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Featured Scholar

February 2012: John K. Walton

1.  When, where and how did you become interested in British history?

Being a historian of Britain is only one of my academic identities, and it came about by a convoluted route. Until the last minute I was going to apply to do an English Literature degree, and I found my way to Merton, probably the best Oxford college for History in the late 1960s, because my head teacher made a mistake in advising me.  I was the second person to go to Oxbridge from my Derbyshire mining district grammar turned comprehensive, and I knew nothing. Oxford required three core courses in ‘English history’, and I encountered the ‘standard of living controversy’ and other issues in modern British economic and social history.  But my main undergraduate interests were in modern French history. It was not until I started a PhD, and then began teaching at Lancaster University, that I became a historian first of Blackpool, then of Lancashire, then of north-west England, then of Britain and British identities.

2.  Who most influenced your academic development?

Richard Cobb was a key influence at Oxford. I read his Les Armées Révolutionnaires for my French Revolution special subject, and enjoyed his lectures in the next room to Balliol buttery, where he was fuelled by the contents of a pint pewter tankard which was replenished at half-time.  He would march up and down, rattling off stream-of-consciousness commentary half in French, half in English, making no concessions and taking no prisoners. He didn’t influence my teaching style, but he did communicate his passion to illuminate the lives of the obscure and neglected, and give them meaning and respect. About this time I also encountered the work of Edward Thompson, an enduring influence, though always at one or two removes.  James Campbell’s lectures on the social history of the Anglo-Saxons were also inspirational. When I decided to begin a PhD on Blackpool at Lancaster University (instead of examining dechristianisation in the French Revolution), my supervisors were the idiosyncratic holistic regional historian John Marshall, from whom I learned a great deal, and Harold Perkin, one of the founders of British social history, who entrusted me with a grant. I later had the good fortune to work in the excellent Lancaster History Department of the 1970s to mid 1990s, at the peak of its collective powers, and this was probably the greatest influence for good in my academic life. As part of this Martin Blinkhorn, historian of Carlism, Fascists and bandits, lured me into work on Spanish history, and Luis Castells at the University of the Basque Country led me further down that path.

3.  If you were not a historian, what other career path might you have followed?

My friend Peter Borsay, a Lancaster postgraduate contemporary who now works at Aberystwyth, once suggested that being a historian had been my salvation, as it provided an endless series of outlets for volcanic energies. Otherwise, he suggested, I might have become a master criminal. He may have been thinking of possible alternative careers in stockbroking or banking, although I would have had to overcome my antipathy to dress codes and golf. It was History or nothing, really.

4.  What was your most fulfilling academic project?

I really enjoyed researching and writing Fish and Chips and the British Working Class (1992) at a difficult time personally, when regular visits to the National Federation of Fish Friers’ archives in Leeds, and summer evening walks in the Yorkshire Dales on the way home, helped to keep me going. I enjoyed some of the reactions even more: appearing in Pseuds’ Corner for impeccable reasons (such as suggesting that fish and chips had a politics), and provoking a colleague’s wife to exclaim in outrage, ‘But surely even you can’t spin out fish and chips into a whole book’. Oh yes I could; and the sustained hostility from unimaginative historians who had not read the book provided endless further entertainment.  I have also enjoyed helping to pioneer seaside history and ‘invent’ the history of tourism; and I have found a great deal of fulfilment in my recent work for the Co-operative movement.

5.  Where do you see British history heading in the next few years?

It is difficult to avoid despair, as British history looks less and less relevant to the outside world and fragments within Britain, while successive governments conspire to destroy the British university system, to  undermine any idea of education as promoting fulfilment, free enquiry, the exchange of ideas and a public service ethic,  and to convert the remnants into providers of vocational training for the salarypeople of corporate employers, paid for by the trainees but not by the tax-dodgers. Apart from small cliques in London and the Golden Triangle who say the right things to the right people and review each other’s books, I see little hope for the immediate future. Real education of all kinds will have to retreat, is retreating – into the equivalent of house churches.  I have been very lucky, personally, in the timing of my career; and I am delighted to have been able to escape to the Basque Country. Nowhere is perfect, but England, in particular, is a desperate place.

6.  What advice would you give on choice of research topic and how to publish?

It is still possible to enjoy working in higher education, in spite of everything, and as the alternatives are even worse it is still worth considering an academic career. But it is essential to choose a research topic you enjoy, and to do it for its own sake, to enrich the sum of human understanding.  If you do it instrumentally, and especially if you also regard teaching as a chore instead of a potential source of inspiration, you will lose your soul and become an academic line manager, sucked into a culture that requires the betrayal of your colleagues.  And publish where you will be read, where you will be accessible, not in the journals with the impressive metrics and the ISI indexing – this evil system is another way of subverting academic values from within. Be collegial, and collaborate, and try your damndest to find ways of enjoying what you are doing in spite of ‘their’ best efforts to prevent you.

To learn more about Professor John K. Walton and his work please visit his webpage at:

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