Late September 2011 came in warm and clear; it would be the prelude for the hottest October I can remember. On a Saturday I moved my things into my new office in Corpus Christi College, Oxford, and into the little bedroom I would use for the next three years when I needed to stay in town. The next morning I awoke in a narrow bed with sun streaming through the window, looking at the notification on my phone that said I had voicemail. I knew what it would be about, and so I waited a little while before I rang back; a last few minutes before there was no doubt that my maternal grandmother had died.
Summer 2018 has been as hot as ever England gets, but this Saturday was a sign of encroaching autumn, with a dampness in the air that reminded me of falling leaves, of shortening days. My husband and I went to Oxford and packed up my office in Corpus – a different office than the one I held in 2011-14, but on the same floor, with a similar view over to Christ Church. Two days later – today – we celebrate our daughter’s third birthday.
Beginnings and endings. There is – in my nature and in my writing – a desire to find symmetries, common threads on which to construct a narrative, and so these hot days of 2011 and 2018, pregnant with possibility and also aching with loss, act as useful mirrors. If I were able to look forward in 2011 and see where I am today, how would I feel? Some disappointment, I think, that the long-hoped-for permanent job has still not manifested. But I would be proud, I think, of the fellowship I held after the lectureship for which I moved to Oxford; prouder still, I hope, of the family I’ve made. Looking back through the years to 2011, sometimes I can’t help wishing I could return and tell myself to do more and better with the time and resources I’ve had; but if science fiction has taught us anything, tugging on one thread of the past can unravel the whole, and I have too much now I would not lose for anything.
The truth is that despite however neatly I construct the story of my own past, that is a narrative that ever hangs upon the present, and can be unknotted, restrung and retold at whichever particular moment demands that I try to understand myself now. Likewise, much of the business of doing history is finding a way of telling a story that gives us ourselves today as well as recouping the past. I think that in the years I have been employed as a historian – teacher, examiner, supervisor, researcher, writer – I have found all kinds of new ways of doing that telling. I still see this as a process of becoming; if the ancient arches of Corpus have given me anything (aside from a very great many good dinners), it has been some security in taking a journey forward in myself as I step back into the past. I am, and always will be, grateful for that. Now: for something new. Hail and farewell.