French Historians under the spotlight: Dr Daniel Gordon

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.

February’s interview is with Dr Daniel Gordon, Senior Lecturer in European History at Edge Hill University. His monograph Immigrants And Intellectuals: May ’68 And The Rise of Anti-Racism in France was published in 2012.

Me at Edge Hill
Daniel Gordon: “the first job I had after graduating with a degree in History was as a kitchen assistant at Pizza Hut. I was sacked after three days for making pizzas too slowly, which sums up my artisanal approach to life”

In one sentence, what is your research about?

My research is about the history of people moving – whether that be between countries, into and out of political movements, or just getting fed up on their way to and from work.

What was your motivation for researching French history?

The flippant answer would be ‘a bid to emulate the legendary Professor F.J. Lewis of the Mary Whitehouse Experience sketch History Today, and his celebrated punchline ‘‘That’s you, that is’’ ’ – and I actually did once confess this to Rob Newman in person. But seriously, in the short term I think I was trying to make sense of the failure of the activism I had been involved in as a student in the mid-1990s. An angry yet bookish young man, emotionally in turmoil since the death of my mother when I was ten, I hated the Tories, New Labour and the capitalist system in general, but had grown disillusioned with the arrogant certainties of the far left. What made this easier to bear was transposing the problem to another time and place. As a third year undergraduate, I had taken the bus to Paris to visit a friend on his year abroad during the strikes of 1995. Walking all the way from Bagnolet bus station to the Latin Quarter, the first thing I remember seeing was a handwritten placard reading ‘En grève pour le service public’: here was a place where people still believed the kinds of things that I believed in, yet which mainstream contemporary British culture insisted were nonsense. With the tools at my disposal – an A Level in French and some exposure to French history from having studied Tocqueville and the French Revolution as a first year undergraduate – to immerse myself in 1960s France as one of Rod Kedward’s last postgrads at Sussex was a superb kind of escapism. But my obsession with the spectre of 1968 had begun before I ever thought I had it in me to become a professional historian.

Taking a longer view, although my fascination with the Left was at some level a rejection of the ostentatious 1980s values of my nouveau riche family in southwest London (one thing I have in common with the late Tony Judt is that I’m from Putney), I inherited my francophilia from them. I love the feeling of being able to reinvent yourself in a second language, hand movements and all, secure in the knowledge that people will just think ‘he’s weird because he’s English’. My parents were both from Russian-Jewish immigrant backgrounds and the first in their families to go to university – in my father’s case, at part-time evening classes: he retains to this day an autodidact’s reverence for books and culture which rubbed off on me. My mother, a Southport tailor’s daughter, had studied French at Manchester University, and my parents were in the early vanguard of English second-home ownership in southwestern France, after going in 1973 on a gastronomic tour of the Dordogne, where I spent every summer up to the age of ten. Perhaps academia was a socially acceptable way to run away from my allotted destiny of taking over the then family business, a small firm of legal aid solicitors described as ‘the last of the Dickensian solicitors’: I owed my privileged education as a scholar at London’s most academic private school to the proceeds from representing various South London villains. The journey of assimilation out of the East End had reached an apparently successful conclusion in three generations.

But just as classic a cliché is that the next generation becomes a déclassé alienated intellectual. There were ghosts lurking beneath the surface: although influenced by English historiography, there is something deep within me that instinctively and irrationally feels a greater connection with people from Continental Europe. In spite of my mother’s Penelope Keith exterior, how many women with unfulfilled ambitions to become a Conservative MEP also had a grandmother who was a Menshevik from Kazakhstan via Simferopol and Odessa, and had once plotted in a forest to kill the Tsar? But my mother’s love of France really stemmed from having a cousin in the French Resistance. Cousin Fred, who had grown up partly in England, was a jeweller in eastern Paris: he escaped the rafles by hiding in a toilet. After the war, he kept black cats, and his favourite dish was steak tartare, because while half-starved and climbing across rooftops, he had chanced upon a black cat with a raw steak, which the cat and he proceeded to share. Although Fred’s mother was killed at Auschwitz, his half-Jewish, half-Catholic baby daughter was hidden by nuns, and is now a retired dentist, sculptor and opera singer living in Nogent-sur-Marne. An inflatable sofabed off the waiting room of her dentist’s surgery a stone’s throw from Les Halles RER station made a convenient if unconventional base for postgraduate research trips.

