Charles Esdaile is a world-renowned historian of the Napoleonic Wars. He is the longest serving member of the Department of History, joining the University in 1989 and becoming a professor in 2004.
What is your favourite quote and why?
My favourite quote is something that I often say to personal tutees and that underlies my philosophy as a Professor. It comes from Napoleon, and, whilst I despise the fellow and all he stood for, it is actually a very sensible notion. it is “the moral is the to physical as three is to one.” What that means is that how you feel about yourself – your morale, if you like – is three times more important than your academic ability, that, if you’re lacking confidence, you’re not going to perform at your best.
Describe your academic career – where did you attend university, where did you complete your Bachelors/Masters/PhD.
I attended a very ordinary Secondary Modern school on the fringes of South-West London and went on to the University of Lancaster. This choice came about for a number of reasons: Lancaster offered things I wanted to study; wasn’t a city university; and, last of all, was a long way from home (I wanted to become more independent). At Lancaster, I was very happy and forged a very good relationship with my Spanish history professor, so I stayed on there to do my PhD (not that I was ever there much: rather I spent most of the time in London and Madrid). Being in Madrid was particularly good, so I’m very keen to promote the idea of a semester or a year abroad. Anyway, at the end of my Ph.D., I got a one-year temporary lectureship at Durham University and after that a permanent lectureship at a College of Higher Education in Manchester. Unfortunately, the very week of my interview it was announced it was going to close, so I had to look for another job. Then came my lucky break – a research fellowship at the University of Southampton that allowed me really to boost my professional profile and get a lectureship here in Liverpool in 1989. The rest, as they say, is history: I have been here ever since and am now the longest serving member of the department (but not the oldest!)
How does one become a professor?
You start with a doctorate – a 100,000 – word thesis followed by an oral examination. Armed with that, not to mention a string of publications and conference papers, you can then start looking for a job in the academic world. That secured, you start off as a junior lecturer, and can then work your way up to the ranks of senior lecturer and reader. I became a professor in 2004 which was quite early: I didn’t really expect to do so until I reached the sort of age I am now. How do you become a professor? Basically, via a lot of hard work: you have to develop a very solid publishing record, become very active on an international level, get involved in the wider academic world by such things as reviewing books and manuscripts, and take on senior roles in your university (for example, I am currently HLC Head of Progress – Chief of Police and Lord High Executioner, if you like!).
At the age of 18, did you ever envisage yourself becoming a university lecturer? If not, what were your aspirations for employment back then?
I’ve always wanted to be a historian! Always! For as long as I can remember. However, when it came to it and I realised just how hard it was likely to be, I pushed on other doors as well (there’s another good lesson here: when you’re looking for a job, don’t just push on one door because it might remain closed). So I applied for the Diplomatic Service and tried for various things that came up in papers including a job as a travel journalist with ‘Holiday Which’ (I even got to the final interview for that). For a while I was quite serious about wanting to be a diplomat – I was certainly upset not to make it. But I’m much better as an academic than I would have been as a diplomat: if I’d gone down that road in 1983, WWIII would’ve broken out in about 1985!
Where did your passion for history come from?
I’d like to think I was born with it. When I was about 4, I came across a painting of the death of General Wolfe at the battle of Quebec in 1759, and out on family walks, I would apparently insist on re-enacting the scene with my Dad and younger brother! This is a story that is genuinely told about me, and I can actually remember it very well – I even had a little red coat! So I was always aware of the past, but it helped that I grew up in a home which was full of books and played endlessly with toy soldiers: I always wanted to find out what the real soldiers did.
Why Napoleon – considering the other great figures of history?
I’m not really a specialist on Napoleon: my archival work has always been directed at what happened in Spain during the Napoleonic era, and I’ve always remained a Spanish historian at heart – I’ve even written a full-length history of modern Spain. However, you cannot work on the Napoleonic era without having something to say on the emperor himself. Napoleon is an extraordinary figure – one of few figures in history who can really reach out from beyond the grave. Thanks to his own genius as a propagandist and his extraordinary propaganda machine, he is widely seen as a hero, a liberator, a force for progress and a man of the future, and so books continue to come out like Andrew Roberts’ Napoleon the Great (2015) – the title says it all! Quite frankly, all this is nonsense. Napoleon was nothing but a warlord and an adventurer, and so there is a myth that needs to be challenged and taken the part – something that is surely one of the primary responsibilities of any historian. I suppose, then, you could say that for me the Napoleonic Wars have never ended – that I am actually at war with Napoleon.
How much has university life and student life changed since you were a student?
