Roland Clark is a lecturer in the Department of History, joining the University in the second semester of the 2015/16 academic year. Roland focuses on the cultural history of modern East-Central Europe. He is particularly interested in the study of fascism, social movements, violence, gender and theology.
- Can you summarise your academic background?
So my life story! I grew up in Tasmania, then moved to Sydney where I studied History and Religious Studies as a joint honours degree, focusing mainly on Russian religious philosophy. I taught high school for a year and moved to Romania to learn the language because I wanted to study Romanian fascists, which sounded cool. While I was there I taught in an American school – mostly maths and physics. I met my wife – fell in love – and when you fall in love in a language, your abilities go through the roof. Suddenly, you discover ways you could talk that you couldn’t before. Then after 18 months, I moved to the US – Pittsburgh where I did an MA and PhD – mostly on Romanian fascists and a bit on the relationship between theology and nationalism. The last two years of my PhD, I was living in Romania, writing in a tiny library in the mountains. There was no internet, not even power plugs. I moved to Connecticut and taught at Eastern Connecticut State University for three and a half years teaching modern European History before I came to Liverpool.
- Why history?
I like stories and I like analysing sources: trying to work out how it all goes together, resembling a jigsaw puzzle, but pulling the pieces apart as well. I had a couple of really good history teachers in high school. In Australia, you had to study 12 credits for A-Levels; I managed to set up six of those as History credits, so was able to set up almost all of my time in History.
- What is your favourite time period in history?
I’m fascinated by the interwar period. An old world fell apart and they had to put a new one together with very imperfect tools. They tried to build new states out of the rubble of war and were often amazingly successful. It was a time of extremes – people threw themselves into politics on the left and the right, and that reflected itself in their music, art, and literature as well. And it all ends in chaos and pain. Absolutely fascinating.
- Why Liverpool? How different is it to the previous locations you have studied and worked?
Liverpool gave me a job. Basically, my last job was in a small, teaching intensive university where you didn’t get a lot of time to research and was a long way away from my archives. I moved to Liverpool to be close to Europe and six months later Brexit happened, so that was depressing. When we arrived, it rained every day for six weeks – that was a shock to the system – but I came from Connecticut where you have six feet of snow around your house and you have to shovel that snow. At least you don’t have to shovel rain! Also, the month before we arrived, I visited my parents in Australia and that was spent sitting on the beach in 40-degree heat. So that was nice, but moving from the US to Liverpool, I felt I was at home because you have the right sport. You have cricket, rugby, football – and good chocolate. You can’t get good chocolate in America – and meat pies! Everything that is comfort food for an Australian is in Liverpool.
- At the age of 18, could you see yourself being in the position you are in today?
Yes. It was my goal since year 10. In high school, you have to go on work experience so you decide what jobs you would like to do when you check them out. I was thinking of doing science research so I went to a research lab – where they had sheep with holes in their sides and you could pour food into their stomachs. That was cool but researchers said they spent half of their time filling out applications. Then I worked for an engineering company and they did all the coolest type of engineering – but they were working 80 hour weeks. That was when I decided I wanted to become a historian. My goal was to have an office surrounded by books and a tweed jacket with patches on the elbows.
- How much has university and student life changed since you were a student?
Quite a lot. The idea of having e-books and accessing sources online just didn’t exist. When I was a student, mobile phones were just beginning to come in. I remember at the end of the fourth year sitting down with a lecturer and she said ‘Have you seen Google? It is this new search engine people are trying.’ That was the moment I heard about Google! It is hard to think of doing research with solely library books, not using either Wikipedia or Google.
- In your own words, what does it take to get a First?
One thing I tell students is that I can teach you to get a 68 or a 69. If you do everything I say and do it properly, you are looking at a high 60. If you want a first, you need something special – an idea of your own. You need to be creative but this doesn’t mean making stuff up. It means connecting the dots in no way before and thinking in a unique way. This is really hard. When I was a student, I used to smoke little cigars until my wife put a stop to it. Sometimes, when you start an essay, you go to the park – sit under a tree and smoke until you have the idea. Also, I wrote down in large letters on A4 pieces of paper about the key arguments I knew about a topic and in order to work out a connection, I stuck them to the ceiling over my bed. Until you get creative and see connections, you’re not looking at a first.
- Which journal article or book stands out most in particular? Either most memorable or one you enjoyed writing.
My first monograph is always going to stand out because it took a lot of work to get done. It’s almost like having a baby: when you carry it around for so long, go through a lot of pain and rips your soul out. Then it’s there, but unlike babies, you can ignore it. One thing I find when I write is once it is done, you lose interest and go onto the next thing. The most interesting thing is what I’m writing next, not what I wrote in the past. I’m writing two books at the moment. The first book focuses on the reformation of the Romanian Orthodox Church in the 1920s. The second focuses on 1935 and is about a shepherd in a small village on the Danube, who sees a vision of an Old Man who gives him prophecies and starts throwing fireballs at the devil. The shepherd gets healing powers and tens of thousands of people descend on this tiny village for healing and to hear him preach. So, in summary, it is about secularisation and what people made of the shepherd.
- Do historians in general play a big enough role as part of society? What could they do better?
One thing you don’t want is historians running the country. Every time I’ve seen a historian get into politics, they make really bad decisions. In my mind, historians are up there with used car salesmen. We’re very good at talking and making arguments; meaning you cannot trust them. Having said that, it’s really important for historians to give an opinion on important debates, so they have to be taken seriously.
- What advice would you give to first-years who may be struggling to adapt to university?
Talk to people. I learned something from reading books on the ‘first-generation’ student experience. A first-generation student is someone whose parents never went to university. So my parents went to a teachers’ college in a small town in Tasmania as opposed to a major research university in Sydney. I only realised recently that I was a first-generation student – university was strange and you didn’t know how hard you had to work. You didn’t know how to get involved in clubs and societies – the way student politics works. The way you get over that is by making friends, turning up to a meeting and making friends with the faculty. They will tell you the stuff you need to know.
- What do you think the future holds? Any ambitions you would like to fulfil?
I can’t see the future in very good terms. I am a person who studies ethnic cleansing and mass killings. I study fascism, so when I see the rise of the far-right in Germany, France, Austria and the U.S it’s terrifying, and then you throw climate change into the picture. When the world gets hotter, resources will be harder to come by and there will be wars over basic resources. A lot of unrest in the Middle East today you can tie to climate change. That’s going to spill over so the future terrifies me.
My future? I intend to sit in my office surrounded by books and my tweed jacket. To reflect critically and respond as appropriately as I can to the changing situation. I’m not planning on going anywhere soon. I just bought a house for the first time and a dog. Dogs last a long time and I intend to be here for most of the rest of his life.
Thank you, Roland, for an extremely insightful interview.