So – like a lot of research in the humanities – in a sense it was a quest for identity, but in a round-about way: at the time I would have thought it self-indulgent to do so too directly by researching Jewish history, because I saw identity politics as rather facile and limiting. Instead I considered that doing history well requires an imaginative empathy for historical actors who are not necessarily similar to the person studying them. My general sympathy for the underdog; visiting as a first year undergraduate an Algerian refugee in the newly opened Campsfield House Immigration Detention Centre; watching La Haine; marrying someone who worked with refugees and took me to Palestine for the first time; it all gradually led me in the direction of wanting to know more about the North African experience in France. One night in Brighton, hearing a BBC World Service report about the trial of Maurice Papon, my first research topic was sealed: an MA dissertation on the 17 October 1961 massacre of Algerians in Paris. So maybe my work has been about crossing the Anglo/French barrier, the Jewish/Arab barrier, and the class barrier in various directions.

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

I would go to rescue the cast of Les Visiteurs from the Tunnels of Time (they were last seen at the end of the sequel being captured by a 1790s revolutionary army commanded by Napoleon Bonaparte). The scene in the first film where a medieval knight encounters a modern post office van is a great illustration of why cars are very, very strange objects in historical terms.

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

To highlight the role of immigration in recent French history, I’m going for an all-immigrant dinner party. Rachid Taha will perform live to get the party started, as the first guests arrive – including the first two immigrants to stand for President of the Fifth Republic: 1974’s unofficial candidate, the pseudonymous Tunisian activist ‘Djellali Kamal’, who will tonight reveal his true identity, and 2012’s French-Norwegian dual national Eva Joly, who will use the occasion to announce the launch of an investigation into the corrupting influence of research grant culture on British academia. The next guests to appear will include Hocine Aït Ahmed, true hero of the Algerian Revolution, and Irène Némirovsky – because her presence will force me to tackle all those other novels apart from Suite Française that my wife has been telling me to read for years: Némirovsky and I might swap notes on what our respective families really did back in the Ukraine. André Gorz, whose Critique of Economic Reason is the most brilliantly prescient analysis I have read of where the world is heading today, will then turn up bearing logs for the wood-burning stove (his Viennese father was a wood salesman). Henri Curiel, the Egyptian-Jewish Communist internationalist and porteur de valises assassinated in the lift of his Paris apartment block in 1978, will explain to the assembled company the long-term roots of the failure of the Egyptian Revolution of 2011. After a few drinks, Henri Krasucki, Polish-born trade unionist and CGT leader, will finally reveal the secrets about his May 1968 Pigalle park bench negotiations with Jacques Chirac that he took to his grave – enabling me to stop annoying the UK French history community by hawking the same paper about this around multiple venues, and get my article finished. After dinner, Jean-Luc Godard (‘le plus con des suisses pro-chinois’) will compère a film + débat screening, during which I will fall asleep. I will suddenly awake at midnight, when the party is tear-gassed by the CRS unit responsible for policing the ‘Jungle’ in Calais, who will however be beaten back by a service d’ordre of elderly soixante-huitards led by Jacques Sauvageot, wearing PSU armbands and shouting ‘CRS-SS’.

