Historian Highlight is a new series sharing the research experiences of historians in the History Faculty in Cambridge. We ask students how they came to research their topic, their favourite archival find, as well as the best (and worst) advice they’ve received as academics in training. History is all about how we tell stories – this series looks at the stories we have to tell as graduate students researching in unprecedented times. In the second post in the series, George Severs explains his research into the history of HIV/AIDS activism in England in the late twentieth century.
What are you currently researching?
My research examines the history of HIV/AIDS activism in England. It spans from 1982, the year of the first confirmed AIDS-related death in the UK, to 1997, by which time combination therapy was beginning to transform HIV into a manageable chronic illness. I take a purposefully broad definition of activism, allowing me to incorporate both ‘radical’ direct action protestors, paid employees of charities, religious figures and other allies into an historical picture of a broad HIV/AIDS activist community.
What led you to research this topic?
As an undergraduate at Royal Holloway, University of London I became interested in where the extreme levels of hatred exhibited by the British far right towards gay men had come from. Part of the answer lay in the context of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and when I got the chance to research the crisis further I jumped at it. I wrote a dissertation on gay men’s narratives of politicisation and HIV/AIDS, using the oral history sources and methodology to which my supervisor, Graham Smith, had introduced me. From there, I was hooked. I moved to Cambridge to do the MPhil in Modern British History where I wrote a thesis on the Church of England’s responses to the HIV/AIDS epidemic with Lucy Delap.
What’s the most interesting historical material you’ve read, listened to, or watched in the last month?
In the last month I’ve mainly been teaching, and was particularly struck by a recording I came across of Margot Asquith recounting the evening which she and her husband, Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, sat waiting in the Cabinet Room for a response from Germany. None came, of course, and by the time she climbed into bed the Great War had begun. I played it time and time again to students, and it never failed to give me goosebumps.
What’s one of your favourite historical sources?
I’m not sure about favourite, but I’m increasingly interested in song as a historical source. I’ve been using the Jimmy Somerville (of Bronski Beat and Communards fame) Read My Lips (Enough is Enough) in my work recently as it is something of an AIDS activist anthem. With accompanying music video, here is a source which combines the political, the queer, the audio, the visual, the economic and the cultural. It wasn’t a hit but it stayed in the UK top 40 for six weeks. Songs are wonderfully rich sources to write about and make excellent sources to teach and present with.
Other than that, as an oral historian, I am still not quite over how magical it feels to put a pair of headphones on in the British Library and have someone, often long since dead, explain their past to you (via an interviewer) in their own words. Both these sources, song and oral history, I think get at the power of the aural, perhaps because capturing that essence in our writing can be so elusive.
And what’s the best or most unusual experience in an archives?
I was once sat at the readers’ table in the Bishopsgate Institute Library. This experience alone could qualify for a best archival experience: the informal friendly welcome, lacking the officious, overly regulatory frameworks which (necessarily) weigh so many archives down, makes you feel at home instantly. Coupled with the queer flags hanging from the mezzanine of the wood-panelled room, I don’t think I’ve ever felt so at home in an archive. But my most unusual archival experience also occurred here. As I read through the files of ACT UP London, the archivist called over: ‘do you want some vintage gay porn?’ An inventory had made clear that the archives held several duplicates, and it was decided that they didn’t need quite so many copies of Zipper magazine, and so I went home armed with the material needed for chapter 1 of my thesis and Issue 59 of this particular ‘Adults Only’ publication… It hides on a shelf in between Simon Szreter’s prize-winning ‘Incentivising an Ethical Economics’ and a copy of the Museum Studies Journal.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given as a historian?
Surround yourself with supportive and friendly colleagues: this is very important. Equally important, and a mantra which I absolutely abide by alongside my friend and colleague Dr Trina Mosley, intellectual life at Cambridge is absolutely compatible with obsessive TV-watching. So, flipping this question slightly, find your own Trina with whom you can talk about that new article in the Historical Journal as well as (usually) 24 Hours in Police Custody or Love Island.
And the worst?
‘Don’t worry about bringing lunch, you can get food near The Keep [archive in Sussex]’. You can’t.
What’s your must-do Cambridge experience?
Within reason, go to everything. If that seminar sounds interesting: go. If someone asks if you want to come and hear so-and-so speak, say yes. There’s a concert being held nearby but you’ve never heard of the artist? Go and listen. I have more or less lived by this logic during my time in Cambridge (if I really am up against it then of course I will work, or take time out to avoid burnout: I’m not suggesting your life in Cambridge be a parody of a Jim Carey film). But I continue to be amazed by some of the wonderful opportunities I have had to meet people, to see and do things during my time as a graduate student. These opportunities feel like they’re stretching out forever (and of course, in some ways they are). But from the vantage point of the ‘nearly finished’ stage, I am deeply envious of those of you just embarking on your PhDs, with so much to discover and so many wonderful things to explore.