Public History

Desert Island Histories: Chris A. Williams


This isn’t an especially good reading list for any one topic: there’s not the necessary mix of background, introductions and case studies. Instead I have decided to pack the books (and a couple of articles) which made me raise my estimate of just how impressive writing about history could be.

1. E P Thompson: ‘Time, Work-discipline and Industrial Capitalism’ (Past and Present, December 1967) This is an amazing article, which changed the way I thought about what history ought to be about. Thompson shows how the factory demanded a new way of thinking as well as a new way of moving. To do so, and to precisely time the change, he marshals a wonderful array of different forms of evidence.

2. Robert Bickers: Empire Made Me: an Englishman adrift in Shanghai. (London: Allen Lane, 2003) Maurice Tinkler was a precarious imperialist, a racist bully, and a policeman in the ‘International Settlement’ in interwar Shanghai. This brilliant evocation of an era and of a man, neither very pleasant, is at its most marvellous when Bickers deftly steps back from Tinkler’s own circumstances and gives an impression of the milieu in which he moved: the chapter which covers a period in which he vanished from view, describing the ‘empire world’ of the far east in which he moved.

3. Inga Clendinnen: Ambivalent Conquests: Maya and Spaniard in Yucatan, 1517-1570. (Cambridge CUP 1987) Clendinnen’s short book on the initial contact between the invading Spaniards and the Maya of Central America is a great cure for Eurocentricism.I will read this on the island to help me to remember that marvellous moment when I discovered that academic history could be an account of uncertainties, as much as it could be about events, while at the same time, it could remain as true as possible to the primary sources it was based on.

4. John Lukacs: Five Days in London: May 1940 (Yale UP 1999) My list seems to be populated by those which have impressed me as intellectual tours de force by historians, as much as by the intrinsic interest of the events they describe. This one is both: Europe’s twentieth century hangs on a decision taken by a very small number of people at the top of the UK state, in the spring of 1940, to fight on. Lukas anatomises the meetings, briefings, and decisions which made this happen.

5. John James: The Paladins: The story of the RAF up to the outbreak of World War II (London: Futura, 1990) Not written by a historian, but an inspiring study of the development of the RAF, which concentrates on policy, training, and recruitment: essential things that professional historians (obsessed with who was in charge), and other amateur historians (obsessed with aeroplanes) both forgot to notice. It also contains the most marvellous chapter title yet – ‘Worse things happen at sea’ – which is as good a way as any of summarising the interwar relationship between the RAF and the RN.

6. Carolyn Steedman: Policing the Victorian Community: The formation of English Provincial Police Forces, 1856-80 (London: Routledge, 1984). How did it feel to be a policeman in the mid nineteenth century – balanced uneasily between the need to enforce sometimes unpopular law, and to follow the regulations and strictures of an often precarious occupation? This was one of the first works to ask that question and, nearly 40 years later, it’s still one of the best answers.

7. Linda Colley: Britons: Forging the nation 1707-1837 (Yale UP 1992) There are reasons why Great Britain is the way it is, and quite a few of them are to do with what happened in the eighteenth century, as England and Scotland began to converge into ‘Britain’, and their ruling class took stock of the disastrous loss of the American colonies. My initial approval of this book grew to much greater admiration when Princess Diana died, and I realised how much of what I was seeing around me was eerily familiar from Colley’s account of the death of Princess Charlotte in 1817.

8. Richard Evans: Telling Lies About Hitler. (London: Verso 2002) Life on a desert island can be boring, and there might be moments when I begin to doubt that history matters very much, good books or no. This is the thing to remind me that it does: it’s the tale of how Evans, through mastery of his sources and his topic, defended Penguin Books against an attempt by Holocaust denier David Irving to shut them up. It will show me why it’s important to keep remembering von Ranke’s injunction to tell things as they actually were, and give me a lesson in how to do it.

9. Sidney Pollard: ‘The Ethics of the Sheffield Trade Outrages’ in Transactions of the Hunterian Archaeological Society, Vol. 7 (1957). In the 1970s and 1980s, many social historians began to point out (or try to point out) how the economic and the social were intertwined: consciousness was both a product of economic relations and an influence on them. Pollard was there already, Amundsen to their Scott: in this brilliant article published more than 50 years ago, he had already described both the price-tag and the social basis of intimidation.

10. The book that I am writing, slowly, on my desert island. It would probably be a re-interpretation of Robinson Crusoe, with special reference to the perspectives which Alfred Crosby put forward in Ecological Imperialism (Cambridge UP. 2004) a book which describes how the Europeans managed to take over (most of) the world largely through the animals, plants, and above all microbes, which they carried along with them.

On the radio they get several songs and a book, so if we’re getting ten books I think I deserve a song. I’ll have the Rondo mix of Rappaport’s TestimonyI Never Gave Up by Chumbawamba, perhaps the most upbeat song ever written about Auschwitz, which sets one of Primo Levi’s tales to music, and adds in a sample from Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey. The whole thing ends up as a bouncy celebration of the resilience of the twentieth-century individual.

One Comment

  1. Hey Chris, I think I borrowed your copy of number 2 at some point in the mid-1990s and never gave it back. Sorry – should I post it to you before you leave for the island?

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