Enormously! Some things are very similar, of course. My students talk to me about exam nerves, and I know exactly how they felt. Equally, they talk to me about ‘blank screen syndrome’, and I remember that, too, except that my version would be ‘blank paper syndrome’. And then there is money: I never had any either! Yet there are so many differences. For example, I had a genuine personal relationship with all my tutors, but the increase in the number of students means that that is a lot harder. I am not saying my colleagues do not care about their students – of course, they do – but there is no doubt that things have become much more impersonal. Of course, the rise in the number of students has also had all sorts of other effects, like much larger classes and much more difficulty finding a place to work at the Sydney Jones Library and so forth. The amount of work expected of students has dwindled massively – as well as keeping up with seminar reading, I had to write an essay a week and that without the benefit of computers and the internet. On the other hand, very few people had part-time jobs in term-time so the heavier workload was not such a big issue as it might have been. What with that and a fairly long list of other things – social media is a good example – I am really glad I am not a student today!
What is your biggest pet-hate regarding university students?
If I can make a serious point, to begin with, I would say drunkenness. There are massive problems with alcohol, and binge drinking is a problem which the university sector needs to address. Beyond all that I have to say that there is far too much irresponsibility and incompetence: people missing appointments, not answering e-mails, not checking their timetables properly, preparing the wrong stuff for seminars, not bothering to use the Careers and Employability Service… Frankly, the list is endless: hence, my reputation for being a very hard man. Getting a degree is hard and requires organisation, self-discipline and the ability to get out of bed on a morning – that is why you all get the famous ‘march or die’ speech. That said, precisely because I take such a tough line at the beginning, I can afford to be very relaxed with my students afterwards. More than that, indeed: many of them go on to become friends and sometimes even close friends: I am still in touch with people who graduated as far back as 1992!
Do you have any regrets either as a student or historian?
In so far as being a student is concerned, apart from a series of girls coming to mind – the ones who got away! – I am a bit sorry that I didn’t join the Officer Training Corps: the added responsibility, maturity and physical fitness which are bought by this would have done me a lot of good. However, that said, had I joined the OTC, I probably wouldn’t have done all the other things I got involved with, so in the end, I have nothing to regret. In so far as my professional life is concerned, I would have loved to have stayed at Southampton, but Liverpool has offered me opportunities I wouldn’t have had otherwise so again I am quite equable about it all. As for the biggest decision, I have ever had to take in my life – whether to take the job in Liverpool or the lectureship I had been offered in North Carolina at the same time – I definitely jumped the right way.
You supported for Historians for Britain in Europe, why did you feel it was important for historians to be involved in the build-up to the referendum?
Clearly, Brexit has been the major decision of our time. I felt each and every one of us should be involved in fighting off what loomed over us as a national disaster and is, in fact, the worst humiliation since Suez, Singapore or even the loss of America. Britain’s place in the world has been diminished massively, and there is nothing we can fall back on to make good the loss. On top of all that it was clear to me that the very future of the UK was at stake: you could go so far as to say I was fighting for my country. Finally, again, one comes back to the duty of a historian. There was so much so much ignorance, so much misunderstanding, so many vox pops with people saying things like ‘We did alright on our own in WWII, so we’ll do alright now’. Even Napoleon got dragged in – we had beaten him at Waterloo and now here he was beating us just up the road at Brussels – when, far from the Napoleonic empire being a forerunner of the EU, it was actually its very antithesis. So, yes, I did indeed try to fight for what I believed in, while I shall always lament 23 June as a day of, if not infamy, then consummate stupidity.
In your opinion, which of your countless journal articles and books stand out most in particular – either the one you most enjoyed writing or the one which is most memorable? Why?
The biggest and most important controversy I am involved is the what you might call the ‘Napoleon right’un or wrong’un’ debate, so I suppose my greatest contribution to that debate – Napoleon’s Wars: an International History, 1803-1815 (Penguin, 2007) – will always be my most memorable work. Yet it isn’t the one that I have most enjoyed writing. That accolade must rather go to a work that isn’t on the period of my specialism at all, but rather on the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939. When I went to university back in 1977, it was this subject that I wanted to specialise on. In the event, various factors took me down a different road, and, whilst that road proved a fascinating journey, it was therefore with enormous pleasure that I last year sat down and wrote a military history of the Spanish Civil War. This represented a real closing of the circle, and I am greatly looking forward to it appearing in print. My argument being highly revisionist, I don’t suppose it will make me very popular, but that is fine by me: a historian who is unpopular is a historian who is doing something right.
Thank you, Professor. It was a really insightful interview.