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February 2008 – Malcolm Murfett

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

MM: It certainly wasn’t at school. I remember our history lessons as being amongst the most tedious episodes of the entire week. Our teachers taught without enthusiasm and appeared incapable of rousing their long suffering charges from the torpor of their monotonous rote learning exercises. Like many of my classmates, I gave up history for geography at the first opportunity I could. I guess I was fourteen when this exit strategy emerged. If someone had told me then that I would take two degrees in history and teach it for over 30 years, I would have been frankly appalled at such a fate.

After spending what my teachers considered was an inordinate amount of time playing sport, my exam preparation suffered as did my performance in the nationally applied tests that we took at 16 and 18 in those years. While I had been good enough to play tennis on the grass courts at Wimbledon, I had also bombed out at passing those often career-defining examinations. Being ultra-competitive I did not enjoy failure. So the fact that I was forced to go out to work at sixteen rather than be allowed to proceed blithely onwards towards more advanced examinations and university entrance hurt me more than I cared to admit.

I resolved not to fail again and began the long haul of retaking my exams through a combination of night school classes and postal tuition courses. One of the latter was a survey course in British history from 1763-1914 run by Dr. Eric Glasgow. I was quickly hooked by the human drama of the agrarian and industrial revolutions and fascinated by the wider geo-political struggle that engulfed Europe in these years. I never met Dr. Glasgow, but his positive comments on my work did more for my self- confidence than he could possibly know.

It took me five years to emerge from the workforce (selling carpets in Oxford and collecting mortgage repayments in local government) and return to formal full time studies at the British equivalent of a community college. By the time I got there in the guise of being a mature student, however, I knew what I wanted to study. I was also very fortunate because the North Berks College of Further Education I joined at Abingdon was served by some of the best and most inspirational and supportive teachers I would ever have in history, law, politics, and economics. My debt to these individuals and to Lesley Holmes, in particular, is immense.

By the time I reached university, therefore, my interest in modern history was confirmed.

2. Who most influenced your academic development?

MM: Apart from Dr. Glasgow and the teachers at the Abingdon College of Further Education who consistently encouraged me to look beyond teacher training college to consider applying to university, I owe a principal debt to three professorial mentors of mine (David Dilks at Leeds, Herbert Nicholas at New College, Oxford, and Norman Gibbs at All Souls College) as well as the Earl of Birkenhead – one of that old breed of amateur biographical historians who wrote blissfully and with considerable insight on the lives of those whom he studied. A somewhat patrician figure, Dilks wrote and lectured with great vivacity and conviction; Nicolas was simply the most astute observer of the historical scene that I ever encountered and Gibbs was a true gentleman-scholar in a world sadly depleted of such a combination. I was Lord Birkenhead’s principal research assistant for several years and learnt a great deal about the art of writing from him.

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

MM: I am sure I would have become a lawyer. Two of my children have followed that path and appear to enjoy the experience and I don’t doubt I would have done so as well.

4. What project are you currently working on?

MM: I have just completed a massive tome on naval warfare from 1919-1945 in which I have tried to do justice to all those naval and maritime powers – large and small – who were engaged in the business of maintaining themselves at sea. My task has been to write a volume that is geared for the general public and for the undergraduate population of both civil and military colleges around the world. I aimed to make it accessible, authoritative, and analytical. It was a huge literary challenge as well as a
historical one since I wanted to bring simultaneity to bear on the story as it unfolded across the globe. That is why I eschewed the temptation of dividing the book into a series of chapters on the various theatres of operations in favor of plotting the story in a chronological way.

5. What projects do you see yourself working on in the near future?

MM: I have two immediate things in the pipeline – an edited volume on The Imponderables of War and a festschrift for David Dilks. Thereafter, I have amassed the material for both a post-1945 study of naval warfare and a volume on the extraordinary role performed by Singapore after it had been left in the lurch by the British military in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

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

MM: Apart from the naval warfare book which was undoubtedly the most challenging project I have ever undertaken, I really liked working on the Amethyst crisis of 1949. This was a fascinating study in Anglo-Chinese relations with a feverish Boy’s Own adventure yarn thrown into the mix. I loved it because it exposes the unpredictability of life with villains becoming heroes and trashes the concept of inevitability.

7. Where do you see the field of British history heading in the next few years?

MM: I note that you ask this question of all your scholars of the month and most of them duck the question very nimbly! I shall try to do so with the same aplomb. Whichever directions the field goes in, I would hope that tolerance will prevail. All too often, alas, one sees evidence of self-righteous individuals who think that they – and only those who agree with them – have the key to understanding the discipline. Such arrogance is extremely regrettable. History should be able to embrace a wide catholicity of interests and approaches and we, as its advocates, ought to rejoice in its rich diversity.

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

MM: My advice is always to go for those things that genuinely interest you. Even the most fascinating topics will pall after a while, but if pragmatism wins out at the expense of interest the daily slog through the archives can take on a turgidity that I wouldn’t wish on anyone.

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