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Thoughts from Alumni Historians

Some alumni historians reflect on their time at Cambridge and its influence on their subsequent careers.

David Jowitt 
(Magdalene 1959)

David JowittA year after graduating in History in 1962 I went to teach in a newly-established Anglican grammar school in Southern Nigeria.  I taught History (initially the Tudors and Stuarts), English (both Language and Literature), and Latin.  Undoubtedly it was for English that I was chiefly valued.   The friendliness and general vitality of everyone I met and the enthusiasm for learning of the students made a great impression on me, and it explains why I am still in Nigeria today and still working.  I later taught at another, more distinguished Anglican school in the Eastern Region, and was there when the Region tried to secede from Federal Nigeria (as ‘the Republic of Biafra’) and the Civil War began.   Later still, I taught History and English at Colleges of Education further North.  The greatest excitement there was to have to teach a course called World History, which gave me the opportunity to learn much more about areas of history about which I had been ignorant before.  In addition, at a time when syllabuses in History and English were being rapidly Africanized, there was the thrill of getting young minds ‘exposed’ to other times and other places, just as happens or ought to happen in schools and universities in, for example, Britain. 

In 1987, and fortified with a Master’s degree (from Essex) in Linguistics, I entered the Nigerian university system.  I obtained a lectureship at Bayero University, Kano, in the far North, and now perforce began to specialize exclusively in English.  I eventually became a Professor at ‘BUK’, but in 2006 moved to the University of Jos, in an area famed for its good climate.   I am still there, and in addition to being heavily involved in supervision I have taught a variety of courses.  The one I personally enjoy most is the History of the English Language.  The terrorist group Boko Haram may do their worst in Nigeria – may have by now done their worst – but my students study extracts from Beowulf, Chaucer and Shakespeare, and why not?  

I have had published a number of books, mostly in the field of English studies; the one I have most enjoyed writing is entitled English Language and Literature in Historical Context, which tries encyclopaedically to summarize developments in language and literature and also to provide the historical ‘background’.  I have also written a general history of Christianity.  I am known in Nigeria chiefly, however, for the work I have done on the Nigerian variety of English.   My first book on the subject, Nigerian English Usage, came out twenty-five years ago; a new one is due to be published soon by De Gruyter Mouton.   To some extent it is my tribute to the extent to which Nigerians have adopted the English language as their own.

Nick Chapman

(Clare 1966)

History is often a narrative and historians frequently seek to explain and tell a story.  Reading History at Clare furthered my love of storytelling which in turn led me to my career in book publishing.

My experience of reading History was something of a mixed bag.  I was not enthralled by Modern Economic History in Part I of the Tripos, but was much taken by the History of Political Thought, and Modern Theories of the State which followed in Part Two. For Part II, my Special Subject was ‘The Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem’ which I found fascinating; I remember Dr. R.C. Smail’s seminars and the tea party in his rooms where he showed us slides of his tour of crusader castles.  In 1992 I was fortunate to visit Krac de Chevaliers, the great Hospitallers’ castle in Syria, now sadly seriously damaged by the current civil war but then still marvellously intact.

After graduating, I secured a job as a graduate trainee in the London publishing house of Hodder and Stoughton, then very much a traditional family owned firm but now swallowed up by a French media conglomerate.  I went on to have a career in publishing, initially in book publishing as an editor and publishing director, commissioning and working with fiction and general non-fiction authors.  What I found was that my history degree enabled me to write and communicate clearly and effectively and gave me the intellectual confidence to engage with authors.

Subsequently I went on to work at a senior level in the BBC and then as managing director of a national newspaper business in Dublin.  Again I believe my background in history helped me to hold my own in that demanding and often challenging milieu of journalism and media.

Above all studying History at Cambridge induced in me a lifelong passion for reading history;  and when I retired to Dorset, I decided to go for a Masters in War and Society at Exeter University; the supervisor for my dissertation on RAF Bomber Command was Professor Richard Overy both a contemporary at Cambridge and an author I had published in the past.

History has always been there for me in my career and life since I graduated from Clare now close to fifty years ago and it has given me much pleasure ever since.

Peter Cowie
(Magdalene 1959)

Peter CowieLooking back to my years studying History at Cambridge from 1959 to 1962, I recognise the enormous value of that education, often dismissed at the time as a woolly degree that would never earn one a respectable living as would Law, Science, or Languages.

I was fortunate to have at Magdalene two excellent tutors, the down-to-earth, brisk, but always encouraging Ralph Bennett, and the mild-mannered, hospitable Frank Salter.  I attended lectures, of course, but soon found that only G.R. Elton held my attention throughout each session.  He rendered the Tudor period in lively and penetrating terms, and was perhaps the first to bring Thomas Cromwell out of the shadow of Cardinal Wolsey and Sir Thomas More, a fact for which both Dame Hilary Mantel and Sir Mark Rylance should be grateful!  But what did one really learn from three years in the History faculty?  First and foremost,  I acquired the indispensable habit of keeping notes — notes just not from lectures or from text books, but on every subject under the sun — and in particular my own passion, the history of the cinema.  For forty years I kept index cards for every film I watched, and notes on almost all of them.  Secondly, I learned the capital importance of sources.  My final year course in Historiography underlined this.  Ever since, I have relished searching the most arcane sources for information on a film, a director, an actor, or any aspect of film technology.  Just this year, in my late seventies, I have completed a large book on the history of the films made about the Olympic Games.  It required not only viewing well over one hundred hours of film, but making notes thereon, and researching the crews responsible for the production of more than forty features.  Could I have done that without the legacy of the Cambridge History Department?  Could I indeed have completed any of my more than thirty books on film history without the methodology inculcated by those three wondrous years in my vanished youth?  I do not think so.


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