Featured Historian: Beth Rebisz

In the latest in our regular feature, we caught up with Beth Rebisz to hear about her a recent exhibition she worked on in Nairobi. Beth is a Lecturer in the History of Modern Africa. Her research explores Kenyan women’s experiences during the Mau Mau conflict, 1952-1960. In doing so, her research focuses on Britain’s forced resettlement of Kenyans during this period and considers the relationship between colonial counter-insurgency warfare and international humanitarianism in the late-colonial era.

Picture shows Beth Rebisz smiling, with a striped pole in the background

Hi Beth, thanks for joining us to talk about the exhibition you’ve recently been working on. Can you tell us what ‘Barbed Wire Village’ is about?

During Britain’s campaign against Mau Mau insurgent fighters in Kenya, 1.2 million civilians, mainly women and children, were forcibly resettled into spaces the colonial state called ‘villages’. Many colonial administrators saw Kenyan women as key actors in sustaining Mau Mau efforts, yet studies exploring this conflict often neglect this fact.

Over the course of three months in the Spring of 2019, I conducted an oral history project, interviewing women from the central region of Kenya to better understand how they experienced Britain’s ruthless campaign and I was interested to know more about this villagisation scheme. Through my findings, I argue that Britain deliberately sought to occlude the violent nature of these spaces by calling them ‘villages’ rather than concentration camps. Women and children were essentially incarcerated in camps heavily fortified and under constant surveillance. Violence, torture, and starvation was rife.

While colonial records contain some images of these camps, they are very limited. So, I worked with digital experts at African Digital Heritage, a Kenyan organisation, to construct a 3-D digital reconstruction of a camp based on descriptions shared with me by my interview participants.

Bringing all this research together, myself and colleagues at the Museum of British Colonialism and African Digital Heritage launched an exhibition last month in Nairobi called ‘Barbed Wire Village’. You can find it here!

How did you become interested in this?

I’ve been interested in the history of this conflict since my undergraduate degree.

Around the same time that I was choosing my dissertation topic, Mau Mau war veterans were taking the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office to London’s High Court to sue them for the historic atrocities Britain committed in Kenya during the 1950s. At the time, I knew nothing about this history, like many others in the UK, due to Britain’s deliberate attempts to suppress this from mainstream and public history discussions.

I attended a couple of the witness hearings, sitting in the public gallery, and decided to pursue further research into the topic. While my BA and MA research was based on the colonial records housed in the UK, I always knew I wanted to consider social histories of this conflict and apply more ethnographic approaches to contribute to ongoing efforts in Africa to recentre African voices and experiences of colonialism.

African women in particular are actively written out of colonial archives, therefore conducting oral history interviews was an imperative route for the inclusion of these most marginalized narratives.

Image shows computer reconstruction of a 'barbed wire village' from the exhibition

What is the importance of this story today?

Britain actively sought to suppress this history and construct its own narrative of these events in Kenya.

They secretly removed any archival evidence relating to the violence it committed to ensure this. Historians therefore have a duty to create better and more nuanced representations of this history and make it more accessible to the people it directly impacted. The sheer inequality of Kenyans having to travel all the way to London to consult records relating to their nation’s independence continues the perpetuation of these colonial power dynamics.

So being able to exhibit this research in Kenya as well as online, means we can work toward more accessible and equitable initiatives which centre human experience.

What advice would you give to a student interested in working in a similar area?

I would encourage students to continue innovating our discipline and finding creative ways to display and explore history. If they are keen to recentre marginalized voices in their research, it’s important to listen and learn from scholars and practitioners, particularly in the Global South.

What’s the best advice you ever got about history?

Stay curious and when looking at a primary source, ask why… until you can’t possibly ask it any more!

What’s the most interesting thing you’ve read in the last twelve months?

I’m not going to pretend I’ve had the time to read all chapters of it yet, but Olajumoke Yacob-Haliso’s and Toyin Falola’s Palgrave Handbook of African Women’s Studies.

It’s the first of its kind and is truly excellent. It is such an extensive collection of research which debunks misleading myths about African women and their positions in the societies they operate within.

If you had a time machine, where and when would you most want to go?

You’re probably looking for a serious answer relating to my research, but I guess I’d go back to the day when I died my hair bright red.

And I’d say to myself, ‘please don’t do this. Just, please don’t.’

Falafel King or Eat a Pitta?

Falafel King is the hill I am willing to die on.
I hope my Tuesday Rethinking History seminar group are thinking long and hard about how they betrayed me when they so ruthlessly shut me down and declared their preference for Eat a Pitta.

What are you working on next?

Lots of things!

I’m working away on my book currently so that will keep me fairly busy. In addition to that, I have a few new projects on the horizon which will extend my oral history project in Kenya and another which is looking more closely at the women who shaped Red Cross activity in Africa in the late-colonial and so-called post-colonial era.

Sounds amazing! Thanks for joining us, Beth!

Featured Historian: Hilary Carey

In the latest in our regular series, we caught up with Prof. Hilary Carey to talk about her interests in the histories of religion and empire.

Hilary Carey is Professor of Imperial and Religious History and Research Director in the Faculty of Arts. She trained as a medievalist originally, but these days works mostly on colonial religious history. Her most recent book, Empire of Hell (CUP, 2019) was a religious history of the campaign to end convict transportation from Britain and Ireland to penal colonies in Australia, Bermuda and Gibraltar.

Hi Hilary, thanks for joining us! What’s the title of your new research project?

I am really excited that Sumita Mukherjee and I have been funded by the AHRC for the next three years. Our project is called ‘Mariners: religion, race and empire in British ports, 1801-1914’.

Images shows Hilary Carey outside the Mersey Maritime Museum in Liverpool

What’s ‘Mariners’ about?

There are two strands, one – led by Sumita – looks at lascars or South Asian seafarers, and the other looks at missions to British sailors. We are very happy to be partnering with the Anglican Mission to Seafarers, which is one of the world’s largest marine charities, and the Hull History Centre, which has recently completed cataloguing their (huge) archive.

Sumita and I are putting together a research team who will be probing the attempts by different religious charities to support, convert and Christianise mariners in nineteenth century ports.

How did you become interested in this area?

When I was researching convict transportation, I was regularly diverted by the light it shed on the merchant marine and the marine industries which made long-distance sea faring possible. A number of those who ministered to convicts were also interested in converting sailors. This made sense because convicts and sailors often shared similar backgrounds and were generally regarded as devoid of all religious and moral feeling. As I argued in my book, this was far from the case, though it was complicated.

