Summer Reads 2023

From works of historical fiction to micro-history, memoir to nature writing, as we reach the midpoint of the summer holidays, historians at the University of Bristol share with us what they’ve been reading so far.

Brendan Smith, Professor of Medieval Studies, is reading Danube by Claudio Magris. Every page has something memorable to say about the historic connections of the places the author passes through, from source to Black Sea. Not since my interrail in the summer of 1982 have I seen the mighty river!

Misha Ewen, Lecturer in Early Modern History, is reading The Love Songs of W. E. DuBois by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers. The Love Songs of W. E. DuBois is an emotional work of historical fiction, which is both a coming of age story and a family saga, which traces their experiences of enslavement and dispossession, intimacy and love, during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It’s also a mediation on the role of the (family) historian – the ethics of doing research and what we hope to recover. I’ve never read a book quite like this and I couldn’t put it down.

Lorenzo Costaguta, Lecturer in U.S. History, is reading Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich. Nickel and Dimed is a short and extraordinary book. Written by social justice activist and writer Barbare Ehrenreich (1941-2022), it narrates the author’s attempts to survive through minimum-wage jobs in late-90s US economy. The book became a literary sensation when it was published in 2001. In an economy still enjoying the upside of the late 1990s tech boom, Ehrenreich unveiled the social damages produced by a capitalist system designed to be impossible to navigate for the poor. Beautifully written, self-critical, inspired, Nickel and Dimed rapidly became an instant classic.

Will Pooley, Senior Lecturer in Modern History, is reading Twilight of the Godlings: Shadowy Beginnings of Britain’s Supernatural Beings by Francis Young. I love a book that takes on an old problem – what are the origins of the motley spirits and supernatural beings of medieval Britain? It’s no surprise the answer isn’t simple. Young suggests that across the longue durée communities with similar needs recycled the bits and pieces of old godlings into new spirits, wild men, and eventually… fairies. A fun one for folklore fans!

Josie McLellan, Professor of History, is reading The Swimmer: The Wild Life of Roger Deakin by Patrick Barkham. An experimental biography of the nature writer Roger Deakin. Subtle, engrossing, and an absolute page-turner!

Simon Potter, Professor of Modern History, is reading The Disappearance of Lydia Harvey: A True Story of Sex, Crime and the Meaning of Justice by Julia Laite. The Disappearance of Lydia Harvey traces Laite succeeds in bringing out big themes in twentieth-century global and social history through painstaking reconstruction of the lives of ordinary people.

Fernando Cervantes, Reader in History, is reading Journeys of the Mind: A Life in History by Peter Brown. It had me completely hooked for a good week. It is a fascinating memoir of his intellectual development that takes the reader from Brown’s native Dublin through Oxford and London to Berkeley and Princeton. It is also an exceptionally generous appraisal of all the people who have influenced him as well as a cracking read. Written with Brown’s characteristic elegance and wit, it is also a wonderful travel book, reconstructing Brown’s many journeys in Europe, Africa and the Middle East. Among the many books he mentions that had a profound impact on him is Hilda Prescott’s The Man on a Donkey, a forgotten classic of historical fiction that meticulously reconstructs the lives of individuals and communities in the decades leading up to and during Henry VIII’s decision to dissolve the monasteries. I am only half-way through — it is very long! — but I am thoroughly enjoying it. Both books are absolute ‘musts.’

Richard Stone, Senior Lecturer in Early Modern History, is reading Late Light by Michael Malay. It’s a beautiful piece of nature writing.  Michael takes us with him as he learns about four fascinating but overlooked animals with which we share the British landscape (eels, moths, mussels, and crickets), but also how human actions are putting them at risk of extinction. Michael also tells us how, after growing up in Indonesia and Australia, his explorations of nature helped him fall in love with English West Country which he now calls home.  I’m normally a physical books person, but Michael narrated the audiobook himself, so listening to it is just like sitting listening to a friend tell you about his adventures!

PhDone ! With Julia Phillips

In the latest in our #PhDone series, we caught up with Dr. Julia Phillips.

Julia took early retirement in 2017 after 25 years as a CEO in the not-for-profit sector in England and Australia. She also worked in travel and tourism, as a lecturer at Warwickshire College, distribution management, financial management, and programmer/systems analyst. In her words: ‘It’s a varied background!’

Hi Julia! First of all, congratulations on your successful viva! Can you tell us a bit about what your doctoral research was about?

Continue reading

PhDone! With Dr. Jiayi Tao

In the latest in this new series, we talk to Dr. Jiayi Tao about her doctorate, recently completed in the department.

Under the support of the China Scholarship Council, Jiayi Tao carried out her PhD project at the University of Bristol, passing her viva in September 2021. Her research interests lie in the history of international humanitarianism and modern Chinese history.

Continue reading

Forest 404: A Chilling Vision of a Future Without Nature

by Professor Peter Coates , Professor of American and Environmental History, University of Bristol

Binge-watching of boxsets on BBC iPlayer or Netflix is a growing habit. And binge-listening isn’t far behind. Podcast series downloadable through BBC Sounds are all the rage (with a little help from Peter Crouch). Enter Radio 4’s ‘Forest 404’ – hot off the press as a 27-piece boxset on the fourth day of the fourth month. This is something I’ve been involved in recently: an experimental BBC sci-fi podcast that’s a brand-new listening experience because of its three-tiered structure of drama, factual talk and accompanying soundscape (9 x 3 = 27). Continue reading

‘An Arena of Glorious Work’

UOB PhD student Gary Willis writes for us, below, on the Council for the Preservation of Rural England. Gary wrote his Masters dissertation on the role of British conservation organisations during the Second World War, and this forms the basis of an article about the role of CPRE during the war which is now published in the October 2018 issue of the Rural History journal.  He is currently undertaking a PhD on the impact on the rural landscape of Britain’s expanded war industry in the Department of History (Historical Studies) at Bristol, supervised by Professor Peter Coates Continue reading

‘The Maltese Soul’ and the Quest for a Post-Colonial Identity

During a recent visit to Malta, Research Associate, Dr Andrew Hillier, found a country seeking to establish its identity in the post-colonial world.


Save for the odd passing reference, Malta tends to go un-noticed in British imperial history. Yet, for over 150 years,  the island, together with neighbouring Gozo, was an important British colony, playing a key role in the empire’s Mediterranean strategy. Moreover, when the country finally gained its independence, this ended not just British rule but two thousand years of colonisation. Its history, therefore, is instructive as to both Britain’s imperial project and, more generally, the impact of imperial rule on a nation and its people.

Continue reading

The Roots of ‘Springwatch’

BBC 2’s ‘Springwatch’ recently completed its fourteenth annual 3-week run. It’s become as much a part of the British spring as bluebells, wild garlic, frogspawn and ducklings. But it didn’t mushroom into success overnight. Environmental historian Peter Coates, who’s working on a project with the Bristol-based BBC Natural History Unit, has written a blog for the Arts and Humanities Research Council about the origins of this national institution: