On the Spot: Helen McCarthy

‘People can surprise you. They often don’t fit into the categories we impose on them.’

Helen McCarthy.Why are you a historian of modern Britain?
I like how exploring the recent past of one’s country makes the seemingly familiar unfamiliar.

What’s the most important lesson history has taught you?
People can surprise you. They often don’t fit into the categories we impose on them.

Which book has had the greatest influence on you?
Ross McKibbin’s Classes and Cultures (1998) for how it elucidates the deep structures that shape people’s ‘everyday’ assumptions.

What book in your field should everyone read?
Carolyn Steedman’s Landscape for a Good Woman (1986).

Which moment would you most like to go back to?
Interwar London, stopping at a Lyons Tearoom or visiting a Palais de Danse.

Which historian has had the greatest influence on you?
Vic Gatrell, my first undergraduate supervisor.

Which person in history would you most like to have met?
Beatrice Webb.

What foreign languages do you speak?
Despite learning French for years, I’m one of those terrible monoglot British historians.

What’s the most exciting field in history today?
The history of the emotions.

What historical topic have you changed your mind on?
That feminism disappeared in Britain between Suffrage and Women’s Liberation. We now know that it was reconfigured and found new spaces for expression.

Which genre of history do you like least?
Old-fashioned military history doesn’t float my boat.

Is there an important historical text you have not read?
Lots! Although what gets defined as ‘important’ is problematic.

What’s your favourite archive?
Like many British historians, my heart belongs to the National Archives in Kew.

What’s the best museum?
The Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green. An intriguing, interactive space and brilliant for kids.

Normans or Anglo-Saxons?

Rome or Athens?
Whatever Mary Beard said.

Braudel or Gibbon?

Michelangelo or Frida Kahlo?
Frida Kahlo.

What is the most common misconception about
your field?

That British historians are parochial and inward-looking.

What will future generations judge us most harshly for?
The erosion of the international community in the early millennium.

Helen McCarthy is University Lecturer in Modern British History at the University of Cambridge and author of Women of the World: the Rise of the Female Diplomat (Bloomsbury, 2014).