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Professor John Blair reflects on almost four decades at the College as he retires this summer

29 July 2020

Professor John Blair is retiring this summer after nearly 40 years as a Fellow and Tutor in History at Queen’s. Having been elected to an Emeritus Fellowship, he will remain very much a part of the College community, but we wanted to take this opportunity to thank him for his long service and great contribution to Queen’s and find out more about his experiences here. We spoke to him about his time at the College, how things have changed and his plans for the future.

You spent quite a few years at Brasenose, as an undergraduate, research student and Junior Research Fellow. How did you feel about moving to Queen’s to take up your Fellowship in 1981, and were there many differences between the two colleges?

Having been very happy at Brasenose, I was equally happy at Queen’s from my first day here. But they were very different places, at any rate at a senior level. Coming from a relaxed Senior Common Room, I couldn’t help noticing at Queen’s the tensions left by some difficult and combative personalities who had quite recently retired. But the wounds were healing, and there was an atmosphere of great warmth. The then Provost, Robert Blake, had worked hard to bring the College together. I experienced great support and encouragement from the two historians, Alastair Parker and Kenneth Morgan, who were the kindest and most agreeable of colleagues.

What changes have you seen at Queen’s over the time you’ve been a Fellow here?

Queen’s is an exceptionally happy, congenial and supportive community at all levels. That has been true throughout my career, but perhaps it used to be rather introverted: nowadays it is more open to the outside world. The quality of Governing Body debates has improved, and in recent years the College has been very sensibly run, with scarcely any of the bureaucratic encroachments that infest faculties and departments. Thanks to sustained efforts on outreach and admissions, we have outstanding undergraduates who are a pleasure to teach, and I’m so happy to end my tutorial career in a year that has produced five Firsts in History. The only down-side, I think, is that our northern links have been diluted: Cumbrian and Yorkshire accents are so much rarer in Queen’s than they were in the 1980s! That’s a shame, and I hope that outreach can focus on deprived areas of northern England, where our reputation as a northern college should still help to combat fears and prejudices.

Which have you enjoyed more: teaching or research?

The great lesson that I learnt in my early years was that research and teaching have a creative symbiosis. For tutorials to be dynamic, tutors must be active and enthusiastic in their research. But the converse is just as true: countless hours of face-to-face engagement with inexperienced but highly intelligent people gave me a training in direct, straightforward thinking and expression that has hugely improved my published work. Certainly, for me, teaching and research are what we are here for: administration comes a very poor third! And although research is often seen as a Faculty-based activity, Queen’s has provided the best possible environment for mine. The College supported a successful bid to the Leverhulme Trust for a Major Research Fellowship to work on my 2013 Ford Lectures, the book of which was shortlisted for the Wolfson Prize in 2019. And now it has generously elected me to an Emeritus Fellowship, so I won’t be disappearing from the scene just yet!

Aside from your tutoring and research, what element of your role at Queen’s have you most enjoyed?

I was Fellow Librarian for several years, which was a rewarding if sometimes challenging job. The Library was under-resourced and woefully short of space, and the storage conditions for irreplaceable material were horrifying. I look back with huge satisfaction on the part that I, alongside others, played in planning and campaigning for the underground extension. It was a large, expensive and disruptive project, and some colleagues – very understandably – needed a lot of convincing. In retrospect, it is the best and most creative asset that Queen’s has acquired has during my time as a Tutorial Fellow. The New Library is now the heart of the College, and has stimulated an extraordinary renaissance of interest in our historic collections.

How did you get involved in Channel 4’s Time Team, and how did you find the TV work?

Mick Aston was an old friend, and he first involved me in a Time Team programme about a Norfolk site because it was suspected to be an Anglo-Saxon monastery. Used as I was to normal excavations, I initially found the format rather artificial, and the tension between excavating a real site and providing television entertainment seemed slightly troubling. But once I got used to that, I thoroughly enjoyed the combination of exciting discovery, working with a diverse and cheerful team, and communicating with the public. In all I took part in five Time Teams, and was sad when Channel 4 axed the programme. Whatever its limitations, Time Team taught tens of millions of people about archaeology, getting through to groups far outside the academic sphere, and brought to light some really important sites.

What are your plans for your retirement?

I agree with David Attenborough on that point: I’ll work for as many years or decades as health allows! I should now have much more research time, and am already launched into two major projects and several minor ones. The biggest follows directly from my 2018 book Building Anglo-Saxon England, where I highlighted the importance and persistence of regional variation. That has led me to think more widely about English identity, which has become a contested and sometimes troubling concept since the 2016 referendum. The next book will range later in time – probably up to about 1400 – to explore local and regional identity through the archaeological lens of buildings and material culture. Was there any such place as ‘England’ in a cultural sense, as distinct from disparate regions linked by a common language and an exceptionally strong government? At present I’m dubious, and I suspect that the problems of defining Englishness now may have some very deep roots.

Professor John Blair