1. Where, when, and why did you become interested in British history?
JB: In my early teenage years, during the 1960s, I went to a traditional, very disciplinarian English public school (i.e. a fee-paying school in the private sector), where most of the teaching was very dull, and quite out of touch with the excitement of youth culture in that decade. History at school consisted mainly of memorizing and reciting chronologies of dates and events, which was unbelievably boring. Until one day a new history teacher arrived and lit up the whole subject. I can’t remember his first name, because we never used them at that school. Everyone was known by their surname. I think his was Davies or Davis, I’m not sure which. I shall always remember that the first essay title he set us was ‘There is no such thing as good or bad, but only change in taste’. Having become used to reciting chronologies, I found this very challenging, and I felt sure that my essay was a disaster, but much to my surprise, our new teacher responded very positively. He kindled my interest in history, no mean feat as I was generally much more interested in building and riding motor cycles, and other rebellious pursuits, than in academic study.
2. Who most influenced your academic development?
JB: My academic development was influenced by a combination of another brilliant teacher and my personal background. After I left school and went to Cambridge University to read history, I became disillusioned and dropped out after the first two years. But several years later, in the late 1970s, I returned as a mature student. One of Cambridge’s most promising young history dons at that time was Clive Trebilcock, an inspiring teacher, who supervised a course on the comparative economic development of Russia, Germany and Japan. He came across more as a modern technocrat than what I thought of as a typical history don, and he had a formidable intellect, which I found extremely daunting, but also stimulating. He was interested in the history of business, which was then quite fashionable in Cambridge and elsewhere. I became interested in business history, partly because the teaching was so good, but also because it resonated with me personally. My father had been a highly
successful businessman, but I could never understand what made him tick, and business history seemed to hold out the possibility of getting closer to understanding my own background.
3. If you hadn’t become a historian what career path would you have chosen?
JB: This reminds me of the question that I used to dread more than any other when I was a boy: what are you going to do when you grow up? To be honest, I have always felt very uneasy about the whole idea of a career path, and if I hadn’t happened upon history, I don’t know what else I might have done. I don’t think that I have a dominant talent or ambition in any one direction. So if I hadn’t become a historian, perhaps I would have done a number of other, quite diverse things ranging maybe from business to the arts, instead of following a single career path. An eclectic career or a drifter, depending on which way you look at it.
4. What project are you currently working on?
JB: My current research is principally focused on very recent contemporary history that relates to issues of current concern, with a continuing emphasis on the international petroleum industry. I am particularly interested in themes such as energy and the environment (especially climate change), energy security, resource nationalism, competition, technology, the changing structure of the industry, and the competencies of the major international companies, and the challenges to their positions in the international energy system. I have three or four papers in an advanced stage of gestation on some of these themes.
5. What projects do you see yourself working on in the near future?
JB: I am starting a new book on the transformation of the major international oil companies since the 1970s. Prior to that, the oil majors largely controlled the international flow of oil, which was channeled through their vertically integrated operations by large internal hierarchies. These companies, the famous Seven Sisters, played a key role in the energy security of the West. But since control of the upstream (crude oil production) sector was seized from the majors by the OPEC countries in the 1970s, the once-dominant companies have had to respond to new challenges, which form the core of this book. Some key elements in the change process were that the oil majors’ vertically integrated operations were broken up, new markets emerged for transactions in crude oil and refined products, new competition emerged from powerful national oil companies and specialist players in the industry, climate change appeared as a major new concern that threatened the future of the industry, downsizing and outsourcing reduced the internal capabilities of the majors, service companies like Schlumberger strengthened their hold on key technologies, and some of the Seven Sisters were swallowed up in a wave of mergers and acquisitions. With the revival of resource nationalism in producer countries like Venezuela and Russia, the remaining ‘super-majors’ now struggle to survive in a shrinking pond, with most of the world’s petroleum resources out of their reach, their production in decline, and dwindling oil and gas reserves. Having charted their progress over the last thirty years, the book plan ends with the question: where can the oil majors go from here?
6. Of your academic projects, which one has proved to be the most fulfilling?
JB: I spent so long on a multi-volume company history of BP that this must rank as the most fulfilling, otherwise I could not justify it. It took me into all sorts of areas, thematically and geographically, that I previously knew nothing about, and I had wonderful access to all BP’s records, plus the opportunity to interview lots of people inside and outside the company. My major disappointment with it came last year, when I finished the manuscript of the fourth volume, which ends in 2005, only to be told that BP would not give permission for it to be published, at least for the time being. They are able to do this under the terms on which they commissioned the book. So while the process was fulfilling, the end result has fallen short at the moment. Hopefully BP will soon allow the manuscript to go forward to publication.
7. Where do you see the field of British history heading in the next few years?
JB: I hope it’s not predictable, because it’s much more interesting when the field is disturbed. Everyone, of course, is looking to be original and to come up with something new that creates a significant discontinuity. The most important thing as far as I’m concerned is that I’d like to see history grow, and offer improved opportunities for gifted young historians to find jobs, which seems to be a dire problem at the moment. I cannot see economic history, which has always been broadly my field, making a major comeback in the near future. If I were starting again, I think I might take up environmental history, in one form or another.
8. What advice do you have for graduate students and beginning academics about finding a topic of interest and publishing on it?
JB: Follow your nose as well as the literature, choose a topic you’re genuinely interested in, and avoid fads or the pursuit of stardom. Don’t worry if you make a few false starts, and don’t be perturbed if the job market seems against you.