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July 2007: Martin Francis

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

MF: I’ve loved history for as long as I can remember, and, growing up in Britain, British history was obviously that which was most immediately accessible to me. I was privileged in being born in a county – Norfolk – where the past features dramatically in the landscape, whether it be in the form of the ramparts of Roman forts, the towers of medieval churches, nineteenth-century rural workhouses or the overgrown runways of World War Two airbases. I was equally fortunate in having parents who indulged my passion for the past by
uncomplainingly taking me to prehistoric remains, ruined castles, and vintage air displays when I was a child. Oddly, however, as an undergraduate I specialized in everything other than British history, and, if my language skills had been better, I would probably have become a historian of modern Germany or of the medieval period.

2. Who most influenced your academic development?

MF: I was an undergraduate at the University of Manchester in the early 1980s. Looking back, I’m now struck by how conservative the curriculum was. Gender and culture had yet to establish themselves, and there was still a strong, quasi-Marxist, insistence on the primacy of economics in social change. That said, I was fortunate to be taught by a cluster of genuinely inspirational tutors, such as Ian Kershaw, Terence Ranger and Alan Forrest, who, even now, remain my models for how to conduct an undergraduate seminar or lecture. As a graduate student in Oxford, researching socialism and the Labour Party between 1945 and 1951, I was extremely fortunate to work under the supervision of Kenneth Morgan, whose pioneering study of the Attlee government had just been published, constituting the first real attempt to historicize a period of British history which had previously been abdicated to
political mythologizers, journalists and political scientists. In the last two decades, I have obviously been influenced by many historians (and also scholars from adjacent fields), many of whom have been colleagues as well as mentors, but many of whom I have never met in person. They are, unfortunately, too numerous to list here. If I had to single out one individual, it would have to be Stephen Brooke (currently Professor of History at York University in Ontario), who was my exact contemporary at Oxford. In the two decades since we first met, his writings on twentieth-century Britain have consistently inspired me through their scholarship and eloquence, and his friendship has given me the courage to wholeheartedly embrace a cultural turn in our work which neither of us would have anticipated when we began our careers as conventional political historians.

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

MF: I did briefly consider a political career, and it’s rather alarming to see how many of my graduate student contemporaries have subsequently become government ministers.

4. What project are you currently working on?

MF: I have just completed a manuscript for a full-length book entitled The Flyer: Men of the Royal Air Force and British Culture, 1939-1945, under contract with Oxford University Press. While there has been an enormous amount written about the wartime RAF, this is the first sustained account of their place in British culture, using lives and representations of aircrew to contribute to our understanding of gender, class, national identity, emotional culture and popular memory in twentieth-century Britain. I particularly hope that the book will make an important intervention in the history of modern British masculinity, by stressing how, in spite of the pressures of military obligation and the attractions of the all-male camaraderie of service life, young flyers remained wedded to identities which were rooted in the discourses of heterosexual romance, male-female companionship and domesticity. With a first draft of The Flyer completed, I’m taking time to reflect on my next major project. I’m attracted to the possibility of writing a cultural history of the Eighth Army’s war in North Africa and Italy, in the context of the eclipse of the British Empire. In the short term I’m researching an article on the reception of continental film in 1950s Britain, using this case study to question entrenched assumptions (which are regularly asserted, but rarely tested) about British cultural antipathy towards the rest of Europe in this period.

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

MF: It might sound like a cliché, but I’ve found all my projects exciting and rewarding, albeit in very different ways. Writing about Cecil Beaton’s wartime photography was an interesting departure for me, allowing me for the first time to consider the relationship between aesthetics and politics. The interdisciplinary approach adopted in The Flyer gave me scholarly sanction to indulge my private pleasures of watching 1940s British feature films and reading middlebrow fiction. However, in retrospect, I see my two pieces which dealt with the relationship between party politics and the ‘emotional economy’ of Britain in the 1940s and 1950s as a critical moment in my scholarly career. They were originally intended as the first instalment of a larger comparison of the emotional styles of British and American politics (prompted, in part, by wanting to reflect on the apparent collapse of the legendary British ‘stiff-upper lip’ in the aftermath of the death of Princess Diana in 1997), a project I later abandoned. However, I like to feel that they did make some minor contribution to collapsing the boundaries between the histories of culture and politics in twentieth-century Britain, or at least offered an example of the rewards to be gained from looking at established narratives from unfamiliar perspectives.

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

MF: I feel I can only comment on my area of expertise, the twentieth century, and even here I would be reluctant to claim any significant authority. I still sense a tremendous gulf between the scholarship being produced in the UK and that emerging in the USA. Work being produced by US-based scholars is usually much more methodologically and conceptually innovative, partly because the precarious status of British history in the US academy requires scholars to be more comparative and more imaginative. The regular access UK-based scholars have to archives ensures their work is always highly impressive in terms of its empirical grounding, but the relative security engendered from writing in a field which is so dominant in UK History Departments has produced an unfortunate conservatism, with scholars, particularly those working on post-1945, content to remain within familiar and stagnant paradigms. Looking across the work being produced on both sides of the Atlantic, it’s difficult to detect a clear pattern. There seems to be an increased interest in the 1960s, in particular the links between the state, civil society and social change in that decade. I think the emerging frontier of research is that which builds on the ‘new imperial history’ but which uses post-foundational approaches to consider Britain from a globalized perspective which is not limited by the formal territorialization of British imperial dominion. In particular, studying the cultural exchanges between Britain on one hand and China, Japan or Latin America on the other, will offer exciting new insights into the development of metropolitan identities.

7. What advice do you have for graduate students and beginning academics about finding a topic of interest and publishing on it?

MF: Clearly much of the advice one offers graduate students and beginning academics has to be of a tactical or instrumentalist nature. For example, patterns in the job market in the last decade would suggest the benefits of working on topics with a focus not confined to metropolitan Britain. However, I also genuinely believe that the most impressive job candidates are those who are enthused by their subject, and wish to share that engagement and enthusiasm with others, whether they be colleagues or students. Find a topic which you are seriously passionate about. Completion of a doctorate and a first monograph will take up a decade of your life, and involve considerable sacrifices for yourself and your loved ones. When the going gets tough, you need to be able to draw on that enthusiasm and self-belief which brought you to your topic in the first place.

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