Featured Historian: Simon Potter

Simon Potter is Professor of Modern History and Head of History. His research focuses on the global history of the mass media, and the impact of the press, radio and television on politics, society, and culture. His work on radio and internationalism, and on the BBC and empire, grows out of his wider interest in the history of imperialism and decolonization.

Headshot of Simon Potter

Hi Simon, thanks for joining us. So what’s the title of your new book and what’s it about?

Wireless Internationalism and Distant Listening looks at radio when it was a ‘new medium’ – the equivalent in some ways of today’s social media. In the 1920s and 1930s radio broadcasting (most people called it ‘wireless’ at the time) looked like it was going to transform the way people, and nations, interacted with each other.

I was really struck when I was researching and writing the book by how people thought radio broadcasting was going to change the world, ushering in a new era of international peace and understanding. That seems very utopian, but for people who had just lived through the First World War, it was a pretty attractive prospect. It was part of the wider internationalism of the period, part of the same climate as the League of Nations.

However, in the 1930s, people quickly became aware that they were in fact dealing with a very powerful weapon of mass deception. First the Communist USSR, then the Fascist states, turned radio into a means of international propaganda, and democratic countries soon followed. In writing the book I’ve also become really interested in cultural histories of listening and ‘soundscapes’ – trying to think about the history of sound as part of the lived experience of the past. So the book also looks at how international broadcasting was heard and experienced in the noisy context of the ‘Roaring Twenties’, and beyond.

 

How did you become interested in these ideas about radio, internationalism and sound?

My last book was about the history of the BBC and empire and ranged from the 1920s to the 1970s. I was very aware as I finished writing it that empire was a really important part of the BBC’s wider international engagement, but had to be put in a wider context – and that the existing historiography didn’t really do that.

I also got really interested in the early years of international radio, which is again a topic that has been a bit neglected – the Second World War and the Cold War have attracted a lot more attention. The whole topic of interwar internationalism has really taken off, so reading about that formed a lot of the backdrop for my research – I wanted to connect with all the great new work on the Wilsonian moment, the League of Nations, and so on. I managed to get a big grant from the Leverhulme Trust to put together a network of historians working on international radio, and while writing this book, I met regularly with them. We are co-writing another book at the moment on the global history of international broadcasting across the whole twentieth century. Together we spent a lot of time talking about the history of sound and soundscapes, so working with other historians (something that historians are doing more and more, particularly because it is one of the only ways to do global history well, bringing out its diversity and complexity) has really enriched my understanding of this area.

 

What is the importance of the history of international radio today?

People have been saying that radio was dead for a long time – since at least the 1940s, with the advent of television. But radio has in fact remained one of the most pervasive and adaptable media throughout its hundred-year history – 15 June is the centenary of the first organized entertainment programme broadcast in Britain (Dame Nellie Melba singing Home Sweet Home from the Marconi station at Chelmsford) and 2022 is going to see the centenary of the BBC.

Radio now reaches people via the internet, and also gets to people who don’t have reliable internet access, all around the world. It allows all sorts of people to have a voice, and also continues to be a very powerful tool of soft power and cultural diplomacy – or if we don’t want to use euphemisms, propaganda. The British government stopped funding the BBC World Service in 2014, but quickly reversed that decision, because it realized what a powerful tool of persuasion international broadcasting is. In an age of fake news, a lot of the themes of my book really resonate. The League of Nations itself tried to run a campaign against what it called ‘false news’, and established its own radio station to try and present a source of ‘pure’ news that would counter the lies of other broadcasters.

I’ve explored some of the themes relating to the book in my third-year Lecture Response Unit ‘The Development of the Modern Mass Media’, which looked at the role the mass media is meant to play in a democratic society. I taught that course for the last time this year, but I’m hoping to teach some more media history as part of our new curriculum.

 

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

This is a great field to get involved in – it is still relatively unexplored, and there is a huge amount of original research to be done.

It is a fantastic subject for original student research projects, with lots of great digital primary source material that you can easily access and use. The Library has lots of subscriptions to various digital newspaper archives, for example, and you can find links to these on the subject resource page.

You also need to think a lot about what you are actually trying to achieve when you are doing a media history project. It is easy to get overwhelmed by the content, just report on what you read, listen to, or see, and not be critical. You need to think for yourself about how far the media are shaping as well as reflecting the societies and cultures of which they are a part.

There is also lots of scope to integrate media history with ‘mainstream’ history, showing how media history can shed new light on some well-established topics in social, cultural and political history. Work by critical media scholars like James Curran and Laurel Brake provide some great background reading.

