Profile of an HTTPer: Simon
Over the next few months, we at HTTP are hoping to start showing our writers in a more human light (after all, most of them are human), with profiles about them and their research. First in the hotseat is Simon, one of our managing editors…
How did you get into studying history?
As I think I briefly mentioned in our anniversary podcast, I came to history via quite a roundabout route. I studied modern languages (specifically, German and Russian) at undergrad, but as that course went on, I realized I was far more interested in the historical papers on offer than the literary options, and chose as many of them as possible. Obviously, the languages I was studying determined which history papers I chose, so my interests and my historical awareness developed steadily in a Central and Eastern European direction. When I returned to academia to do my Master’s two years later, I wanted a straight history degree, but opted to study at UCL’s School for Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES) as a way of continuing in that direction.
One thing I do regret about this indirect route is that it’s left me with a less thorough grounding in historical theory and historiography than I would have had if I’d pursued history more singlemindedly from the start. On the other hand, starting off with the language-learning definitely made things easier for me in the long term, and opened up research options that I simply wouldn’t have time to attempt now without that foundation.
Why did you choose to do a PhD in particular?
Oddly enough, my interest in my research topic was of only secondary importance – or, at least, it didn’t become truly important until later on. My initial motivation was a love of teaching. After completing my undergrad studies, I worked for a couple of years as a TEFL (teaching English as a foreign language) teacher and a high school teaching assistant, which together were enough to let me know that I thoroughly enjoyed teaching, but wasn’t quite cut out for teaching children who weren’t there voluntarily! That, and the fact that I was itching to get back to a research-based job anyway, made a PhD an attractive prospect.
What do you do when you’re not hitting the books?
Nothing especially thrilling or outlandish, I’m sorry to say! I’m a fairly avid consumer of science fiction books, television and films, particularly anything involving time travel, as I’ve touched on before, and I’m a moderately enthusiastic gamer, too. I also really enjoy audio dramas (again, mostly sci-fi ones, though not solely), and have on occasion got involved in amateur audio projects as a voice actor. I haven’t exactly shot into superstardom, though – my highest-profile role so far is the end narration of an indie game I doubt anyone has ever played…
What do you plan to do after finishing the PhD?
With any luck (and a daunting amount of ‘resilience’, no doubt), I’ll find some sort of post-doc position or junior research fellowship – preferably one entailing some teaching, but I may not be in a position to pick and choose at that stage! I certainly want to continue down the academic career path, anyway, though I have no intention of losing sight of other, more public-oriented forms of research output.
And finally, give us three favourites…
Because every historian has to have one, eh? Well, as far as outside appearances are concerned, I love the British Library in London – and I’m also immensely grateful to it, and other legal deposit libraries, for all the resources they’ve placed at my fingertips. If we’re talking interior environment, though, I’d have to choose the Taylor Library at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. I never did much work in it, but I did enjoy many soothing hours of procrastination there…
Favourite quote / phrase?
I’ve always rather liked the aphorism: If at first you don’t succeed, redefine success. It’s a nice variation on a cliché, and it actually resonates with me far more than the original! I’ve no idea who coined the phrase, but I first came across it on a cheap metal wall hanging on sale in a London street market when I was a mewling pre-teen; that hanging remained in my childhood bedroom for years afterwards.
Favourite (or most personally significant) historical figure?
I’m not sure about most significant, but one of my favourite historical personages has to be Grigorii Rasputin, the eerie Russian faith healer who exerted a strange influence over the Empress of Russia during the First World War. The man is almost endlessly fascinating, with his bizarre, slightly dishevelled appearance, his rumoured hypnotic powers, and his seeming invulnerability when a group of nobles attempted to poison, shoot, beat and then drown him. While much of his story has been exaggerated, or outright fabricated, the fact that he’s become such a cult figure in the popular imagination is interesting in itself. Also, before I cut my shoulder-length hair, people used to accuse me of looking like him – so I do feel a more personal connection with the man as well!