Matt Houlbrook: mobile historian; beard growing, head shaving; occasional cycling.
I am Professor of Cultural History at the University of Birmingham. After working at the Universities of Liverpool and Oxford for over a decade, I moved here in September 2013. I grew up just outside Scunthorpe, and went to my local comprehensive school and sixth form college, before going to university in Cambridge and getting my PhD from the University of Essex.
As a historian, my work focuses on British society and culture in the decades after the Great War. In the past, I have written about questions of gender, sexuality, and selfhood. Queer London: Perils and Pleasures in the Sexual Metropolis, 1918-57, my first book, explored the relationship between sex and the city — the ways in which modern urban life shaped how men experienced, organised, and understood their sexual desires and practices. Published in 2005, the book received the Longman-History Today Book of the Year Prize and the Royal Historical Society’s Whitfield Prize for the best first book on British history.
Since Queer London was published, I’ve become more preoccupied with British culture in the 1920s and 1930s. This was a radical and transformative moment. Much of what we think of as modern was made as the disruptive legacies of the Great War became entwined with the accelerating pace of peacetime change. Somehow we’ve lost sight of the far-reaching importance of these shifts, however. Cliched ideas of the ‘long weekend’ or the space ‘between the wars’ have been remarkably persistent. Downton Abbey‘s comforting nostalgia has effaced the radicalism of the 1920s and 1930s. All of my recent work, including Prince of Tricksters: The Incredible True Story of Netley Lucas, Gentleman Crook, tries to suggest new ways of thinking about British culture at this formative historical moment.
When I started writing this blog, it was because I couldn’t write for many years. The blog was one way of getting back in the habit of writing regularly. As The Trickster Prince has developed I’ve used it to reflect on the process of doing history from behind-the-scenes. I share bits of writing and sources that puzzle me, use my research to explore our practice as historians, and think aloud about some of the dilemmas and frustrations that go into writing about the past. Being open about the struggles that historians often prefer to keep private is my way of demystifying what we do. I hope it might also start an ongoing conversation about how history is worked on and written.