 

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

It was advice about life as much as history – from my personal tutor, Brian Harrison. He told me to cultivate a healthy disregard for what others around me were doing – don’t feel the need to conform, or to accept that you should be doing what everyone else is doing. That advice has always stayed with me.

 

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

It is not History – I’m a huge Sci Fi fan, and I just finished Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice. A very thought-provoking exploration of imperialism, oppression, resistance and (the Sci Fi bit) a world in which an individual can be a part of a wider consciousness (and not in a good way).

 

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

During the lockdown I watched a lot of Dr Who with my kids, so this is quite topical for me. I think it would either be to see prehistoric England before massive deforestation – what our countryside covered with trees looked like (that would have to be from an airborne TARDIS). Experiencing Mayan civilization would be nice, too.

 

What’s your must-do Bristol experience?

I live in North Somerset and am a big fan of walking in the beautiful countryside that surrounds Bristol. In the city I love going to venues like St George’s and the Fleece – there is a huge amount of great live music going on, which I’m really missing at the moment. The Orchard Inn is pretty good for cider.

 

You can also hear Simon talking about his new book on the New Books in History podcast here.

Featured Historian: Janek Gryta

Dr. Janek Gryta  is a Lecturer in Modern European History. His research focuses on the Holocaust and its impact on postwar Communist Poland, but also Europe more broadly. He writes about the history and memory of death camps, and about heritage sites, museums and memorials, and has more recently starting exploring the histories of health spas in Communist Europe. His book Jews and Poles in the Holocaust Exhibitions of Kraków, 1980-2013: Between Urban Past and National Memory has just been published by Palgrave Macmillan.

Hi Jan! Can you tell us what Jews and Poles in the Holocaust Exhibitions of Kraków is about?

This book analyses how the Holocaust has been remembered in Kraków, the cultural capital of Poland, from the 1980s onwards. There are many assumptions about the memory of the Holocaust in my home country. My colleagues often insist that it is an artificial memory imposed on Poles by Western Europeans after 1989. They claim that no one in the relatively anti-Semitic country wanted to remember the Holocaust and that Poles trying to join the European Union were asked (forced?) to ‘become more European’ by remembering the Jewish Genocide.

Tracing the history of the museum exhibitions in Kraków I tell a different story. I show how local activists have been working hard to recover the memory of the Holocaust from at least the early 1980s onwards. They wanted to use the memory of the suffering of Poles of Jewish origin to remind their compatriots that Poland was not always a monoethnic state and the openness and tolerance are important aspects of being Polish.

portrait of Dr. Janek Gryta

Happier times: a library!

How did you become interested in memory of the Holocaust?

I was always very interested in memory and its relationship with history.

From my early undergraduate years, I wondered how the research of professional historians is translated into what people know and remember about the past. I think I was always a bit frustrated with the fact the people don’t actually that know much…

When I approached my MA supervisor, Professor Jan Rydel from the Jagiellonian University in Kraków, with that idea, he suggested looking into the memory of the Holocaust, as it is a socially very sensitive and important topic in Poland. It snowballed from there.

First, I looked into the history and memory of the Nazi death camps that were located in Poland. Then, I moved to a far more ambitious project. When I started my PhD, I had a vision of writing a complete history of postwar memory in three different Polish cities. Fortunately, my supervisor, doctor Ewa Ochman from Manchester, quickly popped that bubble and helped me shape my idea into something more manageable.

I ended up focusing on Kraków only, writing about the heritage sites, monuments and museums in the city. In the past couple of years, I worked only on the museums to finally publish the book.

What is the importance of the memory of the Holocaust today?

Remembering the Holocaust in Poland, but also across Europe, is important not only because it enshrines a tragic fragment of European past in stone. It is also used to redefine what does it mean to be Polish or, for that matter, European. The heroes of my story grapple with big questions: who were the people killed during the Holocaust? What do we owe them? Were the victims part of the Polish nation, were they Polish Jews? Or were they some different, separate group that only happened to live in Poland?

If we admit that some of those Jews were indeed Poles, we can ask what exactly is the definition of Polishenss? Does one have to be ethnically Polish to be part of the nation?

Moreover, if we say that Jews living in Poland were Polish, then we have to ask ourselves, have we done enough to help our co-nationals at the time of need? Thinking about the plight of minorities of the past, we can take a leap from the past to the present. Are we doing enough now to support members of our nation who are somehow not like us? Are we supporting, in fact, do we owe any support to present-day minorities?

Some of those questions are specific to Poland but people ask similar questions globally. Looking into how we failed Jews during the Holocaust can help us redefine obligations we have towards ostracized or suffering minorities in the present.

What advice would you give to a student interested in memory studies?

Be prepared to get disappointed.

Looking into how our societies fail to tackle problems from our pasts is hardly the most cheerful topic. You’ll have to be ready to get disenchanted with humanity on a daily basis.

On a more practical note, chose the strand that interests you the most. In memory studies, we can analyse space and memorials. We can tour museums. We can study films. It’s an interdisciplinary field which is in equal measures fascinating and daunting so be ready for a great (and challenging!) adventure.

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

A good dissertation is a submitted dissertation. A very good dissertation is a defended dissertation. Can I say that? Or is it giving a bad example and setting the bar low?

(Editor: You can say that, Jan.)

Ok. Well. It is true, though. As historians, we always push ourselves and always try to become better. There is always another book we can read, a different archival collection we can consult. Being able to stop in the right place is very important. We have to deliver something (an essay, a dissertation, a book) that is good. The best it can be at that particular moment in time. But we have to reconcile ourselves with the fact that our writing is never going to be perfect because ‘perefect’ doesn’t exist. And this is fine. Maybe master Yoda was wrong after all. Maybe trying is enough.

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

I’m half-minded to say the Witcher saga which I’ve revised last Autumn. I’m Polish so I feel I should promote Polish fantasy. But I also suspect this question is not about my procrastination strategies but about my scholarship. So, I think I’ll go with Leisure Cultures and The Making of the Modern Ski Resorts a fascinating edited volume about … the history of skiing. It has a chapter on skiing and James Bond which is the most amazing topic ever. But it is also an inspiring read about modernity, tourism and environment; a set of problems that are topical and important to a lot of us.

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

This is an easy one. I always wanted to experience life in a medieval castle. I’d have to choose the right moment very carefully though. More plagues, religious prosecution, sieges, famines are not something I want to face. If there was a moment in time when life was peaceful, stable and safe then I’d be in!

So maybe, this question wasn’t easy after all… 

Falafel King or Eat a Pitta?

Can I admit, I’ve never tried any of those? I know. Eat a Pitta is basically a Bristol institution. In fact, there is one just around the corner from my place so I should have visited. But there is also another place which is even closer to my flat and that is where I normally end up going: Pinkmans. Pinkmans is the place to try.

I’m Polish so I’m very picky when it comes down to bread. Pinkmans sourdough is amongst the best breads I’ve ever tried.

But what is truly addictive is their chocolate and salted caramel sandwich cookie…

What are you working on next?

Right now, I’m writing one last article stemming from my PhD project.

At the same time, I’m deciding on the next big project. I’m torn between three ideas as different as the memory of the Second World War, history of Carpathian spas, and history of persecution of Jews by ethnic Poles during the Holocaust in Kraków. So, to answer your question I can only say… watch this space!

Featured Historian: Victoria Bates

Dr. Victoria Bates is Senior Lecturer in Modern History, with research interests in the modern social history of medicine and the medical humanities.

A picture of Dr. Victoria BatesHi Victoria, could you start by telling us about  your new research project?

I have just started a UKRI Future Leaders Fellowship called ‘Sensing Spaces of Healthcare: Rethinking the NHS Hospital’. The project rethinks healthcare environments through the body and the senses, focusing on how places have felt rather than how they have looked. The historical part of the project will consider how NHS hospital sensory environments (or ‘sensescapes’) and the perception thereof changed as a result of new design trends, architecture, materials, technologies, nature and human behaviours. This history is just one part of the research, though, which is a complex 4-7 year project with many components. As well as the historical and archival research, there is a strand of the project (led by the project RA – Rebecka Fleetwood-Smith) working on site in hospitals (Great Ormond Street Hospital in London and Southmead Hospital in Bristol). This part of the project will use participatory arts to understand and improve people’s sensory experience of hospital spaces.

How did you become interested in this area of research?

I actually get this question quite a lot because my PhD was on a quite different area of medical history (sexual forensics in Victorian Britain). The project has long roots, so I will try to keep the answer short but with apologies it is difficult to do so!

During my PhD I was co-lead on two projects together broadly called ‘Medicine, Health and the Arts in Post-War Britain’ that included a conference, exhibition, workshop series and edited collection. My interest in this area of research at first related to the roots of the ‘medical humanities’, as a named field of academic enquiry, and its relationship to the history of arts and health. I also became interested in the development of different professional areas (art therapy, hospital arts and the arts in medical education) and their use of similar language (the idea of ‘rehumanising’ medicine through the arts).

