Stenton Lecture 2014 Peter Hennessy, ‘Writing the history of one’s own time’

By Linda Risso and David Stack

We often imagine historians working in dusty and messy archives, surrounded by aged books, rolls, spider webs and the occasional mouse in the corner. Sometime, we picture them retrieving some old object from a cave, thus confusing them with archeologists and causing offence to both historians and archeologists (So be careful and always double-check!).

Yet, today, it is far more likely to see historians working in front of a computer looking at digitalized documents while sipping a cup of tea. In addition historians do not work solely on the distant past. They are often intrigued by current events and the origins of today’s key issues, debates and crises. They want to investigate the long-term development of ideas and cultural habits as well as the historical origins and transformations of institutions and political systems. When this is the case, it may be difficult to distinguish their work from that of an investigative journalist and of a writer on contemporary affairs.

Peter Hennessy is a case in point. For over forty years Hennessy has been writing the history of his own times. First as a journalist, sketching the ‘first rough draft of history’, and later as an author and academic in a series of prize-winning books which established him as the preeminent historian of contemporary Britain.

In this year’s Stenton Lecture, Hennessy will reflect upon his career and will consider the challenges and opportunities linked to historicizing the era in which the historian lives. Some of these reflections will surely be personal: Hennessy is a proud product of the post-war welfare state and his writings convey a profound self-awareness of how his perspective has been shaped by the 1950s Britain in which he grew up. Many of them will be political. In writing the history of his own times, Hennessy has acknowledged the responsibility of the historian to identify the ‘thin wisps of tomorrow’ and we should expect the lecture to include some pointers to the future.

The Stenton Lecture is the most important event on our calendar and all students are warmly invited! We hope to see many of you there.

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