In preparation for my sabbatical, I’ve been trying to reorganise my workspace at home. Mainly, that’s meant trying to find more space to put books, and realising just how much stuff I’ve kept over the years. Like most historians, I assume, I’m a bit of a pack-rat. In some ways, this is easily justifiable. It’s often hard to feel that any project has completely finished, and you never know when those resources might come in useful. But can this really explain not just why I’ve still got all the notes for my undergraduate special subject and dissertation, but why I still feel it absolutely impossible to throw them away? There can be no practical reason for this: I can’t really see any way that I would now make use of the knowledge base I established on the policies of British decolonisation or the Suez Crisis. It’s not like I would turn the dissertation into an article. When I come to put together my own special subject, my undergraduate notes will be of much less use than the teaching materials I’d borrow from my colleagues as a model of what to do. So why are these papers taking up all that much needed storage space?
The reasons, I think, are sentimental and symbolic. These were the first pieces of ‘proper’ history that I ever did, drawing on primary sources rather than summarising and analysing secondaries. I can still feel the excitement of that developing expertise and of trying to reconcile evidence that didn’t fit. Combined with that is the memory of feeling, in my third year of being an undergraduate, that I knew what I was doing – where to go to get the books, how to draw out the information that I needed. These notes are the physical embodiment of a lot of work: but they also symbolise a decisive life-choice. I’d known from an early age that I wanted to be a historian. The experience of studying these subjects at that level confirmed that desire – but it also made me decide that I didn’t want to be a historian of the end of Empire. Instead, I focussed on the area that had most interested me about my other final year course, on the history of the First World War. Who knows what it would have meant if I’d chosen differently? Would I have had the passion to see me through the PhD and into a job? I can’t say, but as a spur to nostalgia and as a sign to the road untravelled, those notes are going to stick around for a while longer.