I was inspired to conduct further research: why was there a perceived need to ‘rehumanise’ medicine in the post-war period, and why was there a turn to the arts, as a tool to do so? In 2013 I received a small grant from the Wellcome Trust to conduct a small study of late twentieth-century multidisciplinary medical education in the UK. In 2014 I was awarded scoping funding from the Elizabeth Blackwell Institute to look at archives in the UK and USA relating to all three areas (art therapy; arts in medical education; art in hospitals). Of these topics, I found myself most drawn to the history of hospital arts; this subject opened up interesting questions about the relationship between arts, design, space and architecture.

I soon became immersed in spatial theory, new materialism, and sensory studies as well as in histories of art, architecture, and design. I found myself moving away from a human-centred approach to design and perception, and thinking more about space as dynamic and as co-produced between the different objects and people in it. Art is just one of these objects, so I moved my focus to the sensory as a better way to think about space and the ways in which it is made through interactions between people and environments. I was fortunate to receive University of Bristol Strategic Research Funding to develop this work (2017) and to spend a month as a visiting scholar at the Centre for Sensory Studies at Concordia University in Montreal (2019).

Alongside this research I engaged in a couple of projects working with artists, designers, smell technicians and others. One of the projects involved designing a sensory prototype called InTouch and the other was about the non-visual aspects of nature and wellbeing, for which we created an ‘immersive experience’. These projects also got me thinking a lot more about the impact of my work and collaboration with non-academic partners, and is why my new project has a large design and prototyping element. Overall, I am always trying to push myself out of my comfort zone!

What is the importance of this research today?

Design is a pressing issue in healthcare. Poor hospital design impacts staff, patients and visitors, and critiques of hospitals are increasingly widespread. The project’s findings will feed into a rethinking of current and future hospital design, including the development of design interventions for healthcare environments.

The historical research can help us to rethink the root causes of perceived sensory problems. For example, my work so far on the history of hospital ‘noise’ has shown that it has long been defined in social terms rather than in terms of volume. Perceptions of noise have changed over time in line with societal change, ranging from attitudes to race or gender to ideas about privacy. Understanding the societal aspects of such change can help us to think more creatively about solutions to noise as more than an engineering problem.

The part of the project working with GOSH Arts and Fresh Arts at Southmead will pinpoint sensory challenges for specific types of hospital user/worker or hospital spaces, which might range from sensory under-stimulation to sensory overload. In turn, these challenges will form the basis for sensory design solutions through a prototyping and development process in collaboration with artists, designers, charities and NHS Trusts. These outputs will be produced with and of value to all those who use hospitals, from patients to professionals. We are also working with Architects for Health to develop a hospital building note around sensory design. Overall, the project offers a novel approach to the history of healthcare spaces that helps us to rethink hospital histories and their relevance to current-day design.

What advice would you give to a student interested in this area of research?

Talk to me! I would love to work with more PhD students or postdoctoral researchers interested in this area of research. I would be particularly keen to see some comparative or international work in this area.

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

I took Sinéad Gleeson’s Constellations away for a weekend to read for leisure, but it turned out to be extremely relevant to my research. It has a section that captures her sensory experience of hospitals, and which addresses this subject explicitly in a way that I have never seen before. For example, she describes noticing the sound of air conditioning after weeks in hospital; the sound becomes extremely aggravating to her, but nobody else can hear it. I found it not only a really engaging book, but also a useful reminder that we need to think about the sensory environment of hospital as dynamic, and as different for every person in them (or even for the same person, on a different day).

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

I have never come up with a good answer to this question – how could you possibly choose from all of time and place? My possible answers have ranged from an iconic music concert to solving some great historical mystery or crime or visiting an extinct species. I know that I should pick something related to my research, but I do not think it would be a historic hospital if I wanted to return with my health intact… 

What’s your must-do Bristol restaurant?

I love Korean food, so Sky Kong Kong is my classic Bristol ‘go to’ when people come to visit – it is small and serves really interesting food, with a personal touch, as well as being very good value.

What are you working on next?

This UKRI project is going to take up most of my time for the next few years, so first job is to organise a launch event for it. I’m also co-leading a couple of really interesting, interdisciplinary networks funded by the Wellcome Trust: one on the senses and health/care environments and one on the intersections between medical and environmental humanities. We have lots of workshops, writing retreats and conferences coming up for those over the next two years and I will be really excited to see what comes out of our collaborations. Watch this space on both!

Featured Historian: Grace Huxford

Dr Grace Huxford is Senior Lecturer in Modern History. She is a social historian of modern Britain, specializing in the Cold War period and with particular interest in the aftermath of the Second World War and the Korean War. She is an oral historian and currently conducting an oral history of British military communities in Germany (1945-2000). She was recently interviewed on BBC Radio 3 about the project as part of a special programme on post-war Germany, coinciding with the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall – you can listen to the interview here.