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

The most rewarding aspect of my work has been teaching, especially in a widening participation environment. I’d had an amazing time as an Entente Cordiale postdoctoral scholar in Nice the year of the 2002 presidential election, but the first time I really felt like a useful member of society was when I was appointed at Edge Hill. I was so excited to have a ‘grown-up job’ that I bought a briefcase from a shop on Boulevard Barbès, only for it to fall apart because it was made of cardboard. Going straight from Jesus College Oxford, conducting admissions interviews alongside Niall Ferguson, to what was then a College of Higher Education without its own degree-awarding powers in a town in West Lancashire I had never heard of, was not exactly a textbook career move – but in many ways it was the making of me. I suppose this kind of contrast has immunised me against both the snobbery and the inverted snobbery that exist in different parts of the British education system. No doubt I was influenced by romantic visions of the young E.P.Thompson going to teach extension classes in Halifax, but basically I went because I needed a permanent job.

For the last 13 years most of my students have come from working-class backgrounds in Lancashire or Merseyside: I challenge them to interpret the great tragedies of modern Europe, and they keep me grounded somewhere in the vicinity of real life. Edge Hill University is absolutely at the forefront of how going to university has become a normal expectation among a much wider proportion of society than when I was a student. Being at the coalface of this is hard work, but incredibly rewarding. Because I love helping people, I also enjoy the pastoral aspects of my role as a year tutor and personal tutor. In particular, the sacrifices made by mature students in their quest to educate themselves are nothing short of amazing, and helping them along their way is one of the most satisfying things I do. To get to both to do all this and regularly head off on the conference circuit to talk to scholars with similar interests, and undertake research in France – of which my favourite aspect is doing a spot of psychogeography by just wandering round and observing the traces of the past you see around you – is an extraordinary privilege.

The most frustrating thing? Most things to do with computers. I’m the strange person you see in archives and libraries still taking notes by hand, while almost everyone else works on electronic devices. When I was a PhD student the proportions were pretty much the other way round.

What is on your desk at the moment?

Mainly piles of paper, the bottom layers of which future archaeologists will date to circa 2008. A drawing by my daughter of Tintin, Captain Haddock, the Thompson Twins and Professor Calculus, and a framed piece of paper reading ‘Daddy is on the phone. He is talked French. He has nealry [sic] finished his book. I have just eaten chicken.’ A selection of unwritten postcards from, amongst other places, La Rochelle, Le Mans, Limoges, St Malo and Tulle. Some sticks of incense. Tickets for a forthcoming gig by one of my favourite early 1990s indie bands, Lush. One of those satisfyingly solid French desk name-plaques, from a conference at the Université de Paris-8-St Denis. Times Higher University Of The Year business cards. Green Party campaign materials. Underneath the desk, there is, in front of towering piles of newspaper cuttings (mainly from a period in 2010-2011 when I wrongly thought the world was on the brink of getting better), a selection of books awaiting my attention. These include Suburban Wonder: wandering the margins of Paris by Francis Tabouret; Sortir du capitalisme. Le scénario Gorz edited by Alain Caillé and Christophe Fourel; Picasso/Marx and socialist realism in France by Sarah Wilson; Comradely Greetings: the prison letters of Nadya and Slavoj by Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Slavoj Zizek; The Shameful Peace: how French artists and intellectuals survived the Nazi occupation by Frederic Spotts; The Dawn of Universal History by Raymond Aron; Conduite à gauche: mémoires du chauffeur de François Mitterrand by Pierre Tourlier; Prison d’Europe by Abdel Aziz Mayoro Diop; Histoire de la nouvelle gauche paysanne by Jean-Phillippe Martin; Post Petroleum by John Urry; the guide to the 2014 Jean Jaurès exhibition at the Archives nationales; and Témoignage: d’un village savoyarde au village mondial by Emile Delavenay – given to me by my Parisian cousin’s Bordeaux winegrower boyfriend while helping him clear out a flat in the 16th arrondissement that belonged to his stepfather, a UNESCO colleague of the author.

