Patrick O’Brien interviewed by Alan Macfarlane 28th May 2005

0:05:17 Birth and background; parents

3:09:11 Schooling in Catholic schools; left school at 16; when in the Army decided to become educated; National Service; London County Council grants for people from poorer families to go to University; went to London School of Economics

4:56:00 Teachers at the L.S.E; distinguished department of Economic History included Theo Parker, Jack Fisher, Donald Coleman and Eleanor Carus-Wilson;

met Tawney who, had had a great influence, but by then rather old and eccentric; Jack Fisher’s comment on where to go for PhD

7:16:22 Nuffield College, Oxford where did a D.Phil with Habbakuk; found loose supervision system difficult though Habbakuk very good if you had something to say; went to see Sir George Clark who said he knew nothing about research; Nuffield a stimulating place with mixture of social scientists – twelve students and twelve dons; got to know Ian Little, the economist, Max Hartwell, Philip Andrews and Dame Margery Perham; left-wing and democratic atmosphere, very enjoyable

9:34:13 Took six years to do D.Phil on the funding of the Napoleonic wars; examined by Robin Matthews; huge text which has not been published although have contract with Oxford University Press from 1966

11:36:10 After D.Phil rather tired of economic history; was a Bevanite socialist and becoming interested in poverty in the Third World; British state developing area studies for South America, Russia, East Europe and Africa so applied for fellowship at School of Oriental and African Studies; Sir Cyril Phillip’s initiative to seize this funding; set up department of Economics and Politics with young research fellows, including Ken Walker who worked on China, Chris Howe, on Japan, Steve Broadbridge etc.; I worked on Middle East and first couple of years was spent learning Arabic; never very good at it but wife, Cassie,  was

13:10:19 Went to Egypt for a year  in 1963; attached to the Institute of National Planning in Cairo, writing papers for Nasser’s first Five Year Plan; very taken by this young country with its socialist leader; alas, he disappointed us all by involvement in geo-politics, bombing the Yemen etc., and trying to enlarge his power; nationalized industries; main problem is population growth; first book was on transformation of the economic system under Nasser as a development economist

14:36:16 Was at S.O.A.S for a decade; Christopher von Furer-Haimendorf’s department of anthropology very sympathetic; Adrian Mayer also a great supporter

16:08:17 Left S.O.A.S. despite Habbakuk’s encouragement to stay there and become an economic historian of the Middle East; found the Arabic script very slow to read which was depressing; once spoke to Mark Elvin about this and he said he’d felt the same about Chinese for many years and only made a breakthrough after about nine years

17:50:08 Oxford advertised a lectureship in European economic history and went there, to St Anthony’s which is a college with people in area centres, dominated by Russian and East European Centre, but also Latin American, Middle Eastern and European centres; Japan Centre came later headed by Dick Storey; Geoffrey Hudson was the China expert; Raymond Carr; Sir Norman Chester; at that time college had a louche atmosphere; Richard Cobb; college life; Harold Macmillan; drink; Harry Pitt; taught for most colleges in Oxford and got to know the history dons 

22:09:55 At Oxford did a book on England and France called ‘Two Paths to the Twentieth Century’; at that time the dominant text was Landes ‘Unbound Prometheus’ and the way to write economic history was to start with England and use the diffusion model; England first industrial nation – explain why other countries were retarded, particularly France; never quite believed this but thought that each country took its own path; cliometric revolution encouraged investigation into which areas was France backward; found that France was not that backward but they did retain large share of population in villages, in agriculture; industrial base smaller than England though just as innovative; unlike English, French don’t migrate; pattern of village industrialization; recently looked at French travellers to England and their horror at urban Liverpool and Manchester – did not want this in France; Napoleon a disaster for French economy and caused widening gap; why did England have such a huge share of world trade in 1820’s; answer was in heavy investment in the Royal Navy; Atlantic economy

29:20:23 Was at Oxford for twenty years, 1970-90; Keith Thomas; Hugh Trevor-Roper; Christopher Hill; Eric Hobsbawm

35:37:10 Became  Director of the Institute of Historical Research; steadily more interested in European history and spent time in Venice and France; great admirer of Marc Bloch’s comparative method and the Annales school; difficult time for Institute as money was being redistributed to colleges leaving the central administrative core with its institutes looking for a new purpose; quite a difficult time but enjoyable

39:50:50 Meeting Gerry Martin and the Achievement Project; Centre for Metropolitan History – skilled workforce project; met Gerry in 1990 when about to leave Oxford; he had already started with projects at the science museum in Oxford but wanted to widen perspective; conferences; became interested in world history; Global History seminars

45:25:08 Married to an art historian, Cassie; profound influence on my life;  brought up children then when they we in teens went back to art history and became lecturer in college of further education in Oxford; learnt much by going to art galleries about history; expanded horizon