History Reading Party 2024

Ten History finalists and their tutors picked their way through the mud and showers of a Herefordshire springtime on this year’s reading party. This was at least the sixtieth history reading party in a sequence reaching back to 1953. In that year the history tutors Roger Highfield and John Roberts first took as many of the Merton historians as wanted to get away from the pressure of pre-finals Oxford to the countryside to read and discuss history books and spend some time together. Veterans of those early trips recall the practical Dr Highfield chopping firewood and the intrepid Dr Roberts venturing out to sea accompanied by students in a perilously small dinghy.

The venue has changed several times – in covid times we even had online reading parties – though it has nearly always involved heading west. Salcombe in Devon was succeeded by Dulverton in Somerset and Treharrock, near Port Isaac in Cornwall, after an interval at Cumberland Lodge in Windsor Great Park. Treharrock, our venue for more than thirty years, marked the shift from hotel or conference centre food to catering for ourselves. When the house there could no longer be rented, we shifted to Herefordshire, in a house near Bromyard. Our attempts to research it before we booked were interesting. The College chaplain consulted the local clergy, who responded ‘Ah yes, we know: near the pig farm where the stag parties go’. But it has proved a fine replacement for the Cornish base about which so many generations of historians reminisce. We are grateful to the College for thorough financial support which means that all the students and tutors can attend.

The format has changed little over the years. In the morning and late afternoon, we hold our seminars. Each student introduces for discussion a book that they have been reading, recently published and relevant to one or more upcoming exam. In the afternoons we walk in the fresh air and see local historical sights. The Herefordshire itinerary is now settling down and usually includes the Malvern Hills, Leominster Priory and Goodrich Castle as successors to St Enodoc, Lanhydrock and Tintagel.

Goodrich castle tower

Getting away from Oxford as a group is as important as the discussions and the trips. The history syllabus is wonderfully varied but the result is that students might have seen little of each other over the second and third years of study, at least in an academic setting. This year’s finalists’ further and special subject courses have ranged from Merovingian Francia, Joan of Arc and the Crusades to Cold War America, twentieth-century China and Britain from the Bomb to the Beatles. The theses they wrote during the term before the reading party were even more varied. These featured among other topics Victorian fashion, Castlereagh’s suicide, Roman horses, Viking cats, French women’s magazines, Georgian naval surgeons, trans life-writing, US President Andrew Jackson, German economist Carl Brinkmann, Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, Labour women and nuclear disarmament, Coca-Cola and informal empire and the literary impact of the interwar London Underground.

Talking over history books together forges connections that will support students in their revision period and final exams. So do the other activities of the reading party. Table-tennis is played in Herefordshire as it was in Cornwall, but there is also pool and table football. Students cook in teams, the more confident in charge of a course, the less accomplished chopping and stirring in support. Excess energy can be burned off reaching not only the top of the Malverns but the high towers of Goodrich Castle with their narrow spiral stairs.

The chronological range of the books discussed this year was as wide as ever. The relationship between technology, culture, politics and trade took us from the ancient and medieval Mediterranean to modern Mexican narcotics. Political ideas and their practical outworking led from Hegel via the 1848 revolutions to Cold War liberals. Configurations of empire – Norman expansion, ‘shadow empires’, modern American hegemony – were matched by responses or side-effects, such as indigenous Americans’ encounter with Europe or the scientific investigations that accompanied Iberian expansion. Lastly war made its impact felt with a kaleidoscopic analysis of the Napoleonic Wars and a set of essays on seafaring and masculinity. The menu cooked by the students added to the cosmopolitanism of the occasion, featuring among other delights Bavarian Spätzle, Lebanese Shak Shuka and Lancashire Cherry Brownies. This year’s reading party, like its predecessors, will live happily in the memory.

Dinner party