French Historians under the spotlight: Dr Simon Kitson

Welcome to the second instalment of ‘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. If you missed the first post, featuring Máire Cross, you can catch up here.

This month sees Dr Simon Kitson  take the blogging limelight. Associate Professor & Head of European Languages and Literatures at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, Simon’s monograph Police and Politics in Marseille, 1936-1945 was published in May 2014. Simon also runs an excellent Facebook group, Simon Kitson’s France: news and discussion. If you’re not already a member, you can join here.

Simon Kitson: “Thinking about the old BN makes me sad for those scholars who have only experienced that hideous, soulless monstrosity in the 13th arrondissement”.

In one sentence, what is your research about?

My research thus far has been concentrated mainly on the Nazi Occupation of France, and in particular questions of policing and counter-espionage.

 What was your motivation for researching French history?

Most of my early life was dictated by punk music. I ended up studying in Northern Ireland because I was a fan of Stiff Little Fingers and The Undertones. The French connection came through The Stranglers. They were a massive influence on myself and my brother, Jem. Through them he took a brief interest in Karate and I became familiar with cultural figures like Erik Satie and Yukio Mishima. The Stranglers had a bassist of French origin, Jean-Jacques Burnel, and sang songs in French and Swedish. This provoked my interest in language learning which led me to study West European Studies at the University of Ulster, a degree which combined language learning with historical study. A final-year option on the Nazi Occupation of France triggered my fascination with this period, especially as I was at the time living in a country with armed soldiers on the street. My eldest sister, Debbie, was a specialist in French and Italian so I guess I should also credit her with some influence as well.

If you could travel back to any historical period or moment, when would it be?

The Enlightenment: I love the idea of social progress happening as a result of people sitting around chatting in coffee houses. I wonder whether today’s Starbucks generation will be similarly inspirational.

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

I’d actually have quite a complicated structure and a lot of guests if your virtual budget allows it. Apologies in advance if it sounds like planning this dinner party has been my life’s work.

Hosting the event and doing the cooking I’d have King Henri IV- it’s always good to get someone regal to put on such an event as this should ensure that the spread is lavish and I believe that this particular King would know how to make a mean Pot-au-Feu.

Table 1 would be the interesting and fun table at which I would beg to sit. This would comprise the historians. I’d have Julian Jackson because he always has so many witty stories to tell; Rod Kedward because he is undoubtedly the academic I most respect; Sarah Fishman because I have so much admiration for her and Colin Jones because he has such a wonderful breadth of insight about French history. My good friend Peter Jackson would normally be invited to this table but because he is such a HUGE fan of Édouard Daladier I fear that he might interrupt the social experiment happening on table 2 to ask for autographs. Doggy bags would nevertheless be available for all of my historian friends, many of whom have fallen on hard times (aka academic salaries).

Table 2 would comprise some figures from history or more precisely the Itter inmates. During World War II the Germans deported a number of prominent political and military figures and interned them together at Itter Castle. These people were all such strong mutual enemies that I’d be intrigued, each time there was a lull in Julian’s story-telling, to watch how they really interacted. Amongst others there were arch-political rivals Édouard Daladier and Paul Reynaud, military enemies Maurice Gamelin and Maxime Weygand, and de Gaulle’s sister and Clemenceau’s son. As animals are usually under-represented in history I’d enforce an act of positive discrimination and have Joey, the lead character in Warhorse, to chair their discussions.

 Which French History monograph do you wish you had written?

I’m torn between Alain Corbin’s The Foul and the Fragrant (I love the idea of trying to create the history of something as intangible as smell) and one of the volumes of Theodore Zeldin’s History of French Passions which I think would have been a fun book to write. So, in order not to have to decide between those two, I’ll choose Rod Kedward’s The Resistance in Vichy France, an absolute classic.

Which book(s) are currently by your bedside?

Steve Biddulph, The Secret of Happy Parents and Adam Mansbach, Go the F*ck to Sleep.

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

Two things really. Firstly, don’t delay getting your thesis published in the hope that it might become perfect: just bring it out warts and all quite quickly after doing your viva. I speak from the experience of having done the opposite. Secondly, always keep the phrase ‘they pee and poo like the rest of us’ in your mind whenever you meet a big cheese in your field. Sure, show them respect, but don’t pander. Some senior academics take themselves far too seriously so if you repeat ‘you pee and poo like the rest of us’ to them then maybe it’d bring them back down to earth…. just don’t blame me if using this method ends your own career prematurely.


A few quick-fire questions: choose between…

Foucault or Furet?

Foucault, as I think his influence extended into a wider range of areas. He also had more direct influence on my work.

 Archives Nationales or Archives Départementales?

The old Bibliothèque Nationale in the rue de Richelieu would top them both. It was so full of characters. There was the guy with the wrap-around glasses – I think his name was Eric: he appeared a little bonkers. One day he came up to me out of the blue and said ‘You’re English, aren’t you? What do you think of Theodore Zeldin?’ Before I could answer he shared his own unfavourable view of Zeldin before whisking me downstairs to the catalogue room to show me a book I ‘absolutely must read’ – although why I can’t quite remember. Then there was the old man with the raincoat that smelt of pepper who made me sneeze every time he walked past. Then there was ‘Norbert’ who sat opposite my seat (number 35) and used to complain that the (inaudible) noise from my laptop was driving him crazy and who would sellotape those yellow cards used for ordering books around the desk lamp if you dared to turn it on. Then there was Jake, a cantankerous young man. One day a librarian there told me off for falling asleep on a book: Jake, sitting next to me, viewed this as an infringement of my civil liberties and called the librarian every name under the sun. Thanks Jake for speaking in my defence but I’m afraid my sympathy went to the poor guy you were insulting. Thinking about the old BN makes me sad for those scholars who have only experienced that hideous, soulless monstrosity in the 13th arrondissement.

 Monograph or journal article?

Monograph: something meaty.

 Politics or culture?

As the author of ‘Police and Politics in Marseille’ I feel rather compelled to say ‘politics’ but I do try and combine both in my work.

 Pick a century?

For me the nineteenth century is the most interesting period of French history. It was a time of great innovation but the old traditions were still there trying to battle it out with the march of modernity. There was also constant to-ing and fro-ing within the political system.

 And lastly, éclair or saucisson?

Must I choose? They’re both delicious but I guess I’d have to go for the éclair, as I have a rather sweet tooth. At the risk of anachronism, can I take said éclair on my time-journey back to the Enlightenment coffee house, please?


Many thanks to Simon for taking the time to answer our questions.

If you’d like to take part, or suggest someone to feature on the blog, then let us know!



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