickster Prince
    April 1, 2016

    Thanks Alison — I think you’re right that the decision will come in big mountains and bright sunshine and when I’m least expecting it. History looks different over the bars of a bicycle…

  4. Jessica Meyer
    April 1, 2016

    As always, so much of this rings so familiar (although in my case the book is only half done and still very much my problem). The only thing I would say is that whatever you decide to do for the next step, it will only define you to the extent that it is grounded in the historian you already are. I say this as I circle back on myself with my current research, finally trying to answer a question I first asked over 10 years ago. Any direction you go sounds as if it leads logically on from somewhere you have been and you will take all that with you. Hard work, but built on strong foundations.

  5. Pingback: What do we talk about when we talk about doing history? | The Trickster Prince

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