Ringing the changes
A good academic needs a good specialism -a subject to base his career on. But what happens if after a decade of, say, Labour Party history, he develops a fascination with the cultural significance of the doughnut and why his dad went bust? Brian Brivati (right) plans to find out
I am writing a history of the Labour Party's general election campaigns since 1945. When this fascinating project is over I am going to try to do something else for a while. This is partly because the dullness of contemporary politics has sapped the past of some of its flavour. I would rather cook than read The Guardian. I will continue to write about key political figures, but I feel temporarily uncoupled from my specialism - the history of the Labour Party - a specialism that started with a doctorate on "The campaign for democratic socialism, 1960-64".
I do not think I am alone in this uncoupling of life and work. In fact, I think I am unusual in having retained the integration of research and enthusiasm for so long. It is perhaps utopian to believe that all academics can maintain the zeal that gets them through a PhD for the rest of their careers. Academics are a depressive lot.
This is usually attributed to having to do too much administration, but it is really because of the obsession with focusing on one narrow area of intellectual endeavour for 30 or 40 years. The life of an academic is intended to be monastic - we are supposed to have a vocation for our specialism and spend our lives delving deeper and deeper into it. Certainly, for historians, forays outside one's specialism are treated with suspicion and condescension. But I feel I have earned a short holiday from Labour Party history. When I deliver my latest book, I will have written or edited 13 books on contemporary history. A baker's dozen.
I wish I could say that it was this coincidence, like something out of an Italo Calvino novel, that has made me want to work in a new field. My family were bakers on the south coast of England from the 1960s until my brother got rid of his last shop this year. It is this experience I want to write about. As I grew up, I lived in a world of doughnuts, hot crusty bread and early mornings, periods of boom and devastating bust. My father went bust during the economic tightening of 1979-82. That sharp depression and the two Geoffrey Howe budgets that introduced the short experiment with monetarism swept away the little world of Annette's Patisseries, Gigi Confectioners, Cozy Cup coffee bars and New Forest Bakeries.
My father was not really a businessman but a craftsman who kept expanding. His only comment on politics that I remember was that you always had stop-go but at least under Labour it was usually go. Mrs Thatcher introduced her stop, at cabinet meetings that I have subsequently researched and lectured about, and one small ship that was sunk, part of the price worth paying, was ours.
In my father's world, life and work were seamlessly integrated. For a child this feeling was particularly sharp. Not much liking getting up at 4am and being pushed, like all second-generation younger sons of immigrants, to escape trade for a profession, I became an academic. Part of my choice was based on an idea that being an academic meant I too could integrate life and work, but instead of bread, my product would be what I had loved from an early age: history. That objective has become a little lost and I want to find a way to regain it.
I remain absorbed in my discipline. I do not need to lie when preaching to my students the virtues of understanding the 20th century better so we might live in a better 21st century. I will argue the point at any time with anyone and I will win - at least to my own satisfaction. What else do we have but the past and the present as ways of learning about the future: when you apply abstraction to human experience you end up with the gulag and the extermination camp.
My problem is, therefore, not with my profession, nor with what I teach my students - it is with the relationship between my research specialism and myself. What has this to do with me?
Every novelist is told how to become a writer: write about what you know. Every year I tell my final-year students to write about what they have enjoyed most during their time at Kingston. Or I ask them what they do outside Kingston and see if they can connect this with a historical project: this resulted in one memorable piece of work on football hooliganism. The message is the same: write about what you feel and have enjoyed experiencing.
But this is difficult if you want to have an academic career. You need to specialise in the first ten years of your career to make sure you get an established post. In the second ten you might fan out from that initial bridgehead, but the time for research is eaten into by the other elements of academic life. In the last decade you might have a chance again but by then you might be so knackered by work you would rather weed the allotment.
This is not just the lot of historians who want to change subjects, but of anyone interested in destroying for themselves the boundary between the world of work and the world of enthusiasm. The one professional crime that remains unforgiven in universities is the crime of wanting to do something that is real to yourself, irrespective of its value to anyone else. We academics must think of the status of our specialism with respect to other specialisms, our discipline in relation to other disciplines, our department's status, our university's prestige. We must think of the league tables, publish in the right journals, join the right committees.
Political historians like me must have footnotes, archives, documents, interviews, references, a body of work and a proven track record. We must live in the Public Record Office or else we cannot raise our heads at the Institute of Contemporary British History summer schools without being out-referenced by a thrusting young pedant.
What I find most frightening is that I have been trained within this tradition so I do not know if I will be able to do anything different. I feel like a young PhD student again, as I set out on a new course, which is really a return to Bournemouth of the 1970s.
I am going to try to change trains mid-journey for a few stops in a bid to reintegrate enthusiasm and work. My method for doing this is to marry my two greatest interests: food and history. My vehicle for doing this is going to be - when I have cleared my desk of Labour Party work - an essay on my experience of the baking and confectionery trade on the south coast of England and its relation to the social history of Britain in that period. Bournemouth in the 1970s and 1980s will be the backdrop for my experiment - a kind of historical writing that tries to integrate personal experience, of, for example, frying doughnuts early on Saturday mornings or accompanying bread deliveries, with the history of these products and this kind of consumer culture.
The doughnut permeates our culture. Though deeply unhealthy, eating doughnuts is not seen as evil. Contemporary villains smoke but they do not eat doughnuts. In one episode of The Simpsons, Homer imagines a perfect world but cannot find his favourite snack. He returns to reality having failed to notice that in the perfect world it rained doughnuts. What would Homer have given for my old Friday night-Saturday morning job of frying doughnuts in steaming fat, injecting them with jam and rolling them in sugar for dispatch? A hot doughnut, fresh from the fat, with a cup of bakehouse tea at the end of a shift, is one of the culinary experiences of my life.
The biggest obstacle to my project is convincing myself that I am allowed to do this. That the gods of my specialism are not about to tell me to stop and instead write a 500-page biography of Reg Paget.
But assuming the gods remain silent, then the notebook I have kept will be dusted off and I will begin to explore the history of the doughnut, the origins of the term peel for the wooden loader of a brick oven, and the reasons for the decline in door-to-door bread delivery. I will try to communicate the smell of the bakehouse at dawn as the white loaves are unloaded from a five-deck brick oven and knocked out from their tins and the steam escapes from the prover that has helped the dough rise. And I will not feel ashamed that I cannot reference a memory but only describe it because it is true. In Italy, wholemeal bread is called integrale: everything in. I want to try and write a history that is integrale. And then, refreshed, if it wants me, Labour history can have me back.
Brian Brivati is reader in contemporary history, University of Kingston.