I’m a Senior Lecturer in modern history, and part of the Centre for Modern British Studies at the University of Birmingham. My previous books (for Oneworld Books and Oxford University Press) have been cultural histories of the nineteenth century.
As a historian of that period I’ve written for the Times Literary Supplement and appeared on BBC2 and at the Hay Festival. But I’m now making a departure from that field. The Beginner’s Guide, above, was an attempt to set out my view of the century before I leave it behind.
In new projects, I’m making use of some long-standing working habits. For years I’ve done lots of my reading/thinking outdoors, going on long reading trips in my bivi bag or sleeping bag:
On these trips, my drybag would be full of the history books I needed to immerse myself in, but would also contain poetry and natural history. (Really, my first-choice reading would always be works that simply ignore constraints of genre, such as the incomparable books of Rebecca Solnit, Rachel Carson or John Berger). With around eight hours travel and six hours sleep, I could read for many hours each day and think while on the move. This proved far more productive than my routines at home or in the office.
In 2013 I started to put photos/reports from reading trips online at a blog called Mountain, Coast, River (partly in an effort to learn to write more engagingly). And I’ve spent the last three years acquiring skills to help me shift my research interests. This has involved a project on the concept of time, collaborating with natural scientists, philosophers and others, which began in 2015 in Brazil and ended a year later in Japan. It has also involved experiments in nature writing for books and magazines. In The Frayed Atlantic Edge I’m combining coastal wandering with research and writing, as well as attempting to fuse history, literature and natural history into something readable.
This book is the first of several steps in this direction.
When I return from the journey I’ll be teaching a module called ‘The Human Shore: People and Nature on Britain’s Coasts, 1750 to the present’ at the University of Birmingham (with apologies to John Gillis for stealing the title of his book).
I’m then planning a large-scale project on ‘coastal temporalities’, by which I mean perceptions of time on Britain’s coasts, that will be my major research interest for the next decade. As I apply for funding in relation to this next year, I’ll be looking for collaborators – please get in touch if that might be you!
Besides these pursuits, there’s one other – purely recreational – means by which I think my way to Atlantic coasts from the midlands city. My training was as a musician rather than a historian, and occasionally I can’t help returning to those roots to play music inspired by seascapes and weather: here I can be heard on an album by Jon Opstad.