When did your interest in history begin?
I think my love of history came from my family really; my dad was very interested in history, and studied history at University. This interest also came from the combination of being read stories and visiting places of historical interest. From my childhood, I remember loving being read stories that had a context in history, such as the Greek myths or stories about the Vikings. We’d visit castles in Wales on holiday, such as Harlech and Conway, while I was living in London. Although in my academic life I’ve focused on modern history, my initial interest came from exciting adventure stories from earlier periods.
Is that why you did the research on the British explorer, Captain Robert Falcon Scott, and his Antarctic mission?
When my book about Captain Scott came out in 2003 I did various interviews, and one of them asked me to think about which books I’d enjoyed as a child. I hadn’t really thought about it before, and made the connection between the stories I loved as a child and why I was drawn to studying this mythic story of Scott of the Antarctic, which has a classic quest narrative structure. My kids are 8 and 11 now, and I’ve read them some of the books that were read to me and they’ve also really enjoyed them! More by accident than design, my interest in Scott has been rejuvenated over the last 18 months by a series of speaking invitations, not least to a conference on Antarctic visions in Tasmania.
How did you end up coming to Manchester?
I went through a series of posts at Cambridge – I was a post-graduate student, then I had a junior research fellowship and then a teaching fellowship, as Director of Studies at Christ’s College. I’d just had my contract renewed at Cambridge for another 3 years, but didn’t want to get trapped in that particular job where you’re very much a teaching workhorse. I’m thankful a post at Manchester came up at the right time. People often don’t appreciate how few jobs are available in academia; each year there are only a handful of positions that come up in your field, so your choices are very limited. We tell our PhD students not to be too picky! You have to apply for everything and seize opportunities when they present themselves. I wanted to go to a university that had a dynamic research culture, and Manchester was attractive as the department had a real strength in the sort of cultural history that I’m interested in. Manchester definitely seemed to have a real strength in this field, with a pioneering MA in Cultural History which is still going strong.
Why do you think it’s so important that future generations continue to study history?
It’s always struck me that you cannot understand the world around you unless you understand where that world came from. Having some awareness of history is an essential prerequisite for having some political awareness, and what you find is that in times of austerity and conflict such awareness rises. At the moment we have very real and sharp disagreements about how to fund universities and what role the state should play in education; these questions have a history themselves. It is also essential to see the historical roots of the current unrest in Libya, the Middle-East and Palestine. There are global conflicts and disagreements and to understand them, and certainly if you want to intervene in these conflicts, you have to understand their history. There are many people who have read or been touched by Captain Scott’s story, and one of the aims of my research is to show how Captain Scott’s story was part of the broader history of the British empire.