Matt Houlbrook: mobile historian; beard growing, head shaving; occasional cycling.
I am currently working on two books that have grown out of my interests in British society and culture in the 1920s and 1930s.
I submitted the manuscript of The Prince of Tricksters: Cultures of Confidence in Interwar Britain to my publishers, the University of Chicago Press, in September 2014. The book focuses on one ‘international man of mystery’, but it had its origins in my interest in a motley group of conmen, chancers, vamps and wannabes, and what their lives might tell us about British culture after the Great War. It starts with a simple question: how can we be confident in something? This is a recurrent philosophical and ethical question, but it is also always an historical question, shaped by social relations and cultural forms that are time and place-specific. The book argues that it became a compelling question in interwar Britain. The legacies of war and the accelerating pace of peacetime change made confidence and authenticity prominent yet precarious values. I show how the lies and lives of the conman, discredited journalist and scandalous royal biographer Netley Lucas revealed recurrent crises of confidence in the identity of individuals and the ‘truth’ of popular journalism and publishing. Tracing how authenticity was constructed and confidence sought in social encounters and diverse forms of mass culture, The Prince of Tricksters aims to contribute to interdisciplinary work on trust and (perhaps most importantly) to offers new ways of thinking about interwar Britain. Highlighting the resonances between crime, consumerism and monarchy, I show how questions of confidence abraded the boundaries between society, culture and politics and gives us a way of integrating historiographies and histories that have usually been treated as discrete. In different ways I’ve been working on the project for most of the past decade: it feels good now that the book is someone else’s problem, temporarily, at least.
The Aftermath: The Great War and the Making of 1920s Britain is the working title of the book for which I’ve just signed a contract with Profile Books. In many ways this represents the culmination of all the research and teaching and thinking I’ve done on the 1920s throughout my career as a historian: it’s my attempt to offer a new cultural history of this remarkable yet misunderstood decade. The Aftermath tells the story of how Britain was irrevocably transformed in the decade after the Great War. Out of the upheaval of war emerged a recognisably modern nation that defined the outline of the world we inhabit today. Yet the paradox of the 1920s was that Britain’s path to modernity was shaped as much by the trauma of the recent past as a sense of optimism for the future. The aftermath was a remarkable historical moment at which British culture took shape through the contradictory pressures exerted by the tragic legacies of war and the possibilities and problems of peace. Just as Britons tried to come to terms with the loss of a generation, rapid and often unnerving social and cultural and economic changes marked what one journalist called ‘our welcome to the new century’. Just as Britain looked back and tried to remember the Great War, it also seemed hell bent on embracing the pleasures of what was called the ‘Long Weekend’. Just as a devastating global conflict caused some commentators to turn inwards as they reflected on what it meant to be British, others were inexorably drawn outwards by the insistent call of Empire, the allure of the United States and the promises of a new internationalism. A nation that sought to forget conflict was convulsed by new and often violent struggles between classes, races, genders and nations. Exploring these tensions and their influence on British culture in the 1920s and beyond, The Aftermath argues that the 1920s were the most radical and transformative decade in twentieth century British history. I’ve written over 30,000 words of the book over the past few years and will complete the manuscript by December 2015.
Hmm. Reading all that back it sounds like I have a fair bit of work to do…