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

Modern philistinism’s insistence that academia justify its existence mainly in terms of external social benefit kind of misses the point that universities are their own outreach scheme. One of their unsung achievements is providing gainful employment for people who would, frankly, struggle to find it anywhere else. Since I combine the transferable skills of Mr Bean with the approach to career progression of a pre-2015 Jeremy Corbyn, a realistic answer to your question might lie somewhere on a spectrum between ‘trapped in some hideous workfare scheme’, ‘a full-time dad’, and ‘in a routine clerical role working for an especially benevolent employer who for some reason wanted to take someone on to sort through pieces of paper’. I did do the latter in the Manuscripts Department at Cambridge University Library, and also quite enjoyed being an electoral registration canvasser, but the first job I had after graduating with a degree in History was as a kitchen assistant at Pizza Hut. I was sacked after three days for making pizzas too slowly, which sums up my artisanal approach to life – though I have since attempted to make up for lost time by slicing pizzas somewhat faster at my daughter’s school Christmas disco. However I harboured youthful dreams of being a writer on the NME, in the days when it published long articles which I took far too seriously. For a glorious time I was Music Editor of a weekly student paper, the highlight of which was interviewing my shoegazing heroes Ride in a café on Oxford’s Cowley Road.

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

A Graduate Teaching Assistant recently described my advice not to over-prepare for seminars as the best advice she’d received all year. Assuming that you’re teaching first years, it’s very easy for a conscientious postgraduate to fall into the trap, as I did, of being so anxious about remaining one step ahead of the students that you spend most of your week preparing for one seminar – forgetting how little you knew when you were a first year. However, attentive readers may have noticed that I have completely failed to follow my own advice not to overdo things when it comes to the answers to this questionnaire.

As for early career academics, the concept of an ‘early career academic’ seemed to be invented around the time I stopped being one. I was very naïve: it seemed such an achievement to break out from the treadmill of one-year positions into a permanent contract, that I thought once appointed and passed your probation, you were now a fully-fledged member of the republic of letters and would just be trusted to quietly get on with your job to the best of your ability until you retired. Instead it turned out that as well as actually doing your job, you and historians in general have to jump up and down to draw attention to it, embarking on an incessant round of justifying your existence to various complex overlapping bureaucracies. I was familiar enough from some members of my own family with the anti-intellectual prejudice that doubted that what I did in life was work, but it had never occurred to me that the higher education system would itself come to view historical scholarship as an activity that required justification.

Now maybe today’s early career people aren’t as naïve as me: they’re all too familiar with the process by which academic work has been proletarianised. But they still need to be warned that working in British higher education today is reminiscent of Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus. No matter how skilfully you push the boulder up the hill, another objective appears from nowhere and you are back at the bottom – or rather, you have simultaneously to push several boulders up different hills in opposite directions, only to be told boulders are passé and it’s all e-boulders nowadays. Because the life of the mind has been colonised by an instrumental pseudo-rationality exterior to it, there is a tremendous amount of pressure to adopt bad practice. It is of course futile, since in the long run we are all dead, and no-one will care whether University A was ahead of University B in some absurd league table.

The trick is not to let the futility get to you emotionally. What follows may sound hopelessly unrealistic, but I think it appropriate to maintaining some sanity. Don’t be too careerist: treat history as a craft, or a vocation, rather than a quest for status. Stay out of office politics, and be nice to anyone with less power than you. Maintain your intellectual autonomy, integrity and moral vision. Take the long view: don’t follow the bandwagons of academic fashion, or let the passing fads of government and higher education bureaucracy determine your priorities. That said, as any historian of 20th century Europe should know, there will be occasions on which outwardly feigning conformity while inwardly ‘living in truth’ is an appropriate strategy. Teaching at an institution less prestigious than the one(s) you studied at – which given the current job market may well happen anyway – is a good way of redistributing cultural capital, so take pride in it. Carve out a niche for yourself and enjoy the innate satisfaction that comes from a job well done, but avoid promotion, as it tends to increase the ratio of meaningless to meaningful aspects of your role. Remember there are more important things than work: your health, the wellbeing of your friends and family, the on-going struggle to make the world a slightly kinder place. If/when you get some spare time, participate in grassroots civil society in one way or another – but don’t tell your employer too much about it, lest it all become an impact case study and your Gorzian sphere of autonomy becomes yet another sphere of heteronomy. Go for long walks, and write letters with a pen and paper. Like Camus, imagine Sisyphus happy.