With a former student at the University of Newcastle, I was initially interested in missions to seamen in the coal port city of Newcastle, New South Wales. When I moved to Bristol, I discovered that ports throughout the UK are littered with sailors’ homes, missions and institutions for turning sailor’s orphans into good Christians and able seamen.

Diving deeper it was also evident that the ethnic makeup of the marine workforce changed rapidly so that, by the end of the nineteenth century, lascars made up about one third of the merchant marine visiting British ports. Many found it difficult or impossible to find secure accommodation while in port or between jobs, which was a severe problem because, besides ever present racial discrimination, they also suffered extreme insecurity of employment.

When I discovered that Sumita was one of our leading authorities on migration and mobilities of South Asians to the UK, I thought we had to try and develop a project together on the merchant marine.

And what is the importance of mission to mariners today?

Merchant mariners continue to suffer from the same sort of problems they have always faced – dangerous working conditions, exploitative employment relations, piracy, shipwreck and loneliness. This is compounded in many cases by toxic hierarchies of race and religion, in which officers and ship owners come overwhelmingly from a small minority, and sailors and other port workers from the global majority. Everything was made worse by the pandemic, with dramatic stories of crews stranded by their owners and unable to leave their vessels or get paid.

Marine missions and seamen’s homes for lascars were some of the most important vehicles for mitigating, but possibly also for entrenching inequality in this most unequal of workforces.

Our project is important for the light it will shed on the mixed religious and racial workforce of the merchant marine. We will look closely at three ports – Hull, Bristol and Liverpool – to show how missions and marine charities were woven into the port landscape and their people.

Many of the buildings associated with marine missions have been demolished or given new purposes. We hope to recover some of the memories around these places which we plan to do through a conference and a travelling exhibition. We are also commissioning artistic impressions and conducting interviews with marine chaplains and the clients of their missions to get a sense of the lived experience of those who made a living from the sea in days of sail and steam.

What advice would you give to a student interested in religious history?

My advice would be don’t be put off.

Religion is an unfashionable subject for many historians, particularly since these days fewer have had a religious education. This means that the past is even more of a foreign country than it was for earlier generations, who were educated in religious schools, or went to Sunday School and were religiously literate. But this means you have plenty of opportunities to make a difference, and the archives are wide open.

I would also suggest that they join the Ecclesiastical History Society, which has some terrific support for graduate students and runs excellent conferences and has an accessible journal.

What’s the best advice you ever got about history?

In a word – persist.

My tutor in Oxford was the late Maurice Keen, a wonderful historian of late medieval chivalry. When I was a young academic, I was upset by a review of my first book, which I thought very unfair, and I wrote to him from Australia asking what I should do. He gave me the perfect answer, sending me a scorching review of one of his own early books, which had been merciless in pointing out various minor errors. (Readers, reviews used to be so much more vitriolic than they are these days.)

He said that you should always check your copy and, if you tend to overlook your own slips (and we all tend to do), then pay someone to check the manuscript. But he also said to persist. You learn from mistakes and, if you keep on writing, you do – eventually – get better.

What’s the most interesting thing you’ve read in the last twelve months?

I think much the most interesting things I have come across lately have been in the archives.

I have been reading my way through all the condemned sermons delivered in Newgate Chapel before the abolition of public execution. That is pretty interesting – if not particularly cheerful. I suspect no one else has read them since they were printed along with other gruesome details of the execution of these unfortunate people in the popular press.

For the project on missions to mariners, I was gripped by the records in the Mersey Maritime Museum of the Liverpool Shipwreck and Humane Society. This was not strictly a mission to seamen, but had a benevolent intent. The minute book records hundreds of instances of ordinary bravery, by people of all classes, who rescued people from drowning, saved those caught in fires at sea, or dived into the Mersey to save children who had fallen off the docks. There are page after page recounting acts of individual heroism, which the Society rewarded with a few pounds.

I am not sure how this will fit into the project, but I felt privileged just to read these fragments of working lives on the Liverpool docks. I should also mention that the Society noted that far more ‘rescues’ happened in summer, and in calm weather, and that boys from the Akbar Training Ship seem to have made a habit of rescuing each other and claiming the Society’s reward.

Which historical figures would you invite to a fantasy dinner party?

For my fantasy dinner party, I think I would like to invite the Quaker activist Mrs Elizabeth Fry and some of her companions from the women’s prison visiting committees she set up in Newgate and elsewhere. I would like her to tell me about conditions on the convict women’s transports that she personally visited, having been swung up in a bosun’s chair, to ensure they were well treated. I am prepared to be soundly bossed and cajoled, because she was a powerful woman. But I would like to experience the full force of her moral indignation in person. And I would like the other guests to be convict women whose lives were torn apart by transportation from one end of the world to the other. I would like to hear from them how they endured it.

What’s your must-do Bristol activity?

I took up bell ringing just before the pandemic struck and I am still just getting the hang of it.

It is a mad British thing to do and Bristol is one of the best places in the world for ringers with hundreds of towers in more or less working order both in the city and the surrounding towns and villages of Gloucestershire and Somerset.

My most memorable experience was ringing double muffled – with the clapper in little leather jackets- to commemorate the death of the queen. As an Australian, I confess that I don’t really understand monarchy, but it was truly moving to be part of this once in a lifetime event, which took place in every tower across the country.

(And if you want to get into ringing – you can contact the University of Bristol Society of Change Ringers.)

What are you working on next?

Besides Mariners, I am writing a short book on the condemned sermon at Newgate. I gave a talk about this to the History Showcase at the start of term. I got interested as a result of my work on convicts and prisoners and wondering about the fate of those who did not have the good fortune to be transported to the penal colonies, but were executed for their crimes.

I also have a long running project on missionary linguistics, including an edition of the first translation of the bible into any Australian Aboriginal language. With a colleague in Germany I am interested in the attempt, led by the British and Foreign Bible Society, to translate the Bible into all the languages of the world.

So there is plenty to keep me going.

That sounds wonderful! Thanks again for joining us!

Featured Historian: Lorenzo Costaguta

In the latest in our series on historians here at Bristol, we caught up with Lorenzo Costaguta to talk race, class and socialism.

Lorenzo Costaguta is a Lecturer in U.S. History. He is a historian of race and class, with a focus on socialist movements in the United States and Europe. At Bristol, he teaches on radicalism in the United States, labour, race, capitalism, and the American empire.

Portrait picture of Lorenzo Costaguta, smiling, wearing glasses and a shirt in front of a brick wall

Hi Lorenzo, thanks for joining us! What’s the title of your new book? What’s it about?

