“I was a mod, I was a scooter riding mod”
Our ongoing ‘Getting to Know You’ series of interviews with prominent members of the academic community at the University of Liverpool is an attempt to bridge the sense of distance often found between lecturers and students but more importantly, these interviews are prime opportunities to learn a bit more about the people paid to teach us week in, week out and delve into who they really are.
As part of this series I recently met with Professor Jonathan Tonge, a well known figure of the Politics department specialising in British politics, devolution and Northern Ireland. Well liked and respected by those he teaches, Jon, as anyone who has had contact with him knows, is down to earth and incredibly insightful. The fact that he’s been known to get a round in down at the pub at the end of a module doesn’t dampen his popularity with students either!
I asked him a few questions to find out a bit more about the life of the lecturer…
Tell us a bit about your background?
Born in Bury, lived in Southport, went to various universities: so I was at Hull, I lived in Bristol for a while and then my first academic job was at Salford University way back in 1994.
What type of student were you? Did you ever miss a seminar?
No, I loved it. I know this sounds sick inducing but I genuinely would turn up for everything. I think that I didn’t go to one seminar that I forgot about because I was so busy working, writing for the student paper when we had a deadline, but other than that I went to everything because I was genuinely interested. I’d say that when I did my masters I was particularly interested because, by the MA you’ve rooted out the boring modules and you really get into hard-core modules that you really want to do so I turned up for everything…
I know it would be nice to think that I was a completely feckless student but I loved it, I genuinely loved it. But I’m quite liberal, I mean I don’t really care that much whether students turn up to seminars or not – there’s a cynical part of me that thinks well, I’m still going to get paid at the end of the month anyway, but I just think that they will regret it later in life, that’s the first thing, and the second thing is they still expect me to mark their essay; but if you have not contributed to the module at all, not turned up to seminars, not engaged in debates, then I suppose the question begged is: why should we mark your work? But I’m bluffing because we have to.
Were you involved in student politics at university?
Not really no…I was more interested when I was a student in being a journalist and so I was more involved with the student papers: Hull Fire was one and we actually formed the rival student paper, The Hull Free Press. A couple of whom [involved with the paper] went on to bigger things, because Martin Hickman…a colleague at the university at the time, he went on to be deputy editor of the Independent. Tom Watson… [current deputy leader of the Labour party] he was the president of the student union at the time and we were big Tom fans so we campaigned for him but I was much more interested in writing about politics and writing about student life than I was actually engaging in the politics.
Do you enjoy your job?
I came to Liverpool in 2005 and I’ve enjoyed every minute. I genuinely have… I genuinely love my job because I am paid for researching and teaching my obsessions. Obviously some days are more interesting than others but I’ve enjoyed it all. I wouldn’t swap my job for anything else. The only other thing I ever wanted to be was a journalist: that’s probably where my obsession with grammar comes in! Journalism, I thought was an interesting and varied job, that’s the only other one I’d done, but I’m glad that I’m in this. So all bull aside, it’s a genuine pleasure to get up in the morning because I know that each day’s going to have some interest.
Did you always want to be an academic?
It wasn’t though that I had thought about being an academic, like I said, I was thinking about journalism. I’d also been working in the civil service; they actually gave me a year’s unpaid leave to go and do my masters so I had the option of going back to the civil service. [Not going back] It was the best thing I ever did, the thought of being a civil servant and getting to 65 thinking, well I played it safe and I went back and I had the indexing pension, I would have hated myself for the rest of my life. So the big decision for me, was at the end of my masters whether to go back to the civil service, and I knew in my heart of hearts that I didn’t want to, or whether to go and do a PHD, which is sort of the gateway, it’s what you need to get into academia. That’s one of the best decisions I ever made in my life; I’ve made a few crap ones, but that was a good one to go and do a PHD.
In terms of this university, what’s your favourite thing about it?
Again, this might be sick inducing but I genuinely like the students, I mean obviously you get wasters, you do with any institution, but the students here are usually pretty bright and are pretty committed and they’re nice people. The second thing is I like the freedom that you get to do research, you can get on with it, you are not overburdened by teaching… and I also love the area: Abercromby Square. I even tweeted the other day a picture of the view from my office, snow covered Abercromby Square. So I love all that. The downside, what I don’t like, I’ll be honest: a big pile of first year marking frankly doesn’t excite you the older you get, secondly there’s so much form filling at times for routine tasks, if you want to change an aspect of your module you can’t just change it, it’s got to go through about three tiers of bureaucracy. That drives me mad, it’s professional autonomy: I mean obviously there has to be some checks and balances but if I want to change a bit of Devolution in the UK why do I have to go through about 3 different levels of approval, I should just get on with it.
In terms of your academia, why Northern Ireland?
