Under the Spotlight

French Historians under the spotlight: Dr Chris Millington

Welcome to ‘under the spotlight’, a monthly interview series which offers a snapshot from academics’ lives: their passions, interests and reading suggestions – all summarised in less than ten minutes. You can catch up with previous posts here.

This month’s interview is with Dr Chris Millington, Senior Lecturer in History at Swansea. Chris’s latest book France and Fascism: February 1934 and the Dynamics of Political Crisis (Routledge, 2015), co-authored with Brian Jenkins, is out in paperback in March. Chris is also organising a workshop exploring the teaching of history in schools and universities which is taking place on Friday 19th March 2016 at the IHR. More information about the event can be found here.

23.07.15 Welsh Crucible, Dragon Hotel, Swansea
Chris Millington: ‘the job wouldn’t be half as enjoyable without being able to discuss history with the engaged and interested students at Swansea’

In one sentence, what is your research about?

Citizens’ conceptions of the limits of acceptable political action and behaviour in a democracy.

What was your motivation for researching French history?

I enjoyed studying the French language long before I became interested in the country’s history. At school I was always interested in history but we didn’t have the opportunity to study France. I did, however, learn about the Occupation during my A-Level in French – we read Joseph Joffo’s Un sac de billes, Henri Troyat’s Toute ma vie sera mensonge, and watched Claude Berri’s Lucie Aubrac. Still, at A-Level I preferred Guy de Maupassant’s short stories to these more modern objects of study.  I suppose I became interested in French history through my undergraduate year abroad project on the history of Lorraine during the Second World War. From there I took final-year options in the subject, taught be Martin Simpson (now at UWE) and Kay Chadwick (Liverpool).

You’re given a time machine for one day. Where would you go? What would you do?

I have to make a very difficult decision. I’d choose either 14 July 1935, when the Popular Front was sealed on the streets of Paris, or 6 February 1934, when nationalists rioted on the Place de la Concorde. Though the latter is, as I tell my students, my favourite event in French history, I think I’d have more fun in July 1935. I’d like to mix with the crowd, soak up the atmosphere, and take the oath against fascism.

Who would you invite to your French History fantasy dinner party?

This is an awkward question. If I invite the people whom I study the guest list would be full of fascists (or not, depending on your point of view…) and I wouldn’t really fancy spending an evening with them. I don’t really have any heroes from French history. I think I’d invite the ‘ordinary’ people who lived through the period that I study – the workers, the school teachers, the conscripts, the refugees; anyone who could tell me what it was really like to live at that time.

What have you found most rewarding and most frustrating about your career?

I find this career incredibly rewarding. Who wouldn’t love talking, reading and writing about something they love, and get paid for it? I suppose the most rewarding element of the career is teaching. Research and publishing is, of course, rewarding in its own way, but the job wouldn’t be half as enjoyable without being able to discuss history with the engaged and interested students at Swansea. As for things that I find frustrating, of course I have a lot of things to do and not enough time to do them in, and there are pressures on several fronts (teaching, research and administrative duties), but there are pressures in every job – and not every job is as good as being a historian. There are many more positives than negatives.

What is on your desk at the moment?

The desk in my office is incredibly messy. It’s full of papers, on which I know I’ve written something important but have forgotten exactly what. There are also sweet wrappers, lecture notes, a mug and a kettle. Underneath all that I have Phillip Nord’s new book on the defeat of 1940, which I’m looking forward to reading over Easter. I also have Owen Sheers’s novel Resistance, whose portrayal of a Nazi-occupied Britain is sometimes a little too convincing for comfort.

If you weren’t in your current role, what would you be doing?

Training for Rio.

What key piece of advice would you offer postgraduates/early career academics?

When I finished my PhD I was fortunate enough to go straight into a job at Birkbeck, then a postdoc at Cardiff University, and from there onto my job at Swansea. I didn’t have to put up with casual teaching contracts and moving around the country. I realise that I’ve had it good. So when it comes to giving advice to postgraduates and ECRs about ‘hanging in there’, I feel a bit of a fraud. However, I’ve always been a ‘do-er’ rather than a procrastinator. I’ve sought out opportunities and taken them. You can’t just wait for them to come to you and you have to apply for jobs no matter where. I also would advise being realistic. When I finished my PhD I recognised that no matter how hard I tried, or how good I was, I just might never get an academic job because of factors outside my control. I decided I would try for 5 years and then do something else. Would I actually have done this? Who knows?

A few quick-fire questions…

Archives Nationales or Archives Départementales?

The AN. It is (or was) in Paris – why go anywhere else?

Monograph or journal article?

Journal article.

Best conference you’ve ever been to?

I enjoyed the FHS conference in Tempe, Arizona in 2010. There were many great papers, and I learned a lot. It also marked the beginning of my honeymoon in the US.

Writing in silence or to music?

Silence!

Pick a century?

1870-1970, so roughly the twentieth century – are there any others? I suppose there must be nineteen of them…

Éclair or saucisson?

I have a sweet tooth but éclairs are pretty tasteless. Saucisson.

***

Many thanks to Chris for taking part. If you’d like to suggest someone to feature on the blog, then let us know via @FrHistNwk.

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