The working title of the book is Regardless of Color: Race and the Origins of American Socialism.

It is a history of American socialist racial thinking in the last three decades of the nineteenth century. In the book, I argue against the idea that socialism “didn’t exist” or was irrelevant in the U.S. I contend that the American socialist movement was alive and well, and that one of its distinctive feature was its fixation on race.

In the late nineteenth century, American socialists—the vast majority of which were European immigrants—widely debated socialist organizing across racial and ethnic lines, with the objective of creating a genuinely egalitarian society. Although they were rarely successful in their attempts to go beyond their ethnic enclaves, they laid the foundations upon which a distinctively interethnic and multiracial movement was built in the twentieth century.


How did you become interested in the study of socialism and race in the United States?

I guess that what attracted me in the first place was the key question I discuss in my book, namely the long-standing historiographical riddle about why the most capitalist country in the world didn’t produce an equally powerful left-wing/labour social movement.

In the process of researching and writing my book, I found some of the answers I was looking for. Socialism in the U.S. did exist, but its history developed according to the features of the country. The multiethnic and multiracial composition of its working class set it on a path that differed from its European counterparts; capitalist and governmental repression suffocated its chances to grow.

The centrality of race as a crucial aspect of my project grew as the research progressed. In part, because I found myself reading extensively about immigrant United States, in a period in which the boundaries between race and ethnicity were extremely loose and imprecise, as scholars of whiteness have shown. In part, because I realized the extent to which race and class march alongside in shaping labour relations in the U.S.

Black and white portrait and photograph of Peter H Clark

What is the importance of the history of socialism in the U.S. today? And how important is it to study its history in relation with race?

It’s curious because when I started my Ph.D. in 2012, the first question would have been very difficult to answer. At the time, left-wing politics was almost non-existent in the U.S. I mean, it was there, but surely it didn’t feature in the national news.

Then in 2016 came the first Bernie Sanders primary campaign, and after that the election of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Cori Bush and many other progressive politicians, the boom of the Democratic Socialists of America, the second Bernie Sanders campaign, and so on.

We now live in a moment when democratic socialist politicians are a powerful group in the Democratic Party and have national relevance and visibility. I invite you to look at the racial and ethnic composition of this group: its diversity is a key ingredient of its success. Studying American socialism, and intersecting it with a focus on race, is crucial to understand how we got here.


What advice would you give to a student interested in socialism and race in the U.S.?

First of all, I would tell them: excellent choice!

Secondly, I would invite them to broaden their areas of interest and read both about the crucial importance of race as an organizing principle of the history of the United States and about the glorious, but also tragic, history of radicalism in the U.S. Socialism is one of the many strands of political activism that made the country into what it is today. From the movement to abolish slavery to suffragism to gay rights to environmental activism, American radicals really did shape the history of the country.


What’s the best advice you ever got about history?

Something that my PhD supervisor once told and that really stayed with me: that history writing is all about rewriting. The first version of your paper is just the beginning of the process. Only through extensive rewriting you will get to produce excellent scholarship.

This is something I repeat very (too!) often to my students, although I do not expect them to use five years to complete the revisions of their essays, which is the time it took me to revise my PhD into a book….


What’s the most interesting thing you’ve read in the last twelve months?

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond.

It is a Pulitzer Prize-winning sociological study that follows the story of eight families in Milwaukee as they try to make ends meet in a housing system designed to make profit out of them with complete disregard for their personal conditions. A devastating account of the reality of poverty, displacement and suffering of millions of Americans today. The book has links with many periods of the history of the U.S., but its real value is the light it sheds on modern-day U.S.—a rich country with mind-blowing levels of poverty. And the methodology of the study is so incredibly fascinating: Desmond lived for years with the eight families, sharing every aspect of their lives, before writing the book. The level of compassion and care with which the book is written made me really think about what we academics and students can and should do to contribute to our societies’ welfare.


If you had a time machine, where and when would you most want to go?

The amount of possibilities is something that makes my head spinning.

I will stick with my area of academic expertise, and I will say North America before the U.S. existed. A paradise lost. Imagine seeing the San Francisco Bay when the area was inhabited only by the indigenous people and perhaps a handful of Spanish colonists, knowing that one day it would become the global centre of economic production of the world, and one of its most humanized and polluted areas…


What’s your must-do Bristol experience?

I moved to Bristol fairly recently, so I am still very much in love with some classic spots of the city. I live close to the Downs, and when the weather was better I spent so much time there! And the Clifton bridge area is fantastic…


What are you working on next?

A couple of years ago I started working on a project on socialism and race in the Second International (1889-1914).

It is a straightforward expansion of my first book, whose aim is to explore how socialist movements across the world addressed racism at the turn of the twentieth century. The project identifies the socialist Second International as one of the first transnational spaces of confrontation on ideas of race for workers across the world. Founded in 1889 as a loose federation of socialist parties and trade unions, the International gathered workers from Europe, the U.S., parts of South America, Asia and Africa. While socialists rarely discussed race as a distinct issue, they debated closely aligned notions, such as colonialism, immigration and imperialism. By reconstructing these debates and decentring the history of the International through the inclusion of subaltern and colonial voices, my hope is to recast the period in which the Second International existed as a crucial moment when the racialisation of global working-class ideologies took place.

Sounds amazing! We look forward to seeing it… and thanks for joining us, Lorenzo!

Featured Historian: Vivian Kong

In the latest in our running series on historians in the department, we hear from Vivian Kong, Lecturer in Modern Chinese History. Her research to date has focused largely on interwar Hong Kong, especially on how the city’s global connections and multiethnic urban setting shaped the identity politics and social dynamics there.

Hi, Vivian, thanks so much for joining us! Can we start by asking: what are you working on? What’s it about?

I am now completing a book entitled Multiracial Britishness: Global Networks in Hong Kong, 1910-45, which is adapted from my PhD thesis. In the book, I use Hong Kong as a case study to highlight the diversity of ‘races’ that lived in the British Empire, and how such diversity enriched and complicated notions of Britishness. I use Chinese- and English- language archival records, autobiographical writings, and oral history to explore how residents of different races understood the multivalent concept of being British. The book explains when, why, and how one would engage with the civic sensibilities, material benefits, and legal entitlements of being British. It also examines how the global dispersal of cosmopolitan ideals and rising nationalism shaped the development of Britishness in the interwar years.

Image shows a cityscape at night in the background, lit up skyscrapers. Vivian stands in the foreground.

