Co-director of the Academy for the Study of Britishness, University of Huddersfield, UK
1. Where, when, and why did you become interested in British history?
I left school at 16, completely uninterested in history, and worked in a low-grade white-collar job for 5 years. I became interested in archaeology and went back to college to study it. I found medieval archaeology and particularly monastic farming hugely interesting, but even more interesting was the modern British history course I had to take alongside. The constant debate enthralled me, partly because, as a left-wing political activist, I was seeking to put a Marxist interpretation on everything. This meant that I didn’t consider the past as something that had happened but as something that informed the present.
2. Who most influenced your academic development?
Without a doubt, Prof John Ramsden, who died last year. He taught me across each year of my undergraduate modern history degree and supervised my PhD at Queen Mary and Westfield College, University of London. John was a Conservative and a historian of the Conservative Party, but he was also an exceptional cultural historian. He taught me to see the past as it was, to see people as they acted and spoke, rather than to try to get the evidence to have them acting as I, as a Marxist, would want them to act. At the same time, his academic rigor and attention to the archival detail acted as an exemplar that I have rarely managed. He introduced me to the cultural history of British politics, suggesting that I studied the British left and patriotism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
3. If you hadn’t become a historian what career path would you have chosen?
I would have trained to be a midwife.
4. Of your academic projects, which one has proven to be most fulfilling?
In some ways, I have only had one project – the examination of national identities in the United Kingdom since the 1870s. Each of my projects has been part of this greater whole. Exploring the ways in which people have identified themselves with the various nations of the United Kingdom endlessly fascinates me. My book Britishness since 1870 was an attempt to summarize the variety, so that probably answers the question best.
5. Where do you see the field of British history heading in the next few years?
Of course, this is a difficult question. It seems to be going in lots of different directions – on the one hand, British history seems to be leaving the shores of Britain, so there is a lot of current work on diasporas. At the same time, Scottish and Welsh history are developing new vigour. I do worry that this allows some English historians to revert to an unthinking Anglo-centrism. On the whole, I am optimistic that variety in the field leads to greater creativity and discussion.
6. What advice do you have for graduate students and beginning academics about finding a topic of interest and publishing on it?
The key thing is to find a topic of interest to oneself and hope that others find it interesting too. Be ambitious and ask big questions, but think how they can be answered through smaller pieces of research, so that the work ahead doesn’t seem so intimidating (and allows the building of an academic career).
Paul Ward’s links: