Charles Wilson had written and published the first serious academic company
I was to be in
The founders had always intended the University of Sussex to start in October
1962, which is when I went there, but in the event, because of pressure of
students it was had been opened on a shoestring in 1961, not on the site it
now occupies but in a house in Brighton, with Asa Briggs and about seven other
academics. In 1962 it moved to the main site in portacabins and one permanent
building, and that is when I went back; it was very exciting because one was
actually creating it; I remember years later Asa saying that he regretted
not keeping a diary as it was the creation of a University from scratch was
such a rare event in history. One was constructing a curriculum, recruiting
people and organizing a governance structure. I became Secretary of the School
of Social Sciences while Asa was Dean and Pro-Vice Chancellor, so I was pretty
much near the levers of influence and power; devising courses that were new,
like 'Contemporary Britain' or 'The Modern European Mind'; I stayed for sixteen
years; every time I thought of leaving something else intervened. In the
August of 1962, just before I started at Sussex, the University of Michigan
invited me to go and talk about possibilities; I went and was impressed, and
at that stage was very much missing America; I sort of accepted the post and
then came back and realised that my wife and children now back with the family,
and my own parents too, would have thought it worrying and feckless of me
to go back, even before I started at Sussex, so I declined the offer. The
same sort of thing happened in 1964 when I was invited back to Harvard as
a visiting professor when Alexander Gerschenkron came to
was attracted to
20:11:19 At Sussex, I went on to succeed Asa first as the Dean of the School and then as Chairman of the Arts Deans; when the University was split into two, I became Pro-Vice Chancellor for that part of the University which was Arts and Social Studies, and became very much embedded in the bureaucracy. I found it interesting and possible to combine with academic work, though I could have done much more of the latter if I had not been an administrator. One of the essays I will never write is on why economic historians have become such utility players in the world of academic administration. It seems to me to be a matter of smoke and mirrors as the humanities people think that economic historians are social scientists and vice-versa, and each thinks they know more than they do.
I am a list man who draws up the list to get things out of my head rather than to do things in an orderly way; I tend to react at once to issues and problems that arise as they arise; I am not a good organiser but a fairly hard worker, and would stay up late to do things. Thinking back, I am not sure I had a great system; I neglected academic potential and could have written more; my output has not been huge, but I have been fortunate that things I have done have had some prominence; I did not lose a lot of sleep over administrative issues and I always did have the feeling that a lot of the issues that were brought to me, certainly when I was at college, by fellows, were often dissolved by talking them over. I think I was probably quite a good chairman so didn't waste a lot of time in meetings; I do take administration seriously but it doesn't occupy my entire life.
25:46:10 In my academic work, I sit at a desk, I don't listen to music, or work in the evenings; I might at times have verged on being a neglectful father in that I would work through the weekends; I have my thoughts about historical issues by trying to write them down and seeing parallels as I write. When I was a research student I did all the inductive work first, but in later years I wanted to write before I was ready. I am sad that over the last seventeen years, since leaving Cambridge, I haven't been very productive; in the late ‘sixties when Asa Briggs became Vice Chancellor of Sussex and I was Pro-Vice Chancellor, we pioneered the use of a management consultancy firm, McKinseys, to come and investigate us; and I remember Jack Fisher predicting that they would ask if we were centralized or decentralized, and whatever we said they would tell us to do the opposite – which was exactly what happened. We decentralized, and that created a structure of sub-institutions; at that time I was writing the history of the Royal Exchange Assurance and the insurance industry, and I think I saw this there; I wrote a history that had a lot in it about delegation, decentralization and subordinate institutions, which paralleled what was happening in the University. But that is the furthest I have got in seeing an idea from the outside rather than building it up from the inside. I also found myself writing a history of the coal industry at the time of the coal strike in 1984-5, so there were echo effects there; I remember the then Warden of Nuffield College, Michael Brock, asking what I thought of it, and replying that when the Bishops intervene the strike will end.
When I was a graduate student I was a pioneer of methodology; I had Cope-Chat files that were programmable around the edges, on which I kept all my notes. Sadly I lost the code so they are useless. Subsequently I made lots of notes on A4 paper. The thing that I found was a disadvantage as well as a blessing was the use of research assistants; when working on the Royal Exchange I used one full-time and he produced much too much for me to absorb; when I wrote on the coal industry I had unlimited typing aid at the National Coal Board, so I used to take a tape recorder into the Public Record Office and dictate and then it would be typed up; all I did was to transfer this huge pile from the Public Record Office to my desk and there was no absorption.
nearest I have come to genuine originality derived from my work on the early
seventeenth-century, where I was interested in the relationship between economic
thinking and events, a sensitivity to the symbiosis between the way people
think about problems and the problems that arise - the balance of payments
work is an example. The incidence of the fluctuations in
36:51:04 I was eager to leave Sussex after sixteen years; some part of the time was unhappy because of student unrest and what I took to be Asa Briggs' toleration of a lot of it, although I would probably have done the same in his position; I applied for the chair of economic history here when David Joslin died in 1971; two days before the election I got cold feet; my family was well embedded, we had been instrumental in transforming the educational system in Sussex into a comprehensive system which we much favoured, I came up to Cambridge to scout out things and all the middle-class academics I talked to spoke of their worries about the end of grammar schools; housing was expensive and it suddenly seemed a very selfish thing to do; I drafted a letter withdrawing from the competition, went down to Brighton station with a colleague, Larry Lerner, who saw the letter in my hand and offered to post it; before I knew it he had put it in the post box; two days later on the day of the election, I got a call from Vice Chancellor asking if I was sure I wanted to withdraw; self-respect and a desire not to be humiliated made me confirm my decision; from then until 1978 hardly a day passed without my wishing it was otherwise; in 1978 the readership in recent social economic history at Oxford came vacant, and without hesitation I applied for it; Asa Briggs had left Sussex and gone to Worcester College, Oxford, and I had become the Pro-Vice Chancellor at Sussex, which was tedious. Alas, my father had died by the time I went to Oxford; Nuffield is a brilliant place to be; there are no undergraduates, and it’s quite wealthy, a small place, like a social science research institute, with good colleagues; we lived in a very nice house in North Oxford, and I could have happily spent the rest of my career there; then the Cambridge chair became vacant again when Donald Coleman retired early; I talked to Chelly Halsey at Nuffield and with Robin Matthews at Clare; I conducted a thought experiment: supposing I was on my deathbed and being asked why I had refused to take the Chair at Cambridge; I knew then that I had to apply, and I got it; although I was a Oxford Reader, I was a Professorial Fellow at Nuffield; they gave a generous allowance that brought salaries up to professorial level, so there was no financial inducement to come to Cambridge; I felt that, having been here as a graduate student, everywhere else, including Oxford, was slightly inferior; I also felt it was a more interesting place for economic history, and I also wanted to be in more of a traditional institution; Nuffield was a lovely place but is not a traditional college; also, I suppose I was thinking of my father and what he would have said because he was so pleased when I came here as a graduate student; I remember his saying when I came here how proud he was that Jack Plumb had asked me to do some teaching.
44:10:00 I came to Cambridge in 1981; did not have very much to do with the Cambridge Group for Population and Social Structure, although my wife and I became quite friendly with Peter Laslett; before that I had been Chairman of the Economic and Social History Committee of the SSRC, and we came up on a visitation; I remember asking Peter a rather inappropriate question about how much teaching they did, and he stormed out of the room; he felt I was pressing them on irrelevant issues to the main function of the group which was to research; I knew Tony Wrigley, Richard Smith and one or two others, but I didn't have much to do with the group intellectually; I had long since ceased to be an early-modernist, and was working on the twentieth-century coal industry and on American history; when I went to Oxford and asked the then secretary of the faculty what he thought I should lecture on he said it was entirely up to me; when I got to Cambridge there was a lecture slot for me and the curriculum had to be covered; the Faculty is much stronger here as an organization than it is in Oxford; there people only went to faculty meetings in order to vote down change; coming from Nuffield, the big difference here for me was the academic variety of the fellowship; it was also a bit like coming home to Christ's where I had been a graduate student; the collegiate life I found rather attractive, and they gave me a nice room, which didn't happen for everybody but was a bit of Jack Plumb's patronage; I met very congenial colleagues like David Cannadine; Quentin Skinner I had known before and he was instrumental in my putting in for the Chair; there was a much warmer, sympathetic attitude in Christ's than there had been in Nuffield; because I was a professor, I was much more able to feel myself part of the university structure in my field than at Oxford where the faculty structure hardly existed; here I was also a member of the economics faculty so that was interesting, though a bit fraught; I got to know Robin Matthews better and we collaborated in an article on Marshall; I enjoyed supervising; I didn't much enjoy lecturing as I don't think I am very good at it, therefore the audiences were not as numerous or ebullient as I wanted; I enjoyed the intellectual challenge of compiling a lecture, but preferred the personal contact of a supervision, and the ability to get one’s teeth into an essay; in fact, I didn't do much of it as I didn't teach a lot; I did not do as much PhD supervising as I would have liked; some of the thesis examining has been with more interesting people than those whom I was teaching; one was a man called Paul Johnson who worked on savings banks and thrift, and is now in Australia and was at the LSE, and David Feldman who went to Birkbeck
50:51:21 I am glad to have been Master of St Catherine's; I did it partly from a desire for esteem, and because it wasn't an administrative job that would preoccupy me, but was something I could do while remaining an academic intellectually; I had also had an unsuccessful bid for the Mastership at Christ's when Jack retired; that was a very fraught and peculiar business; they had elected the diplomat, Oliver Wright, before this, but then the Falkland's War broke out and Mrs Thatcher sent him to America, and there was another election; my opponent was Hans Kornberg and his supporters circulated a note before there was any other candidate, asking people to commit themselves to him, and enough did to sew up the election; within two or three months the St Catherine's opportunity occurred; I enjoyed discovering a new type of authority; my wife enjoyed it too, but in the middle of the Christ's election, which I had gone in for with out much consultation with the family, she confessed that she had once stood outside Christ's in the rain and looked at the Master's Lodge, and wondered what the future might hold for her; I realized then that this had been an unfair way of proceeding; in the St Catherine's case there was a lot of consultation and she enjoyed it; we went out of our way to make it a proper Lodge, and entertained people including students; I think people sometimes remember her more fondly than they remember me; on my academic work, I discussed a lot of things with her, and she actually helped me as a research assistant on occasions, and in Oxford also did a little paid research for Max Hartwell on his social and legal work; I discussed much with her, particularly when I was Master, where the nature of one's work is collaborative; she was very patient too in 1993 when I made yet another change and left it to work for Leverhulme
55:41:02 I had a call from a head-hunter saying they were looking for a Director for the Leverhulme, giving me a few names to ask my opinion on; at the end of the conversation I was asked if I would like to be considered and I said yes; I had been forty odd years in academic life, and had always thought that the head of a fairly wealthy academic foundation was a very attractive thing; it didn't have some of the obligations and need to argue about policy that could happen in a college; it seemed to me to offer scope for academic contribution and autonomy; my wife reminded me that I had originally got a scholarship from Leverhulme as an undergraduate; Charles Wilson had written the history of Unilever, an offshoot of the Leverhulme, and later on I was asked if I would like to write the fourth volume, but I did not; I went to Leverhulme in 1993 and it was very good, a well-endowed foundation with very liberal business men as trustees, willing both to encourage academic research and also to be receptive to new ideas; I soon discovered how pleasant people could be to you if you were head of a research institute; I travelled around a lot initially to see different universities where we had given grants; the Directorship was different but not demanding, and I was very interested both in the variety and the depth of things that I was doing, and got on very well with the board members; I stayed for eight very happy years; I went there when I was sixty-two and went on after the age of retirement had I stayed in Cambridge; it was an upheaval because I had to get a small flat in London but Cambridge remained our main base; I have written my autobiography, 'Doors Open', which was privately printed.