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June 2007: Stephen Howe

1. Where, when, and why did you become interested in British and, moreover, imperial history?

SH: I think it was history as such, more than any particular country or theme, which was the first great attraction. In many ways it still is: the curiosity about places or periods far distant from anything I’m mainly working on remains intense – sometimes, I’m sure, to the detriment of more purposeful or single-minded specialization. I’m happy that even today, I’m able to indulge some of those scattergun interests through book reviewing and other occasional writings.

Actually I think the first great influence shaping a passion for history was from fiction, especially those marvelous British writers of historical novels for the young, Rosemary Sutcliff and Henry Treece.

A bit later, my interest in British history was, I guess, for some while very political. I was much influenced by Marxist and other radical historians like Christopher Hill and Edward Thompson. I hope I have since learned that the relationship between historical writing and one’s political or ethical predispositions is more complex and often circuitous – though no less important – than I originally thought.

As for Empire, it was indirectly but crucially important that when I was very young, my best friend’s father worked for the International Labour Organization, mainly in West Africa and in Burma. So I used to meet lots of his colleagues and friends from those places. In a childhood world that was otherwise still far more monocultural than an English child’s would be today – even growing up on the edge of London, as I did – those contacts helped spark an abiding interest in Britain’s former colonies. Something about the intermingling of the global and the local…

2. Who most influenced your academic development?

SH: I had many first-rate teachers, from high school onwards: but I think my tendency for a long while was to react or even rebel against their influence. It took me a while, I fear, to realize that one can and must learn from those whose ideas one initially finds uncongenial. I also fear that as an undergraduate I was a disappointment to some of them. I simply didn’t work very hard! I was spending too much time on other things, like student journalism and politics.

Among slightly later influences, I would single out three very different characters. There is David Fieldhouse, my doctoral supervisor who – although we disagreed about almost everything – was both enormously kind to me and very important to my development. And there were two scholars who both, sadly, left this world far too soon, both in their early sixties: Raphael Samuel and Philip Williams.

I’d also, though, want to underline how important good bookshops have been. I still bitterly miss Compendium, a unique independent store which used to operate from London’s Camden Town, with an endless flow of new delights on its shelves and a brilliantly knowledgeable and enthusiastic staff to guide one among them. Maybe such places have been more significant than any library, and their gradual disappearance is a real worry; even though having spent most of my adult life in Oxford, the Bodleian is also very precious to me.

3. If you hadn’t become a historian what career path would you have chosen?

SH: Almost certainly a political journalist: indeed that has been at times a ‘parallel career’. For some time in the late eighties and early ‘90s, although I continued to work in academia, the biggest part of my time and energy went into political commentary, mainly for the New Statesman. I was also in that period fairly heavily involved as a political activist on various (leftish) fronts. Those are things I’ve never entirely given up, nor would I want to: but I’ve found (as I think have most people who’ve tried) that one can’t work effectively in all
those milieux at once.

4. What project are you currently working on?

SH: I’m finishing – much more slowly than I should have done – a book on the recent history of ideas about empire and colonialism, over-ambitiously called The Intellectual Consequences of Decolonisation. There’s also a closely linked volume on anticolonial intellectuals, and a project on the ways in which certain post-imperial societies ‘remember’ and ‘forget’ different aspects of their pasts, through the commemoration or suppression of particular kinds of organized violence.

5. Of your academic projects, which one has proven to be most fulfilling?

SH: I guess I’m similar to many people in having an abiding affection for my very first work: my doctoral research on British anti-colonialists, simply because it was the first, but also, among other things, because it brought me into contact with so many remarkable veterans of those movements: most of them, alas, now long dead. Equally, though, whatever one is hoping or planning to work on next is, at any given moment, felt to be the most exciting and fulfilling thing ever…

6. Where do you see the field of British imperial history moving towards in the next few years?

SH: Although I’ve thought a lot and written a bit about this, I am no prophet. I expect, and naturally hope, that the renewed high profile (even fashionability) of the subject will continue and grow still further – however grim may be some of the contemporary world events which have helped drive that new popularity. I expect, and again obviously hope, that the recent ‘civil war’ between so-called Old (mainly political and economic) and New (more culturalist, and heavily influenced by postcolonial theory) imperial historians has now run its course and that new syntheses are taking shape. I hope too that the field will continue to become ever more global both in intellectual scope and ambition, and in terms of who’s doing it. In particular, that the dire economic and political circumstances which have meant that so relatively few of our colleagues from African, Arab or other less developed countries are full participants in the global conversation, may improve.

7. What do you think of popular histories versus the scholarly works that academics are expected to specialize in?

SH: I think the division between scholarly and popular is often talked about as if it were wider and deeper than it really is – and certainly more than it should be. One of the great strengths of history as a subject is that most of it doesn’t have to be obscure or jargon-ridden, and much can and does have a wide popular appeal. Some of the finest, most impressively researched historical work is done by ‘amateurs’, and conversely some of the greatest university-based scholars write very effectively for a mass readership.

8. Given your expertise on Northern Ireland, what do you think of the recent power-sharing agreement between Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness?

SH: I don’t really have such great expertise there, though I am certainly deeply interested in the history, politics, culture and future of Northern Ireland, and indeed of Ireland as a whole.

How could one not welcome and celebrate what presently looks like the best chance yet of a lastingly stable settlement? But equally, one must feel a certain sorrow that (there as in some other places) it is the ‘former extremists’ who have to come together to make peace, and to some extent reap its benefits. So many selfless and courageous people who were working for peace over many long years – years when McGuinness was directing terrorist operations and Paisley inciting hatred against Catholics – have been pushed out or forgotten in the process…

9. In your estimation, what does the future hold for Northern Ireland?

SH: Certainly peace: I don’t believe there is any serious danger of things sliding or being driven back toward large-scale political violence. But, I fear, rather a cold peace. Every social study and attitude survey (notably the very important work of my friend Pete Shirlow) shows that, especially in working class communities and among the young, segregation and antagonism between communities is in many respects deeper than ever. It is especially disturbing that many teenagers seemingly hold attitudes at least as bigoted as their parents who grew up in the worst of the Troubles. This will still be a tense and troubled society for a long time to come.

In the longer term, I hope the old clash of British and Irish nationalisms is being superseded; in part through Europeanisation. The European Union has opted in recent years for widening rather than deepening its structures, which I rather regret. But there is I feel still great hope that a kind of Euro-federalism, with a big place for local and regional identities, will make inherited antagonisms ever more irrelevant. And one can dream of something similar eventually taking shape in the Middle East and elsewhere…

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