This afternoon, History Today published an article written by me and a few fellow historians. Fog in Channel, Historians Isolated is a response to an article published last week written by the eminent historian Prof David Abulafia, with the aim of critiquing its emphasis on British exceptionalism. We wanted to set British history back in its European context, and to correct some errors in the presentation of British history. Whether we did so successfully is something you can judge for yourself – though as it turned out, nearly 300 of our colleagues, from PhD students to professors, said they wanted to put their names to it.
This was something of a surprise, though a very pleasant one. When I tweeted that people should get in touch with me if they wanted to collectively sign up to a response to the Abulafia piece, I was hoping we might get enough signatories to match the forty-odd listed supporters of Historians for Britain, the group whose views Abulafia was representing in his piece. The level of interest came as a complete shock to me and to my inbox. Top tip: don’t try to kickstart an academic movement the day before you go off to a conference! Luckily Richard Blakemore took up my slackening hold on the reins and ably steered the ship as I went off to Masculinities in the British Landscape.
On the surface, this seemed like a much more traditional way of Doing History – I gave a paper in a conventional 20 minute format, and presented it in the gilded environs of a historic stately home. I’m sure many people imagine that this is how historians do most of their conferences – sitting in the orangery, walking in the garden – rather than, as is more typical in my experience, sitting in a stuffy room built in the 1960s. But if bringing together 282 people to collectively sign a letter asking for a better, richer, more open approach to studying British history is in its own way radical – do you know how hard it is to get a group of academics to agree to anything?! – this conference was also boundary-pushing. From Thursday night to Saturday afternoon, I discussed gender, power, landscape, space, and time with academics who gave papers ranging temporally from prehistory to the present day, who came from multiple disciplines, and who demonstrated that the “British” landscape has throughout history meant far more (politically, economically, culturally) than just these islands. We walked over Regency-designed gardens and across the remains of First World War barracks. It was an intellectually engaging, exciting few days, and a reminder that panhistoric, interdisciplinary discussions are not just useful, but vital. We are stronger together than in our constituent parts.
Those of us who work in the humanities are used to solitary employment. Few of us co-write; even fewer of us co-research. And to be honest, most of us like it that way. I know that I like being able to pursue my own peculiar interests at my own pace, setting my own agenda! But there are weeks like this when I remember – quite proudly – that the best place for my work to be is part of wider conversations, and that together we can journey to more unexpected destinations than perhaps we would on our own.