Grace Huxford

Hi Grace, can you start by telling us what you are working on at the moment? What’s the British Bases in Germany project about?

Between 1945 and 2019, Germany was home to many thousands of British service personnel and their families. Initially sent there as a post-war occupation force, the British military quickly became part of the frontline against a possible Soviet invasion. These bases form an important element of Britain’s post-1945 military history, but they were also unique and complex social communities. My project explores the experiences of those who lived and worked on the bases – not just service personnel, but their partners and families, as well as the wide range of support workers, professionals and volunteers who ended up there. My postdoctoral research assistant, Dr Joel Morley, and I interview people as part of this research – we’ve spoken to over 60 people so far with a range of experiences and memories. These interviews will form the foundation of our research and future publications.

How did you become interested in this area?

I’ve long had an interest in social history of the Cold War and my PhD and postdoctoral research examined the varying responses to the Korean War (1950-3) in Britain, which resulted in my book The Korean War in Britain: Citizenship, Selfhood and Forgetting (2018). The Cold War is such a long conflict, much of it about watching and waiting – no more so than in west Germany, where British and NATO forces trained for an invasion that never came. I was interested in how that situation affected people, from service personnel to their families and civilians on the bases.  I also came across many references to Germany in the material I looked at for my book on Korea: though no units were directly posted from Germany to Korea, I got the sense of how important Germany was for the British military. It was at the centre of a constellation of bases across world that had developed as part of imperial strategy and during the Second World War. Another aim of my research is to examine what living in Germany meant for people other than service personnel too. This is an important area of what is sometimes called Critical Military Studies – acknowledging that the military’s influence stretches far further than the lives of fighting troops alone.

What is the importance of the British bases project today?

Apart from a few remaining units and offices, British Forces in Germany closed its last bases in 2019. It’s therefore a really important moment to analyze their historical significance, as well as the impact Germany had on the British military and understandings of military life. One of the most fascinating aspects (and challenges) of using oral history as a method is that the present context shapes the interview too – so our project explores how people viewed British communities in Germany after the end of the Cold War and closing of the bases as well.

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

Oral history has both practical and theoretical elements – you need to think about both when planning and analyzing interviews. There’s a great deal of helpful advice out there already on oral history: the Oral History Society (UK) has some great advice pages about getting started with oral history interviewing and important ethical and legal issues, like obtaining full consent and thinking about how you will store your eventual interviews. I also really like the Oral History Review’s blog, which has some great articles from oral historians reflected on all sorts of topics like recording equipment and personal dynamics, to suggestions of reading.

I’d also encourage students to think about the time available to them (and to their narrators) and to remember that quantity does not necessarily mean quality. Taking the time to interview one person, to really listen to what they have to say and to analyze their testimony with care can be just as rewarding (both personally and intellectually) as doing a huge number of interviews. Alistair Thomson, for instance, has reflected extensively on his interviews with one First World War veteran, Fred Farrall – to great effect.

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

On the recommendation of a colleague, I read Elif Batuman’s 2017 novel The Idiot. It’s a semi-autobiographical story of a woman’s first year at university – some very funny and moving parts, but also some interesting reflections on what language means and its limitations. Plus, I fully empathized with the line: ‘what was Cinderella, if not an allegory for the fundamental unhappiness of shoe shopping?’ I hate shoe shopping.

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

It will still be there in the morning.

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

Tough question. I’d probably invite some of the people I came across in my book on the Korean War, particularly some of the British anti-war activists. The Chair of the Stevenage New Town Development Corporation, Dr Monica Felton, was sacked for visiting North Korea during the war, but she always claimed she ‘did it for Stevenage’. I suppose I’d like to ask more about that. I’d also invite some of her critics too though, for balance, including someone called Christine Knowles who worked with the families of British prisoners of war. It would certainly be an interesting evening!

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

I love the walk along the Avon Gorge to Pill. It’s about 7 miles from the university, across the Suspension Bridge and takes just over two hours. Pack your sandwiches and enjoy the views. Then pop into a pub at the end and get the X4 bus home. And if you’re feeling adventurous you can do the full 23 miles of the Avon path! http://www.riveravontrail.org.uk/

Cycle path - Pill to Bristol © Linda Bailey cc-by-sa/2.0 ...

What are you working on next?

I’m going to be writing up my findings from the British Bases in Germany project – a few articles and a book. I’m also writing/thinking more about the history of military childhood. I’d also like to research more about where I live in Bristol, so need to plan a trip down to Bristol Archives!