That’s really interesting. So, how did you become interested in the topic of Britishness?

When I first started my PhD, I thought I’d be writing a thesis on the British community in interwar Hong Kong. But the more I read, the more I realized what being British meant was a question of political, legal, and media debate and dispute, especially for a multiracial colony like Hong Kong.

That I moved to the UK for my PhD in September 2015 also mattered too. The Brexit debates and Britain’s increasing turn inwards during the past few years pushed me to see that the meaning of Britishness is still a question of debate and dispute. It also made me ponder at what points one form of Britishness might be more relevant than another. This all made me become more interested in the question of what being British means…

…the rest, as one might say, is history!

What is the importance of Multiracial Britishness today?

While we’d like to think Britishness is less racially defined than in the timeframe of my book (1910-45), questions such as what British values are and who gets to be British are still being asked and contested often enough in public discussion. Seeing how Britishness existed in multiple, varied forms in colonial Hong Kong, where whiteness was supposed to matter most, gives us insights in thinking about what it means to be British today.

The book, in showing how colonial subjects embraced, used, and remade conceptions of Britishness based on their needs and experiences, also reminds us that Britishness meant much more than whiteness. Being British was not only the monopoly of those who were white and/or from the British Isles. Complex multivalent interpretations of Britishness by colonial subjects are just as important to understanding and defining Britishness and imperial culture as those made by the ‘colonisers’. It also helps us appreciate not only the compatibility of Britishness with other existing identities, but also the issues many face as they engage with Britishness.

Multiracial Britishness also helps us understand more about Hong Kong today . Even as the ‘handover’ in 1997 marked the end of British colonial rule over the city, Britishness still matters to many Hong Kongers.

In summer 2020 the UK government announced a new pathway for Hong Kong residents who hold the British Nationality (Overseas) passports to settle in the UK with their dependents. My book reminds readers of the long history of engagement that Hong Kongers have made with Britishness, and also, sadly, how racism had at times obstructed such engagements. It offers us timely insight into the historic course of Hong Kong’s social development, and Britain’s commitment to Hong Kong and its citizens.

What advice would you give to a student interested in Hong Kong history

As someone who’s committed to study Hong Kong history from a global approach, I’d say read widely and make sure you read beyond Hong Kong history. Given the city’s global connections, there’s no way we can understand its development and social dynamics comprehensively without contextualizing the city within wider socio-political trends.

What’s the most interesting thing you’ve read in the last twelve months?

It’s very hard to decide on one! I have two: one book and one archival document.

There is the wonderful book, The Disappearance of Lydia Harvey, by Julia Laite. Very well-written and what an inspiring and innovative work!

The other is a school dinners menu I came across by chance in Kresen Kernow during my research trip to Cornwall this summer. It listed out the meals that the school pupils were getting in 1937. This has nothing to do with what I went to the archives for – but I love how it gives me some insight into the day-to-day life at the time, and also how the pupils of the Liskeard County School in 1937 had a very potatoes-heavy diet!

Image shows a list of foods from this school menu

What’s your must-do Bristol experience/activity?

Get fish-n-chips from Clifton Fish Bar and eat it on the lawn near the Clifton Observatory with the Suspension Bridge in view. That’s where you’d usually find me on Saturday afternoons in summer.

What are you working on next?

A book about a Eurasian woman, and the web of family relationships she had in Britain, Hong Kong, China, and Singapore… Born in late 19th century Hong Kong, the protagonist had quite an eventful life. She moved to Cornwall at the age of 10. She was an award-winning artist and photographer in her early 20s, a V.A.D nurse during WW1, and a hotel and boarding house owner in interwar London. In 1937, under suspicion of brothel keeping, she and her husband were deported to Hong Kong, from where they moved to Singapore to join her in-laws.

The book will follow her and her family’s life journeys, and examine their connections with colonial policing in Hong Kong, Christianity in Republican China, overseas Chinese diasporas, and London’s interwar economy. It will explore racial politics, womanhood, and the meaning of respectability in the twentieth century.

We can’t wait! Thanks for taking the time to talk to us, Vivian.

Featured Historian: Sarah Jones

Sarah Jones is Lecturer in Modern British History. She is a social and cultural historian, and most of her work looks at themes around gender, sexuality, and the history of science and medicine in the 19th and 20th centuries. Her current research looks really closely at print culture, thinking about how the public engaged with scientific ideas about sex through magazines, advice texts, and the news.

Portrait picture of Dr. Sarah Jones, smiling

What’s the title of your new article, and what’s it about?

My latest article is ‘Science, Sexual Difference, and the Making of Modern Marriages, 1920-1940.’

In it, I look at how advice texts in the early twentieth century discussed sexual difference, and specifically the idea that men and women had specific, and very different, roles to play in the marital bedroom. I essentially show that during a period of great upheaval and anxiety, advice authors argued that notions of sexually passive women and sexually active men were biologically mandated – even if they didn’t provide much proof for those claims, or make use of much scientific evidence at all.

In doing so, they cobbled together material to try and show that heterosexual marriage was right, natural, somewhat inevitable, and that anyone who strayed away from this was abnormal or even pathological.

Long story short, it is about how apparently ‘scientific’ ideas were marshalled to uphold a particular, quite conservative sexual status quo during a moment of real social change. This all speaks to my broader interest in ‘popular’ sexual science – I’m slowly putting a book together called The Science of Sex Advice: Popular Sexology in Print.

How did you become interested in histories of sexual science?

I’ve been interested in the relationship between sex, science, and print culture for a long time.

My PhD looked at how print culture facilitated sex radical networks in Britain and America, and particularly how ‘free lovers’ on both sides of the Atlantic used scientific ideas and rhetoric to challenge the idea that orthodox marriage was a good idea. After that I was a research fellow on a project called Rethinking Sexology at the University of Exeter, where I started working on popular sex advice and magazines. As part of that I spent a lot of time reading some of the brilliant new scholarship on sexual science, and also camping out in archives in both the US and UK to work through some amazing primary materials – stuff like sex advice pamphlets sold in vending machines and train station platforms for a couple of cents a go, slightly racy texts sold through mail order in the back of newspapers, and expensive manuals written by scientists and sexologists that were apparently only for the eyes of ‘professionals and academics.’ There’s such fantastic work being done on histories of sexual science, including some exciting new bits of scholarship on how the public engaged with science when making sense of their own sex lives. I hope my work can be part of those conversations

Magazine feature titled 'The Mysteries of Sex Frankly Revealed!' includes text reading 'Banish Fear Prevent Disease End Self Denial and Stop Worrying Conquer Ignorance and Overcome Shame, as well as images of puzzled men and women, and a doctor figure showing a couple a book entitled 'Sex Harmony and Eugenics'

What is the importance of the history of sexuality today?

