Professor of Imperial and Global History, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research, University of Leeds
1. Where, when, and why did you become interested in British history?
I had two inspirational history teachers at school, Steven Smith and Robert Griffiths – together they fired my imagination, especially during the 6th form. In fact, History classes were the highlight of the week, something to be looked forward to. I remember a lot of humour and laughter in those classes (one wag was still asking whether or not Peel did actually repeal the Corn Laws even as we entered the final examination) as well as a passion for studying the past. At Oxford I was fortunate enough to be taught modern British history by David Eastwood; a series of one-to-one tutorials that opened up totally new historical perspectives for me, as did reading David’s own work on the languages of politics and ideas of the state. For me those tutorials encapsulated what good teaching was all about, challenging yet supportive in equal measure, setting a standard to aspire to in my own teaching later on.
2. Who most influenced your academic development?
Without John Darwin’s encouragement (and the work of John Mackenzie) I would not have seen the possibilities of integrating British and imperial histories, and set off on the particular course that I did in my doctoral studies. John (Darwin) was my supervisor, and I owe a lot to him. He has many strengths as a scholar, not least his ability to see the bigger picture, and his powers of critical and creative synthesis – vividly displayed in his recent books After Tamerlane and The Empire Project.
3. If you hadn’t become a historian what career path would you have chosen?
A pilot. I acquired my PPL before my driving licence, and got through to the last stages in the RAF selection process, only to discover I was slightly long-sighted in my left eye. That was the end of that.
4. Of your academic projects, which one has proven to be most fulfilling?
A difficult question. I very much enjoyed writing The Empire Strikes Back? – the title was the occasion for a fair few jibes though. My eldest daughter delivered what was perhaps the best one, when she quipped that ‘there will be a lot of disappointed Star Wars fans dad’. But the report I wrote for the Institute of Public Policy Research on ‘Asian Britishness’ probably deserves this slot – I’d not done research or written anything like this before; working with the Equality and Diversity Unit of Tameside Metropolitan Borough Council in Greater Manchester to interview thirty 1st generation Asian migrants, and to reconstruct their life stories, was both a fulfilling, fascinating and in many ways very humbling exercise. My co-author, Rumana Begum, was also great fun to work with, and preciously talented.
5. Where do you see the field of British history heading in the next few years?
Given the current economic and financial crises, and the intensifying pressures arising from globalisation, I’d like to think that there will be a more concerted and coherent effort over the next few years to bring economic and cultural histories much more closely together; there are signs of this happening already, but there is also scope to do so much more. Moreover, I think that we are living at a time when the past is very much perceived to be impinging on the present – this presents tremendous opportunities to historians to engage a wider public, and to challenge some of the rather limited (and limiting) notions of the ‘utility’ or ‘relevance’ of research that we are currently encountering in academic life. Articulating the benefit, socially or economically, of research in ways that need not be narrowly or excessively utilitarian is also one of the tasks I’ve set myself as Pro-Vice Chancellor for Research at Leeds.
6. What advice do you have for graduate students and beginning academics about finding a topic of interest and publishing on it?
Talk to publishers to get a sense of what type of proposals they are keen to see, but, ultimately, if you are drawn to a subject then stick with it – the best books are always written from conviction.