A few quick-fire questions…

Archives Nationales or Archives Départementales?

Archives départementales. I’m with Richard Cobb on this one. Exploring departmental archives makes it more likely to pursue different directions from those which other historians have already covered – a must for breaking down generalisations and doing history from below, or any sort of history, properly. In many departmental archives you can get a particularly warm welcome from archivists honoured to have what they perceive as a ‘proper historian’ visit (it makes a change for them from the usual run of amateur genealogists). Plus it’s a great excuse to visit hidden gems among sleepy provincial French towns. I can recommend for example, the almost deserted Archives départementales du Lot in Cahors, where you can stay in a charming youth hostel in a former convent literally next door to the archives.

Monograph or journal article?

Monograph. I’ve written lots of articles but only one monograph, and am on the editorial board of a journal, so this may sound a tad hypocritical. But my book is what I’m proudest of so far. I hope to finish at least one more before I die: let’s face it, books are what we will be remembered for.

Best conference you’ve ever been to?

Probably my favourite genre of conference is those frequented by the more reflective sort of activist. Above my desk there is a framed photo taken in London’s Russell Square during the 2004 European Social Forum with some of the French and Tunisian activists I would later interview in my book, all of us holding a banner reading ‘Pour une citoyenneté européene de résidence’. I did a write-up of the ESF for the wonderfully eclectic magazine The Voice Of The Turtle, which though in hibernation for over a decade now, still has a home page that automatically generates today’s date in the French Revolutionary Calendar.

Writing in silence or to music?

Silence. Background music is for me something of a contradiction in terms: the sort of music I’m into is a little intense for writing to it to be a wise option. I’m excited by the current trend for reunions of early 1990s indie bands, providing hours of fun for ageing shoegazers as we relive our teenage angst as ironic middle-aged angst. There’s nothing like seeing live again the same band you saw the summer you took your GCSEs, and realising it was all a quarter of a century ago, to get a sense of the historical passage of time. I like the way My Bloody Valentine literally took 22 years to make their last album: it was as long awaited as Norman Ingram’s forthcoming book on the Ligue des droits de l’homme. For younger readers wondering what on earth I am going on about: here they are then and now. Maybe there’s a case study in transnational history here: at the time, shoegazing was portrayed as inseparable from the Thames Valley, but I recently had dinner in Montreuil with two other French historians, each from a different country, only to discover quite by chance that all three of us had been Ride fans. Perhaps this subliminally inspired an interest in the history of mobility.

Pick a century?

Given my research area, the boringly predictable answer would be ‘the 20th’, so I’m going to say ‘the 16th-11th centuries BCE and 4th-9th centuries CE’, the periods covered by my wife’s monograph Personal Identity and Social Power in New Kingdom and Coptic Egypt. I acted as a kind of unofficial research assistant to her PhD when we wandered around rubbish dumps in Luxor in search of Coptic graffiti, and much of it was written up in a seedy Art Deco block of flats in Nice in between exercising a pug dog on the Promenade des Anglais, so it can be counted as an honorary French history book.

Eclair or saucisson?

Eclair, definitely. I was about to risk getting into Pseud’s Corner by saying something like ‘the intricate repertoire of pastry and bread products available at any street corner boulangerie is an example of French civilisation at its best – a triumph of beauty over economic rationality’ when it dawned on me that you can buy them in Tescos too…


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


4 Responses

  1. Dan, this was an excellent and enjoyable read.

    I truly appreciate your guidance and enthusiasm with French history and most of all your support for my dissertation regarding the Harkis. I am still researching the subject in my own way and have a lifelong interest in Satre and Camus!

    Your comment regarding ‘absurd league table[s]’ for universities is spot on – the sign of a great historian and lecturer is to fill the students with a lifelong interest in their subject – although my life has continues to be a great journey (both literally and figuratively), thank you for giving me that gift!

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