I think, for me, there’s so much to be said about how an engagement with science has shaped the way we think about sex. It might seem like a bit of a niche topic, but actually the way we talk and think about sex – even today –  is absolutely replete with scientific ideas.

Why, for example, do we often use terms like ‘homosexual’ and ‘heterosexual’ (which emerged from nineteenth-century sexology) to categorize ourselves? Why are some people so obsessed with looking for a ‘gay gene’?

Why are we told that certain sexual behaviours and identities are good or bad for our health, or are perhaps ‘natural’ or ‘unnatural’? Part of my work speaks to these kinds of questions, thinking through how and why science has come to have so big a role in how we understand, discuss, and experience sexuality.

More broadly, I think that in a fraught social and political moment histories of gender and sexuality are more important than ever. I’ve been lucky enough to work with scholars trying to use history to find more helpful and inclusive ways to do sex education in schools, and to help young trans and non-binary people navigate the modern medical system. Historians in the field have been called on to shape policies around things like access to abortion, gay marriage, and how to tackle sexual violence. Doing histories of gender and sexuality helps us develop our understanding and appreciation of the past but, beyond that, engaging with that history also allows us to gain new insights into urgent and timely issues in the present. 

What advice would you give to a student interested in the history of sexuality?

Be careful when opening some kinds of primary sources in public areas.

I was working on a train once and the person in the seat next to me threatened to have me arrested. It wasn’t even anything that bad, but that’s public transport for you.

What’s the best advice you ever got about history?

Someone once told me that it’s a gift to be able to indulge your curiosity, especially for a living. Not always a particularly accurate depiction of my job, to be fair, but I try and remember it when I’ve got a huge pile of reading to do.

What’s the most interesting thing you’ve read in the last twelve months?

That’s a tough one. History-wise, I really enjoyed Martha Robinson Rhodes’ article on Bisexuality, Multiple-Gender-Attraction, and Gay Liberation Politics in the 1970s, so probably that.

I’ve finally gotten around to starting Kate Lister’s A Curious History of Sex, too, which is really fun so far.  I also read some good books this summer that were very much for pleasure, not work. Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi was mind-boggling (in a good way, I think) and I quite enjoyed Emily Danforth’s Plain Bad Heroines. 

If you had a time machine, where and when would you most want to go?

My official answer to this is that I’d go back to have a raucous dinner party with some of the Victorian sex radicals I studied as part of my PhD. However, the truth is that I’d go back to 1997 and watch the Spice Girls at Wembley again.

What’s your must-do Bristol experience?

I’m pretty new to Bristol so don’t have many suggestions, but so far I’d recommend Pinkmans for donuts and Bakesmiths for cinnamon rolls. All the major food groups covered, what more do you need?

What are you working on next?

Loads of stuff!

I’m slowly making progress on the book, and I’m also working a new article on the concept of happiness and how this has been connected to ideas about good sex. I’m starting a new project which looks to encourage people to engage with queer history though playing games, and am also doing research into how we can help students transition from school to university.

Should keep me out of trouble for a little while, at least…


Featured Historian: Layla Madanat

Layla Madanat graduated with a BA in History in 2018. You can watch her documentary ‘Mosaic’ here. 

Hi Layla, thanks for joining us today. So, what have you been up to since graduating?

It’s been a bit of a whirlwind!

I was very lucky to receive a scholarship to go straight onto study an MSc in Gender, Development and Globalisation at LSE in September 2018, which was an incredible interdisciplinary academic experience. I got to do some really amazing research, including writing a dissertation titled: “Negotiating Masculinities, Differences and Critiques Abroad: A postcolonial feminist analysis of young men’s experiences of international volunteering.”

Whilst I was studying I carried on setting up as an artist, directing productions across London.

Since finishing my MSc, I’ve had a crazy time continuing to freelance across arts fundraising, political lobbying, classical music and now in anti-sexual exploitation and social justice, whilst continuing to work as an artist myself!

Most recently, I was lucky enough to graduate as one of 12 young leaders on the year-long “Making Lemonade” programme run by Sour Lemons, working to dismantle power systems across arts and culture in the UK.

Portrait of Layla Madanat

What was your favourite thing about studying at Bristol? 

Studying at Bristol was absolutely informative in where my life has gone since graduating.

Asides from being part of such a supportive department and being really active in society life, the standout thing in my experience was the fact that being in a city university meant I had real, meaningful interaction with the Bristol community outside of the University bubble.

In my very first year at Bristol University, I was part of a group that established ‘Process Theatre’. Four years later, we continue to work with the incredible Bristol charity One25, increasing public engagement and awareness of the work they do by presenting some of the real stories of women in Bristol who turn to street sex work to survive. I then volunteered with the charity, cooking and in drop-in.

Working so closely with a local charity, as well as nannying and working in children’s parties made me feel like a real part of the city, and has strengthened my connection to the city.


How has your degree influenced what you have done since? 

It’s always interesting to see what people who study History go on to do, as I think it’s one of the few degrees that can take you wherever you want to go.

Having the chance to study such a wide range of topics at Bristol helped me find the bits of History that interest me the most, and led me to choose a Master’s degree focused on gender and race studies. Bristol was the first time I had the chance to curate my own curriculum, and made me able to focus on the histories behind the inequalities I was driven to change in society.

But it’s also affected the work I lean towards as an artist, as I tend to work with under-represented writers and creators, looking to radically decolonise the arts and culture sector. It’s also shaped how I practice, with the analytical and research skills I learnt helping me create my own unique approach to work.


What advice would you give students doing History now? 

Choose a unit completely outside your comfort zone.

University is one of the only times you can do things like that without the pressure of contract and commitment. At worst, you learn about something new but decide that it’s not for you after a term. At best, you can find a whole new field that interests you. That’s what I did, and it’s transformed the way I approach research. I don’t think I can go back to not working in an interdisciplinary way again!


What’s the best thing you’ve read lately?

This is hard. I think I’ll go with The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton. In 2013, it became the longest book and Catton the youngest author to have ever won the Booker Prize. It’s an adventure mystery set in the goldfields in New Zealand in 1866, that leaves you guessing till the very end when it culminates in one of the most satisfying endings I’ve ever read.