I didn’t do my PHD on Northern Ireland, I did my PHD on the poll tax and the anti-poll tax movement… but I was always interested in Northern Ireland, from an early age; why that was I don’t know. Maybe it was living in Southport and the only thing that happened in Southport, a sleepy seaside resort at the time was the Orange Order would march every 12th of July and I was brought up as a Catholic and so I was quite interested in why these people were marching in ‘my town’ and I wanted to know more. I think that sparked the interest and after that I read loads of Irish history and I knew I wanted to teach it.
I think with any subject you get a bit fed up, so I have sort of broadened it and now I teach Northern Ireland in a comparative sense, both for the devolution module that I do and for comparative peace processes, because after a decade or more of studying a single country it can get a bit stale. But Northern Ireland is still the first love, the old sweetheart! (laughs)
If you hadn’t specialised in Northern Ireland, what else would you have done?
Some other aspect of British or Irish politics. I mean I do British politics, I write books every general election, I’ve been writing stuff about Brexit recently so there’d be some other aspects but I’m not sure which. What annoyed me about Northern Ireland was how badly taught it was in British universities and I’m not saying that you know, I’ve solved that problem, far from it, but you know you had this horrible, grizzly conflict right on our doorstep and yet it was being taught as a bolt on – a one week lecture normally, badly done, part of a British politics course. Well hang on, this is the most serious conflict we’ve had, until the Balkans conflict that came along, this was the most serious conflict we’d had anywhere in Western or Central Europe and yet people didn’t want to touch it. So I was determined that I was going to research it.
One thing I had to do was challenge my own prejudices as well with Northern Ireland because obviously, being brought up Catholic and you end up working with the Orange Order; the DUP, the UUP, I mean I’ve probably done more work, certainly in recent years, with Unionist political organisations than with Nationalist ones, even though I was more sympathetic growing up to Irish Nationalism and probably still would be.
If you could interview any politician, past or present who would it be and why?
I interviewed one of the people I’ve always wanted to interview last Wednesday actually, Alex Salmond, a very interesting politician who I have always admired although I wouldn’t like to be on the wrong side of him! I deliberately tried to needle him a couple of times because I think he likes the jousting that goes with it and he’s swatted away more aggressive people than me: Paxman never got the better of him for starters. I think he likes to genuinely argue about policies and ideas and he’s always got an answer. I would also like to do Obama and Trump to be honest. Obama to see what he thought of what he’s achieved in office. I’ve met but I’ve not done an interview with Gerry Adams, I’ve met him a couple of times but I’ve never done an interview but I would like to interview Gerry Adams, given that he’s been President of Sinn Fein now, he’s going to be longest serving leader of any political organisation, 33 years now. Whether Gerry would tell me the truth about everything is another matter, but it does fascinate me the longevity of some of Northern Ireland’s politicians.
Outside of Uni and the job, who are you?
I idiotically still follow Bury football club, in fact I spent last night at Sheffield United vs Bury, conceding the late goal three minutes into stoppage time and we were down to 9 men. So you can’t say that I’m a glory hunter on the football front… I like cricket, I always try and watch a couple of Lancashire games, not just test cricket.
But I don’t really distinguish between work and leisure because this is my life [laughs]. I quite enjoy as well, contrary to myth that we lecturers can’t wait to see the back of students, I actually quite enjoy student company, that’s why I usually take you lot to the pub at Christmas time or the end of the academic year – find out what you really think beyond the module evaluation forms. I mean students are quite interesting, especially by the third year where they normally have quite a lot to say about politics. So yeah, the hinterland is not big enough beyond sport. I do watch but I’m getting too old to play sport now. I used to play in football and cricket teams but I still like to watch. That and drinking.
What type of music are you into?
Well I was massively into music as a teen, I was a mod, I was a scooter riding mod. I was really into Two Tone, The Specials, Selector, Madness, I really liked Northern Soul. I was really into music, I mean in a big way. There were other phases that I liked; I liked The Smiths, I liked Britpop of the 1990s. Now, I’m just too old and maybe it would be rather ridiculous if I was seen in a parka, riding a Lambretta into work, interesting though that might be for the students. I used to go all over Britain, Scooter runs, Morecambe, Scarborough, every god forsaken English seaside resort you can think of. I was hugely into Dexy’s Midnight Runners. A) a time thing, B) an age thing and C) a sense of oldest swinger going, so you just move on [laughs]. But I still like that music though, that I grew up with, I suppose everyone loves the music of their late teens era, early twenties and it sticks with them and I think I’m no different in that respect.
Most inspiring one was Educating Rita, which is going back quite a bit but I was inspired because I had gone into work, I had left education at that point and it inspired me to go back into education which was the best thing that I ever did. Cliché alert, it ‘changed my life’.
Thanks Jon, it was a pleasure talking to you.