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What is your favourite historical film?
Herzog’s masterpiece about conquistadores sailing up the Amazon, Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972).
The Mission (1986), which similarly explores the tragedies of colonialism, is up there as well (and it has Jeremy Irons and Robert de Niro). More recently, probably Angels and Insects (1995), which explores the beauty and decadence of the 19th c. English aristocracy.
My students seem to enjoy the war-based films, but as history, they’re pretty awful. Anyone who has actually fought in a war could tell you that it’s endless hours of tedium followed by brief spasms of horrifying brutality—that doesn’t make for a very good film.
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.
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 history book do you wish more people would read?
The Travels of Ibn Battuta—it’s like Marco Polo, but from the perspective of a Moroccan Muslim Berber explorer. CLR James’s Beyond a Boundary is also a book that everyone in Britain should read, even if they don’t like cricket.
Recommend an online resource which is good for students interested in your research area...
Many of the national archives in former British colonies are doing a terrific job of digitising their collections. The “Legacies of British Slavery” website is also chock-full of fascinating content. But really, why go online at all when Nottingham’s Manuscripts and Special Collections is 10 minutes away by Hopper Bus! That place is fantastic for material that connects the history of the Midlands to the history of the empire.