If you want something a bit more beautifully frustrating and abstract, go for The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro. Written entirely in a dreamlike state with essentially no logic at all, it’s hilarious how wild the journey it takes you on is.


What is your must-do Bristol activity?

Abbots Pool! In winter, the woods make for an amazing walk, but in summer you can lounge in the sun across the woods and by the pool. It’s idyllic. (I’d say go swimming, but I don’t think that’s allowed anymore…)

Honestly, just walk without a map and without a purpose. Some of my favourite Bristol spots were found just wondering down through Stokes Croft and beyond, and seeing what I came across.


What’s next for you? 

My current approach to my work is “What can I try next?” I hope to continue along my non-linear career path across arts, culture, social justice and academia. I wish I’d known that a few years ago, when it seemed everyone around me was heading into a grad scheme in the city. I’m so glad it works for some people, but if it doesn’t sit right with you, it doesn’t have to be the only future you imagine for yourself.

I have a few artistic projects like my documentary “mosaic” that I’m going to be developing in 2021, going to take an Arabic course in either Jordan or Lebanon, and, at some point, take the leap and apply for a PhD. Just keep trying things and seeing where life takes me.

As long as you know the why behind your journey, the how and what of it becomes completely flexible and, ultimately, more exciting.

Featured Historian: Alexander Casse

Alexander Casse is a video producer and historian from Luzerne, Switzerland, and is in his final year as a history student the University of Bristol. He enjoys producing documentaries, video essays and thought pieces on topics historical and political, and has been honing my video production, graphic design, 3D animation and general animation skills since 2016.

Picture of Alexander Casse

Hi Alexander, thanks for joining us! What’s the title of your new documentary, and what is it about?

My new documentary is called Understanding Orban: Rhetoric and History. [You can watch it here.]

It’s a political investigation of the manner in which Orban uses history to legitimize and rationalize his policies and rhetoric. It also looks at the ways in which history plays a role in defining Hungarian self-perception and how that has affected their approaches to the past.

A still from the documentary.

How did you become interested in this?

It’s a fairly peculiar and somewhat spontaneous story.

I was reading an Economist article about Viktor Orban’s populist policies and I wondered to what extent Hungary’s history of subjugation and misfortune affected them. I had a theory that the indignation brought upon Hungary as a result of centuries of mistreatment may have had some bearing on why the Hungarian people are so willing to chase what they perceive as greatness in any form.

What is the importance of this topic right now?

A number of European nations have elected populists and far-right governments, including Hungary, Turkey and Poland. Many more are now drifting towards populism: Italy, Austria, Germany, and even my place of birth Switzerland.

What advice would you give to a student interested in this topic?

It’s fairly difficult to decide on a topic in my experience!

Usually, I just have to start working on it to be able to actually commit to it. It may sound clichéd, but you really just have to engage with something until you find yourself regularly working on it.

In terms of video production, if you’re not all too versed in editing then you might want to pursue something like amateur journalism.

What’s the best advice you ever got about history when you were a student?

Again, this might sound obvious, but structure your research and don’t write your essays as you go.

It can leave a lot of holes, inconsistencies and discrepancies. Your argument won’t be as cogent.

What’s the most interesting thing you’ve read in the last twelve months?

Probably Nietzsche’s All Too Human – It’s a very interesting, if sometimes impenetrable and arcane book.

What’s your must-do Bristol experience/activity?

Grab a bite to eat at the Burger Joint: it’s a great place for burgers and it has some good vegan options.

What’s next for you?

I’m not quite sure currently.

I’ve played with the idea of completing a master’s in political science or foreign relations, or perhaps even philosophy. However, I’m not quite sure what my results will be so I can’t commit to any one institution currently.

Featured Historian: Charli Veale

Charli Veale is a recent graduate from the University, having completed her BA in History earlier this year (2020).

Picture of Charli Veale

Hi Charli. First of all, thanks for making the time to talk to us. Could you start by telling us a little bit about what you are up to now?

During my time at Bristol I mostly worked – as well as doing my degree I worked for Bristol Futures, running academic drop-in sessions and workshops for students, as well as for M&S, part-time. It was hard but rewarding.

Graduating in a pandemic was harder, going from 100 miles an hour to nothing, but by that time I’d realised I wanted to work in the arts/culture sector, hopefully still working with history to a degree. I spent the summer volunteering at an art gallery and at the Imperial War Museum to gain skills and I have just accepted a job offer to do marketing & events at a heritage house in North London.


Congratulations! It’s especially interesting to see you are going into an area – heritage work – that is related to your undergraduate dissertation research, which was on ‘Shaping Memory: London’s new national Holocaust memorial’.

That’s right. Since 2015 the government have been debating and developing a memorial project, for a new monument to the Holocaust to be built in central London.

My dissertation looked into this project, treating the memorial as if it was already built, to analyse how memory is organised and influenced by the present day. I argued that the government are using Holocaust memory, and in part pushing for this memorial, as a way to advance other domestic aims. An example of this is their promotion of ‘British values’, as a way to encourage integration. I argue that, in doing so, they’re at risk of promoting a false, self-serving narrative to the British public and threatening actual historical understanding of what we know to be a terrible and complex event.

A picture of the Holocaust memorial garden in Hyde Park

The existing Holocaust Memorial erected in Hyde Park in 1983 was the first monument to the Holocaust in Britain. Photo: Charli Veale.


How did you become interested in this topic?

I’d always been interested in Holocaust history. Then, at Bristol, my second-year module ‘Public History’ made me realise I’d always been interested in, and relatively good at, history in the public sphere, and it opened my eyes to the relationship between history and memory. I knew I wanted to combine these topics in some way for my thesis, and so with the advice to keep it British-centric (to make it easy for myself to find sources!) I came across the memorial project, and it was perfect.

Here was a topic in which history and memory were being debated and moulded in the present day – even throughout my time of writing.


What is the importance of the topic today?

The topic is hugely important because of the ongoing debate over where to put the memorial.

The project is led and controlled by the UK Holocaust Memorial Foundation, who are an ‘independent’ body,  but appointed by the Prime Minister. The decision over where to put the memorial has created quite the argument…

The site – Victoria Tower Gardens (VTG), outside of Parliament – was announced in January 2016, with no publicly available information on how this was decided. Resistance against using this space, for many reasons, has sprung up in resulting years. A Planning Application was submitted to Westminster City Council, but was ‘called in’ by the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities, and Local Government, and in the last six weeks an independent Planning Inquiry has been taking place, as both sides argue over whether the memorial should be located in VTG or not.

