I work on the cultural history of 20th century Britain, with a particular interest in gender, sexualities and selfhood. Increasingly my focus is on the politics of cultural life, and the politics and practice of writing cultural history in the here and now. You can listen to me reflecting on these themes.
My last book Prince of Tricksters: The Incredible True Story of Netley Lucas, Gentleman Crook was published by the University of Chicago Press in 2016. The book starts with a simple question: how can we be confident in something? This is a recurrent philosophical and ethical question, but it is also always an historical question, shaped by social relations and cultural forms that are time and place-specific. It became a compelling question in Britain in the 1920s and 1930s. The legacies of war and the accelerating pace of peacetime change made confidence and authenticity prominent yet precarious values.
Unraveling the lies and lives of the confidence trickster, discredited journalist, and scandalous royal biographer Netley Lucas, Prince of Tricksters explores the crises of confidence that wracked Britain in the 1920s and 1930s. Lucas’s prolific storytelling repeatedly questioned the possibility of trust in the identity of individuals and the ‘truth’ of popular journalism and publishing. In tracing how authenticity was constructed and confidence sought in everyday social encounters and diverse forms of mass culture, the book suggests new ways of thinking about Britain in the 1920s and 1930s. Highlighting the resonances between crime, consumerism and monarchy, allows us to see how questions of confidence abraded the boundaries between society, culture and politics. Netley Lucas, gentleman crook, gives us a way of integrating historiographies and histories that have usually been treated as discrete.
Prince of Tricksters is also my attempt to show how history might be made differently — to explore different ways of writing about the past. In pursuing a prolific storyteller given to tall tales and changing names I have been forced to acknowledge the limits of what we can know as historians. The book tries to recognise rather than conceal those limits. Taking its cue from Lucas himself, it plays with the boundaries between ‘fact’ and ‘faction’, and switches between different forms of writing. Serious historical analysis is mixed up with fragments of newspaper gossip, romantic fiction, and a screenplay. This has been my way of exploring how history itself is a kind of narrative — a way of telling stories with its own disciplinary codes and conventions.
The book grew out of my desire for a debonair gentleman crook and his flamboyant lives, but I had to find ways of justifying the stories I wanted to tell about him.
Prince of Tricksters was named “book of the day” in the Guardian.
At the moment I am juggling two book-length projects, both of which tease out questions around the politics and practice of cultural history and elaborate case studies I've touched upon in previous research.
Postal Pedagogies and Petty Capital: The Global Business of Self-Improvement traces the remarkable rise and fall of the Pelman Institute and the correspondence course known as Pelmanism. From the 1890s to the 1960s, tens of thousands of people across the world committed themselves to the task of “improving” their personality. Lured in by adverts promising social and professional success, they industriously read textbooks and completed worksheets — or, perhaps just as often, gave up on the course within days. The project follows the Pelman Institute and its members between its offices in Britain, France, India, South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and the United States. In so doing I hope to explain why self-improvement became a global business, and how, in turn, Pelmanism disappeared from popular memory as anything other than a children’s card game. It is a book about the global movement of psychological knowledge, ideas of personhood, advertising techniques, and corporate capital. It is also an intimate history of what self-improvement meant to the ordinary men and women who signed up for the Pelman Institute’s courses — about the changing nature of aspiration and anxiety in the modern world.
Seven Dials: A Cultural History, by contrast, focuses tightly on a small area of central London. A notorious slum and cosmopolitan working-class neighbourhood, Seven Dials was apparently in a constant process of redevelopment between the construction of Shaftesbury Avenue in the 1880s and the high profile battles over its conservation and regeneration a century later. In exploring this history, my starting point is the furore around a small cafe in Great White Lion Street in the mid-1920s. Run by a Sierra Leonean man and his white British wife, the cafe is my prompt to explore how the encounters between metropolitan governance, corporate finance and property development, and diverse local actors shaped the transformation of urban society and culture. Placing Seven Dials’s history in its imperial and global context, and emphasising the relationship between culture and capital, the project moves across scales of analytic to consider the politics and prehistory of the process we now call gentrification.
My earlier research explored the relationship between the city, social practice and sexual identities--how modern urban culture shaped the ways in which men and women experienced, organised and understood their sexual desires and practices. Part of this was published as Queer London: Perils and Pleasures in the Sexual Metropolis, 1918-57 by the University of Chicago Press in 2005. Queer London was awarded the Longman-History Today Book of the Year Prize and the Royal Historical Society's Whitfield Prize for the best first book on British history.
I am also involved in a number of ongoing collaborative research projects:
The Persistent Prison: Alteration, Inhabitation, Obsolescence and Affirmative Design. Working with Dominique Moran (Birmingham) and Yvonne Jewkes (Bath) this interdisciplinary project asks how and with what implications Victorian-era prisons continue to operate despite their apparent obsolescence. It is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ES/T005483/1).
Masculinities in Twentieth Century Britain. Working with co-editors Katie Jones (Birmingham) and Ben Mechen (KCL) this collection of essays reflects on the politics and practice of histories of masculinity in modern and contemporary Britain.
Creative Histories / Storytelling the Past. I have been involved in running this interdisciplinary research group with Alison Twells, Helen Rogers, and Will Pooley since 2016, organising workshops and public engagement events and writing a series of collaborative essays and blogs.
The 20s30s Network. I have co-convened this interdisciplinary research network with Elizabeth Darling (Oxford Brookes) and Richard Hornsey (Nottingham) since 2011.