“I don’t actually know why you would want to interview me” Professor Szechi remarked, turning from his computer screen filled with the labour of hours of marking. Between us lay a table with a large bowl of oranges, “I suspect it’s because you are running out of people to interview” he said with a twinkle in his eye, a statement of modesty if ever one were heard. Indeed, for those of you unfamiliar with the eminent academic, Daniel Szechi has been the Professor of Early Modern History at the University of Manchester since 2006; a time when most of us were a ‘history-student twinkle’ in Professor Szechi’s academic eye. As for the Professor’s modesty, he has led an extremely interesting life.
Born in the midlands, Szechi moved around ten times before attending high school in Harrow. Professor Szechihad attended school in Coventryin the 1960’s, relating to me how he used ‘dip-pens’ in class – an interesting historical piece of paraphernalia in itself if you have five minutes to research them. Before settling upon History, Szechi explained that he had convinced himself that he had wanted to be a Scientist, having taken Chemistry and other science subjects along with History at A – level, “It wasn’t a waste really. It gives you a factual, analytical approach to History which is quite useful”.
Fast-forwarding to the end of his undergraduate degree in History at the University of Sheffield, I asked the Professor why he pursued an academic career in History, “Essentially, in a somewhat varied life, History was the only thing I did really well, so I decided I would carry on doing it”, the tremors of a laugh punctuated the very end of his sentence as they did with many. Testament to this was Szechi’s place on the University Challenge team for Sheffield, though he imparts that they were ‘absolutely smashed’ by Newcastle.
From here Professor Szechi attended St Anthony’s College to complete aPh.D. as he explained “I had achieved a first-class degree, so I automatically gained the government grant which was available in those days for further study if I wished to do so” he continued, “they said to me at Sheffield, if you want a career in this business you have to attend Oxford or Cambridge. At pinch they would accept London. So they showed me the door!” another chuckle “no but they were incredibly supportive at Sheffield”. Szechi then completed his thesis on ‘Parliamentary Jacobitism and its influence in the Tory Party: 1710 – 1714’ and he admits he struggled –like many of us- to keep his work within the word count, however this was of course 100, 000 words! Jacobitism is a consistent topic in Professor Szechi’s workthough he states he fell into the subject due to his lack of Arabic. Thus this deprived him of the ability to study his then first choice area of interest, surrounding terrorist organisations in Palestine during the 1940’s. However, it must be stated that the 1940’s loss is undoubtable the 18th century’s gain.
Szechi was then a research fellow for three years at Sheffield, teaching at Hull for year before returning to Oxford, teaching for around two and a half years. His career then took him across the Atlantic Ocean to the University of Auburn in Alabama where he taught for the considerable length of 18 years. Despite the occasional ‘Southernism’ slipping into his anecdotes, his stint in American seems to have left his accent -which his students there found ‘quaint’- unchanged, “my children do have wonderful Alabama accents now though” he laughed.With that, conversations about the warmer climate ensued, something he loved and so I asked why he returned, “I had reached a rut in my life, and we had always planned to return to England”. ‘Why Manchester?’ was the next obvious question “Well the position was attractive, the University has a great reputation and great people”
Professor Szechi also offered some advice to current History students, “In focussing on deadlines I sometimes worry students are missing the joy of History. My advice is, take some time out, and get a History book out of the library that you wouldn’t have otherwise and just read it without taking notes”
Kindly before I left he offered me an orange, “You can tell them about my orange habit!” he grinned while passing me and orange, “I can’t have them at home as my wife is allergic and I love ‘em.And I know for a fact you lot don’t get enough vitamins! I know because my son when he was a student basically lived on pizza and beer”.
A more nice or interesting man you will seldom meet. A credit to the University, I wish Professor Szechi the best of luck in his future work.