I spoke on behalf of the opposition at the Inquiry on 11th November, summarising my dissertation argument and contending that I believe the UKHMF are insisting on the site as a means to promote these ‘British values’, and not because it’s a genuine endeavour into Holocaust memorialisation.


What advice would you give to a student interested in doing a similar project?

Choose something that genuinely interests you.

I dithered for ages over what might be good, fearing what I really wanted to do was too hard, but you’ll be so much more motivated if you love the topic you’re contributing to!


What’s the most interesting thing you’ve read in the last twelve months?

My favourite book that I read for my dissertation was James Young’s The Texture of Memory. Since graduating, maybe it’s Daring Greatly by Brené Brown – I would recommend her work to anyone!


What’s your must-do Bristol activity?

Picnicking on the downs in the summer is a must, as is Harbourside Festival if it’s going to run anytime soon! For everyone in lockdown I’d definitely recommend a takeaway pint from the Green Man, Kingsdown – Bristol’s finest.


What’s next for you?

Starting my new job!

I’m also hoping to maybe travel a bit and develop my language skills sometime soon, and I’m applying for a few master’s programs for next year – so we’ll have to wait and see.

Featured Historian: Andy Flack

Andy Flack is Lecturer in Modern and Environmental History. He is an environmental historian who specializes in histories of human relationships with animals and their wider environments in Britain and the US across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. He teaches environmental history across undergraduate and postgraduate programmes, as well as contributing to team-taught units on a wide array of subjects relating to the period since 1800.

Hi Andy, thanks for joining us! So what’s the title of your new project, and what’s it about?

My new project is entitled ‘Dark dwellers as more-than-human misfits: a new synthesis of disability studies, environmental history and human-animal relations’. It is a cutting-edge eighteen-month project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (Leadership Fellows scheme), and it initially examines the ways in which the senses and ways of life of nocturnal animals – from bats to blind cave fish – have been historically understood across scientific communities in Britain and North America over the past couple of centuries. Secondly, it considers the emergence of threats faced by these species as a consequence of human action, from light pollution impacting on sensory systems to transport infrastructures fragmenting nocturnal habitats. In so doing, it not only provides new insight into the ways in which people have imagined ‘deficiency’, ‘ability’, ‘vulnerability’ and ‘resilience’, but also asks whether it is possible to consider animals as having been ‘disabled’ from participation in their world as a result of human interference. Through a focus on animals who live in the darkness, I will develop a new agenda for research at the intersection of disability studies, environmental history and histories of human relationships with animals.

In addition, I will work with the Bristol Zoological Society, Bristol Eye Hospital, educational consultants and artist practitioners to develop new ways of teaching Key Stage 2 children about diversity, vulnerability and resilience, and new ways of coaching sight-impaired people through their sight-loss journeys.

It’s a really exciting, challenging, and important project. I can’t wait to get started!

So how did you become interested in this?

There are three main reasons underpinning my interest in this research. I’ve always been interested in the darkness. I was fascinated by caves, by the night sky, and by the character and atmosphere of cities in the dead of night. All three are other-worldly in ways that are peculiar to themselves but which each tap into what I think is a very human sensory and emotional response to a world normally obscured (from us) by the absence of light. This interest joined with my specialism working in the fluid borderlands between humans and other animals. Historically, people’s relationships with other animals have been complicated by the fact that, culturally, we recognize similarity but insist upon fundamental difference. I wondered how this relationship manifested in the context of environments from which we are usually excluded as a result of our own sensory capacity. Finally, my own sight-impairment motivated my pursuit of this kind research. I wanted to find a way of thinking with and through the concept of ‘disability, of using my expertise to intervene in the field of disability studies in a way that made sense.

What is the importance of this research today?

There are a few reasons why this research is important.

It’s the first time that disability studies, environmental history and histories of human animal relations have been brought into conversation with each other. I hope that in the process, historians will learn to think about ‘normalcy’, ‘ability’, ‘vulnerability’ and ‘resilience’ in new ways, as historical terms which transcend and cross-fertilize ideas about human and non-human realms. Secondly, this is vital research that brings dark environments into view. Historians -including and perhaps especially environmental historians- have tended to focus their enquires on events in the light of day. In so doing, they miss half of what happens and has happened in the world. Indeed, recent scientific studies have suggested that night-time ecosystems are perhaps more vulnerable to climate change than those of the daytime. If humanities scholars are to contribute to understanding of the past, present and possible futures of planetary change, then, they must engage with the world after dark. Finally, there is a personal importance attached to this project. Its my first real foray into the realm of disability studies. As a sight-impaired historian whose impairment has been – and remains – hidden (sometimes consciously), my work on this project, in full view of colleagues, friends, collaborators, and students, represents a step in a perpetual process of ‘coming out’, of becoming more authentic.

What advice would you give to a student interested in environmental history?

For students interested in working in the field of environmental history, I’d encourage them to think historically. This might sound like a fairly obvious suggestion. It is, however, particularly important for those of us working in this field of research, because thinking ahistorically is a peril that is particularly acute for us. Today’s environmental crises – from climate change to mass extinction, and from plastic pollution to pandemics – evoke strong emotions that are of our time. People in the past rarely shared such emotional responses and so we need to be particularly careful not to let our sense of grief and outrage for the loss of much of the natural world’s beauty and biodiversity to infect and distort the way we read past and tell stories about it. Look for complexity, change, and continuity. Look for context and explanation that are rooted in time and space. Look for the roots of where we are today and keep your feelings in check – channel them elsewhere.

What’s the best advice you ever got about history?

Be adventurous.

Seek out material at the margins, at the peripheries. Don’t confine your study of history to the mundanely familiar. Read widely, and explore stories about the past that feel strange, unfamiliar, perhaps even uncomfortably weird. If you are to really understand past people, places, and events, you need to have a feel for the past as a tapestry comprised of complex entanglements, of loose threads, of knotted aberrations. This is the advice I was given, but it has infinitely enriched by understanding of what the past was and of that the study of history can be.

What’s the most interesting thing you’ve read in the last twelve months?

My mind keeps being drawn back to a book I read during the first uncertain days of lockdown. Mudlarking, by Lara Maiklem really caught my imagination.

Lara spends early mornings and late evenings – actually, any point at which the tidal Thames has receded enough to expose sections of the shoreline – searching for treasure, for items that form the residue of everyday lives long passed. The book is structured as a journey down the Thames towards the river’s mouth. On the way, Lara uses the objects she has found across her mudlarking career – from children’s shoes to items of jewelry and fragments of pottery – as a means of telling stories about past lives. I love the serendipitous nature of her explorations and discoveries: during my undergraduate degree I undertook a range of archaeology units, mainly because I fancied myself as an Indiana Jones type figure. I adore that fact that the past remains with us – admittedly in fragments but also often in the midst of our everyday. If we go looking, we can travel in time.

If you had a time machine, where and when would you most want to go?

Deciding which one place I’d like to go if I were lucky enough to acquire a time machine is really quite tricky. There are so many times and places that I’d like to visit, though when I think of them, most potential visits to past times become quite unappealing in the context of the absence of antibiotics and similar medical interventions (I’m worried about getting trapped in the past like in Back to the Future). But, on balance, I’d probably head to a small shop, at 221 St George’s Street in London’s East End, sometime around the turn of the twentieth century. There I’d find a gentleman called J. D Hamlyn, who ran a wild animal emporium. Employing agents to scout ships as they came up the Thames, he would meet mariners once they’d docked in order to buy from them wild beasts they’d acquired over the course of their travels. His emporium would have been stocked with an astonishing array of creatures, and the sensory impact would have been incredible. I’ve read so much about these places and I’d love to see what they were really like. Most of all, though, I’d like to verify a tantalizing comment in the sources: that Hamlyn ‘employed’ chimpanzees to run the front-of-house- operation of his shop.

Unlikely, surely, but worth a look.

What’s your must-do Bristol experience/activity?

I’m biased on this one.

I think everyone who comes to live in Bristol ought to visit the Zoo in Clifton. I wrote my PhD and my first book on the subject, so I’m perhaps unhealthily obsessed with the place. Whatever your view on zoos as places of entertainment, conservation and/or suffering, there is no denying that Bristol Zoo is intimately woven into the fabric of our city. Established in July 1836, it’s the oldest surviving provincial zoo anywhere in the world. The site itself, embedded in the affluent neighborhood of Clifton, remains largely the same size and shape as that when it opened. The history of the place is inscribed on the landscape itself, from the original bear pit to the otter grotto of the original zoo, and from the remnants of the polar bear enclosure made nationally famous by the pacing behaviour of a psychotic creature to the death mask of Alfred, the city’s wartime mascot. Young people, in particular, have been visiting the zoo for decades. According to past students, the zoo is the place to go for a Bristol first date….

What are you working on next?

My AHRC project is part of a larger book project that examines nineteenth and twentieth centuries of what I like to call the ‘wild night’.

Entitled ‘Nights on Earth’, the book examines a range of dark environments – from the midnights of the underground and the deep sea, to the seasonally long nights of the poles, the artificial nights of the nocturnal house, and the more familiar nights of our every day: the night outside the front door. The book asks how people have learned to access these diverse nights, how they’ve understood what they’ve found there, and how nights on earth have changed in the face of human ‘colonization’.

Its super exciting!

Featured Historian: Robert Bickers

Robert Bickers is Professor of History and also the University’s Associate Pro Vice-Chancellor for Postgraduate Research. As well as supervising nine PhD students with colleagues in the Department, he coordinates the University’s work with all its research postgraduates. He works on the history of modern China, and within that specifically how this intersects with the wider history of colonialism and imperial power.

Early visit to a Chinese archive: Shanghai 1994.

Hi Robert! Thanks for joining us. Could you tell us the title of the new book?

China Bound: John Swire & Sons and its World, 1816-1980 has just been published.

What’s the book about?

John Swire & Sons is a British-based conglomerate that has a substantial presence in East Asia, and especially in Hong Kong. It’s 150 years since it opened a branch in what was then a British colony, having established itself in Shanghai in 1866. It’s probably best known today as the owner of the airline Cathay Pacific. I use the story of the firm’s development from its roots as a one-man import-export business based in Liverpool as a different focus for a history of the globalization, modern China, and the rise and decline of British empire and British power.

I’m primarily interested in the people involved, whether they were from Liverpool or Guangzhou, Bristol or Shanghai, and whether they were its owners, Cantonese crewmen on its ships, dockyard staff at Hong Kong, or the passengers on its ships or aircraft.

How did you become interested in this topic?

I was commissioned to write this by the firm, and given a free hand in how I did so.

John Swire & Sons is a family-owned enterprise, and this has encouraged a strong interest at the top of the company in its own long history. The original John Swire first appears in any records in Liverpool in 1816. One challenge in writing the book is that I had five John Swires to deal with across the period.

You can imagine my relief when I got to its  Chairman in the 1930s, Warren.

What is the importance of Swire today?

Really? Have you read the news recently? But put it another way: whenever I ask an audience what they learned about China at school the answer is almost always nothing. And that’s not just ‘nothing about Chinese history’, that’s nothing about China.

But the British presence in China was the most visible and most disruptive the country suffered over most of the century before the Japanese invasion began in 1931. All schoolchildren in China know the outline of this story, and they know much of the detail too.

What advice would you give to a student interested in doing this kind of work?

Challenge yourself; dive in!

I can’t say I knew much about maritime history, the history of commercial aviation, or sugar refining, before I began working on the book.

What’s the best advice you ever got about history?

Well, I learned from marginal comments on my undergraduate essays by my UCL tutors Conrad Russell and John Hale not to mistake rhetorical flourish for argument.

The advice I give, though: read, read, read, read, read, read, read.

And read anything and everything.

What’s the most interesting thing you’ve read in the last twelve months?

My reading highlights in the last year have included reading through all six volumes of Virginia Woolf’s letters, and most of John Le Carré. Much to learn from both about writing, structure, their times.

If you had a time machine, where and when would you most want to go?

I’d like to travel out 1st class to Hong Kong on a P&O steamer, say in about 1851.

In June that year I might have caught the Ganges, stopping at Gibraltar, Malta, and Alexandria, changing to travel overland then along the Nile to Cairo and on to Suez by carriage (the canal would not open until 1869), there taking another steamer stopping at Aden, Galle, Penang, and Singapore before arriving in Hong Kong seven weeks later.

Who wouldn’t want to do that?

What’s your must-do Bristol activity?

Eat a Pitta, Chilli Daddy, Swoon;

Bosco Pizza;


…which actually makes a really unimpressive haiku. This is why I am a historian and not a poet.

What are you working on next?

Returning to an incident that took place in south China in 1932, digging into which led me back and forward in time, and across the globe. It all began when I spotted the words ‘abduction’ and ‘lighthouse’ in a file title in a catalogue back in, er, 2004. These things sometimes take time.