Star whose eye was drawn to the dark side by a punk rant

August 10, 2007

Donald Bloxham
Professor of History, Edinburgh University

'The Rising Star award is setting you up for a fall. The laws of physics determine that what rises... It's a pretty petty world, the academic one. I love it, but there are people who are competitive and small-minded, and that's a terrible combination' Donald Bloxham was this week named a "Rising Star" at Edinburgh University, receiving the annual award at a grand dinner at Holyrood Palace, hosted by Edinburgh's chancellor, the Duke of Edinburgh.

It is an appropriate accolade for a 34-year-old who has just been appointed to a personal chair, won a £70,000 Philip Leverhulme Prize and is about to become the first Englishman to be senior scholar-in-residence at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum - an exclusive invitation-only post.

However, when he was a teenager, it was touch and go whether Professor Bloxham would get to university at all.

His parents, both teachers, had seen university as the automatic route for him. But, unhappy at his Birmingham comprehensive, he received appalling mock A-level results and got himself suspended for drinking.

In the end, he got As in history and general studies, a C in economics and a D in maths. Only one of the five universities he had applied to, Keele, made him an offer, and he signed up for history and politics.

"I didn't particularly want to go to Keele. I had visited a friend there and thought it was a strange, rather secluded place," he says.

But he now acknowledges it was the best thing that could have happened to him. The charisma of the historian Colin Richmond got the new student fascinated by history. "He instantly treated you like an adult."

Professor Richmond's work on the Holocaust, coupled incongruously with inspiration from the Dead Kennedys' song Holiday in Cambodia - "a stimulating political rant about the Cambodian genocide" - led him to begin his genocide research.

Professor Richmond encouraged him to apply for British Academy funding for a PhD and recommended that he study with Tony Kushner, a Holocaust expert at Southampton University.

"It's amazing how much I owe to Colin and his guidance because Tony is now one of my best friends. He managed to get the balance right between being a friend and a superb supervisor. That part of your life is really significant, when you're financially short and intellectu-ally dependent."

When he completed his PhD in 1998 - published in 2001 as Genocide on Trial - there was a dearth of academic posts, and Professor Bloxham ended up becoming research director of the Holocaust Educational Trust, a charity in London.

"Socially it was very important, because it was the first time I'd had a salary and a suit." He returned to Southampton University after winning a two year Leverhulme special research fellowship, investigating the 20th century's "forgotten genocide" of an estimated 1 million Armenian Christians in the Ottoman Turkish state. He continued working on it when he moved to Edinburgh as a lecturer in 2002, producing his next book, The Great Game of Genocide , published in 2005. He believes his recent recognition stems from that, likening it to a band's second album.

He is particularly proud of his Philip Leverhulme Prize, which is open to academics aged 36 and under - "virtually every junior and mid-career academic in the country".

He is using it to buy out his teaching to allow him to spend a year in Washington DC at the Holocaust Memorial Museum. But he is aware that his early success may not be universally popular.

"(The Rising Star award) is setting you up for a fall. The laws of physics determine that what rises..."

He tails off, laughing.

"It's a pretty petty world, the academic one. I love it, and it's a great life. But there are people who are competitive and small-minded, and that's a terrible combination."

Some will read this article, he predicts, and decide that he is "a self regarding idiot who needs to be brought down a peg or two in the next review".

But he is unimpressed by historians who churn out "populist nonsense" to rake in cash, being sensational for its own sake. He is not prepared to name names, but warns that the popular history agenda is being driven by commercial forces and failing to alter the understanding of history as "big men and big themes".

And he claims that some academics "use flotillas of research assistants to help them out with things that they can't be bothered to understand themselves".

It is legitimate for an expert in a field to use research assistants to fill in some details, but not to rely on them for substantial archival research, he believes.

The best historians with popular appeal combine genuine insight with the ability to tell a tale, he says, and he points to Sir Ian Kershaw's magisterial biography of Hitler as an exemplar.

"You have to distinguish between that and people who just range blindly over huge areas that they can't possibly have knowledge of."

He has no intention of compromising his own work to produce a lucrative blockbuster. "I'd like to get a two-bedroom flat in Edinburgh - and as far as my financial aspirations go, that's it."

I graduated from Keele University as an undergraduate and Southampton (doctorate)

My first job was heaving sacks in a flour mill

My main challenge I've been lucky enough not to have had anything worthy of the title thus far

What I hate most academic pettiness

In ten years I'll hopefully be using whatever expertise I have to work more directly with some of the political issues that I currently just write about

My favourite joke "Ethical" foreign policy.

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