Lecturer in Art History at Birkbeck, University of London
1. Where, when, and why did you become interested in British history?
Orangutans are to blame. I was adopted by my grandfather who, after years of colonial service, worked as a tropical agriculture consultant for a multi-national company. Since his job took him around the world, my grandmother and I got to travel a good deal to unusual places. This meant that my schooling was somewhat erratic, and it was mostly based on being left with a pile of books and having to talk about them after I had read them. This, of course, was excellent training towards becoming a history professor, if not for much else. When I was in Indonesia I remember picking an old copy of Alfred Russell Wallace’s Malay Archipelago (1869) off the bookshelf and opening it up to a page showing an extraordinary drawing of Orangutans – and noticing that these were Victorian Orangutans, that is, great apes as seen by a Victorian Briton. My subsequent interests have always had a focus on the way that the British see others and often fail to see themselves.
2. Who most influenced your academic development?
Well, apart from Alfred Russell Wallace, it may have been the emperor Constantine, aided and abetted by Greg Woolf (now Professor of Ancient History at St. Andrews). Greg Woolf helped introduce archaeology and anthropology as undergraduate degrees at Oxford in the 1990s and played a leading role in what was regarded then and there as a slightly unusual combination of classics and history – BA Ancient and Modern History – which I took as an undergraduate. This meant that I was subjected to a splendidly interdisciplinary brew which was distinctly missing from the more modern end of the curriculum. The break in the Oxford curriculum between the faculties of Literae Humaniores (Classics) and Modern History happened in the later Roman Empire and so I wrote an interdisciplinary PhD proposal which combined anthropology and material culture in exploring the age of Constantine. Subsequently, I discovered that I was more interested in the way in which myself and other Britons had looked at the early Church and hence I am now working in British Studies.
3. If you hadn’t become a historian what career path would you have chosen?
I was good at two subjects at school, history and drama. Neither of these are the easiest way to make a living. So instead of waking up in the morning in a series of small and seedy apartments whilst I worked at my next part-time teaching job, I would have woken up in a series of small and seedy apartments whilst I worked at my next acting role.
4. What project are you currently working on?
In between swatting away a cloud of buzzing articles, I am writing a small book about the topic of ‘queer martyrdom’ in modern Britain. This explores the way in which a series of writers and artists (particularly Oscar Wilde, Frederick Rolfe, Francis Bacon and Derek Jarman) explored or confronted masochistic constructions of homosexuality that were inspired by motifs of martyrdom derived, directly or indirectly, from the early Church. This research aims to situate the development of cultural expressions of same-sex desire in the context of Christian ideas, images and heritage. I am also developing a collaborative project and associated conference on the overlaps between images and realities of martyrdom and terrorism. My contribution will look at linked Victorian Protestant fears of Fenians and Jesuits.
5. What projects do you see yourself working on in the near future?
My next big project is inspired by Boyd Hilton’s classic The Age of Atonement (1988) which explored the influence of evangelicalism on social and economic thought from 1785-1865. This flagged up the importance of religion in the history of modern ideas and helped to emphasize that this was not just a side issue for technical specialists in things ecclesiastical. What I want to do now is to look at the age of incarnation which Hilton presents as the next stage. My approach will be very different from his of course. I will be focusing on Catholicism, and on material as well as textual evidence, and will be emphasizing cultural practice and performativity.
6. Of your projects, which one has proven to be the most fulfilling?
I guess this must be Victorian Reformation: The Fight over Idolatry in the Church of England, 1840-1860 (2009). In early Victorian England the cross was widely thought to be a deadly idol that led worshippers to the devil. Victorian Reformation is a study of the intense anxieties surrounding ‘idolatry’ which was, in a narrow sense, the worship of idols, but in a broad sense could mean worship of or devotion to anything that intervened between the believer and God. In this project I worked through the main disputed practices of Anglo- and Roman Catholics, such as adoration of the cross, confession and communion and probed the disputed boundaries of the physical and spiritual. I knew very well from my secondary reading that many of the primary sources had never been commented upon by scholars and that was very exciting. When I was working on the early church materials in my first bookGod and Gold in Late Antiquity (1998), I might have been performing new scholarly acts, but I was certainly not on virgin territory.
7. Where do you see the field of British history heading in the next few years?
The United Kingdom is witnessing something of an ongoing crisis of identity. The European Union has made the nation states that compose it less substantial as entities. This has raised many people’s understanding of what a peculiar (and fascinating) cultural construction Britishness was (and is). National certainty is no friend to discursive analysis such as forms the basis of historical studies. So I am optimistic that we will be seeing more researchers who will be looking again at what seem to be familiar decades, figures and institutions, and point out that things may not have been what we have assumed.
8. Do you think that British domestic history in the modern era gets overshadowed by the study of the British Empire? Can the two subjects be properly studied in isolation?
Many British people on the ‘home front’ have long had an ability to pretend that the British Empire, and indeed the rest of the world, was not quite real. Those who are fans of The Lord of the Rings will recognize this as the ‘Shire’ mentality. They will also spot that it was lovingly recreated by a man born in 1892 Bloemfontein, in the then Orange Free State. Domestic culture was overshadowed by that of the British Empire and so, no, I don’t think they should be studied in isolation.
9. What advice do you have for graduate students and beginning academics about finding a topic of interest and publishing on it?
In my experience, the nearest analogy I can find to a big project of historical research is having a dog. You two will be spending a lot of time together, and some of that time will be wonderful, and some of it will be tedious or annoying. You will think you understood your dog/topic but you can never be quite sure. Hopefully you will outlive it, but in a ghostly sort of way it will always be running along beside you, still somehow constitutive of what you are and of your experience of life. So, when you are choosing your project, remember that you are not just taking a step in a career, but also are about to shape who you will become.