Professor of History, University of Exeter
1. Where, when, and why did you become interested in British history?
I became interested in British history while a schoolboy at Haberdashers’ Aske’s School, the high school I attended. My main motivation was my strong interest in history.
2. Who most influenced your academic development?
I am essentially an auto-didact. I benefited from a father who was strongly interested in reading and from good undergraduate teaching. My Director of Studies at Queens’ College Cambridge, Jonathan Riley-Smith, was a key figure.
3. If you hadn’t become a historian what career path would you have chosen?
If I had not received a grant for graduate work, I had won a place on the Graduate entry stream to the Bank of England.
4. What project are you currently working on?
I am currently finishing a history of London.
5. What projects do you see yourself working on in the near future?
I plan a history of Britain from 1851 to the present and a book about Information and the Rise of Modernity.
6. Of your projects, which one has proven to be the most fulfilling?
My study of historical atlases, which led to the book Maps and History, is a topic that still fascinates me.
7. Where do you see the field of British history heading in the next few years?
I really don’t know. There is need for regional history and for a study of political communities/cultures in the post-1660 period. The integration of military history into more standard political history would be useful; as would comparative histories with European states.
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?
Yes, and the study of the Empire has been heavily compromised by an obsession with discourse and methodology. Separating domestic and imperial is difficult.
9. What advice do you have for graduate students and beginning academics about finding a topic of interest and publishing on it?
I would search for a distinctive voice and talk carefully with publishers. Much of my stand has been set out in the Postscript to What If? Counterfactualism and the Problem of History (2008) and I enclose it because I think it is pertinent.
This book is an invitation to debate, one addressed not only to academics and others concerned with the subject of history as conventionally taught and studied, but also to specialists in other fields who are interested in the past and in the processes of change through time. Other specialisations have much to offer historians and we should welcome this, not least because an understanding of the validity of different viewpoints ought to be part of academic history understood as a humane subject. As such, there is scant comfort here for the notion that academic history can provide definitive accounts of the past, and this provides room for reflection, indeed counterfactuals, at both professional and personal levels.
As far as the former is concerned, it can be asked whether the search for definitive history is not misleading, indeed a conceit that tells us more about the pretensions of systems of research evaluation and of academic power structures, than about the extent to which our understanding of the past is always a work in progress, and indeed, because of the number of possible interpretations, an interim report. Counterfactualism may demonstrate this variety, but, in doing so, it simply underlines a situation that would exist even if counterfactuals were not pursued.
I also consider the personal level because I think historiography and historical method would be more pertinent if they focused on present (not past) historical writing and took more explicit role of the subject at the level of individual historians. To then mention my own case reflects not vanity but the simple point that I am able to write about with greater authority. There is great pressure, in career, institutional and professional terms, to write supposedly definitive history, and I have certainly produced heavyweight archival and detailed tomes that might well be fatal if dropped from any height, many instances of telephone kiosk history: you could fit all those who would be interested into a kiosk. Yet, I am aware that such methods are not possible once engaging with broader topics, and indeed the aspiration to be definitive is misleading and unhelpful. Instead, it is valuable to engage explicitly with the range of intelligent approaches and views that are available, and to offer them to the reader as part of a two-way process of engagement. This method in part rests on the idea that to appear to explain all is to mislead, because it represents a claim to a panoptic vision that the scholar lacks. Indeed, ultimately, one of the values of counterfactualism is that, although it can be self-indulgent or whimsical, it can also challenge any sense of all-knowingness. This humility is one that we should try to communicate. To study is to understand the difficulties of analysis and the problems of exposition, and that is a knowledge and wisdom we should seek to convey.