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If you could travel to any period in history, which would it be and why?
1920s Paris. For a flowering of art and culture, and for sheer dazzle and beauty, it’s a time and a place almost without peer. Watching the City of Lights recover and thrive after the carnage of the First World War would be truly extraordinary.
What is your favourite module to teach and why?
Definitely my third-year special subject, “The Chimera: British Imperialism and Its Discontents.” It is amazing to nurture the intellectual progress of students over the course of a year’s intensive study. They arrive knowing next to nothing about both the history and historiography of the British Empire, and they leave as formidable researchers and analysts of the subject. Most of that progress is of their own doing — I give guidance, but they pursue their own particular interests, and often produce marvellous and unexpected results. My view often changes in surprising ways from reading their work.
What inspired you to teach your subject?
My father came from a family of Holocaust survivors and was a veteran of the Second World War. He rarely spoke about either, but the stories he used to tell of Prague in the 1930s, and of working in Hollywood after the war were just mesmerising. I could never hope to live a life half as interesting as his was, but through the study of history, I could become a time-traveller of sorts.
I always tell students that being a historian is like watching a movie where the film is running backwards. You can look on a busy urban landscape and think about what it must have been like when it was just a small town, a village, a Roman or Celtic trading post, a battleground, a sacred site, or maybe all of these at one point or another. Everything and everyone has a past just waiting to be discovered, and the stories that beckon to us are almost beyond imagining. History, for me, is not only inherently fascinating because of these stories, but also because it offers the best insight into the nature of human societies, how they change over time, and what role we, as individuals, for good or ill, can play in the larger events unfolding around us.