Dr Sam Blaxland studied for a PhD in History at Swansea between 2013-6, after which he became a post-doctoral fellow in that department. Sam often appears as an expert on television programmes, is the host of Swansea University’s Exploring Global Problems podcast series, and has written a history of Swansea University to mark its centenary.
What sparked your passion for history?
I had always loved history at school. I grew up in a little village in West Wales, which once had both a significant coal-mining and fishing industry. I used to walk around the woods observing some of the left-over symbols of these industries. This was the first time I'd started thinking about how the place I lived was shaped and formed by all these wider forces, as well as particular individuals, from the past.
What was your PhD topic?
My PhD was actually on the Conservatives in Wales since 1945. I became interested in this as an undergraduate when I studied Welsh history and realised this topic had been neglected. I realised that places like where I had grown up, in Pembrokeshire, were under-represented in the history books, whereas places like the Valleys were more of a feature. This was fine, of course - it didn't make me angry! - but I wanted to do something to redress that imbalance. It was the only topic I would ever have done a PhD on, even though I'm not a Conservative myself. When I got the research council funding to study it, I was absolutely delighted.
Where does your love of research come from?
I love finding out why people behave in the ways they do. Human nature is complicated and everyone reacts in emotive ways. When you're in an archive you can genuinely feel the frailties and the imperfections of people seeping out of documents. When I studied political history, you knew that some people were being driven by ambition, or by a desire to perform a public service, or by greed - or whatever it was. That fascinates me. And being in an archive (I spent many weeks working in the Bodleian in Oxford for my PhD) is always a very special experience.
"I have been so privileged to be tasked with writing a history of the University for its centenary."
Tell us about your current role at the University. Why do you enjoy it?
I have been so privileged to be tasked with writing a history of the University for its centenary. This is an honour. The University also gave me a completely free hand to approach the subject in the way I wanted to, which means I have written a social history of youth culture and academic life since 1945, using Swansea as a case study, in the way I thought best. It's been a brilliant experience. But by far the most enjoyable aspect has been conducting the oral history aspect of my book, which involved speaking with nearly 100 current or former staff and students from the University's distant or recent past. Through this I have met some of the kindest and most interesting people I have ever come across. It has been so much fun, and I don't exaggerate when I say that getting to know many of these people, talking with them, and learning from them has been one of the great privileges of my life. I also love the teaching and tutoring work I do. We have a lot of talented young people coming to study with us in Swansea.
What captivates you about the people you have interviewed, and your work more generally?
I wasn't raised by my grandparents, but they lived in the same village as my parents, so I grew up with them. They were interested in their own history so I have always had this sense that people are windows onto worlds that I never experienced. People's memories are often imperfect - and sometimes wrong! - but they can give you a sense or a flavour of a time period, or of older attitudes, in a way that history books can't always do. I love speaking with people who are storytellers, too. My generation have some things going for us, but I think we aren't generally as good at conversation or story-telling as previous generations were. Being in the company of lively older people is enriching.
What led you to become involved in the university podcast series?
I think it stemmed from some of the media work I'd done, as well as my experience as an interviewer for the oral history project. In 2017, when the general election campaign was underway, the then Prime Minister visited Wales and the BBC wanted someone to talk about this. A Conservative in Wales? I could say a bit about that! So I did a piece to camera for the news channel, and ever since then I've somehow been in and out of the studios doing little punditry slots. I love doing it, even though it's normally live and quite high pressured. The highlight was probably acting as one of the over-night pundits for the BBC during the 2019 election. I stayed up all night watching these historic results come in! Anyway, out of that I think I was asked to host this series, Exploring Global Problems. It's a completely new challenge, but one I've relished and enjoyed.
My role is to facilitate our researchers talking about their own work. I speak for probably five per cent of the time? I'm not there to challenge them or to add to the substance of what they're saying. But, I do a lot of research in the lead up to recording, because I want to be able to ask pertinent questions. I'm also not afraid to ask people to explain things again. I'm not a scientist, but I get a lot of what the academics from these disciplines are saying. If I don't understand what they're talking about, the chances are that other listeners might not as well. So I think I'm useful in that regard! It's a great series, and the production values are amazing - which is nothing to do with me.
How do you spend time when you're not working?
I do try and deliberately rope off time for things unrelated to work. I really like running. I've run lots of half marathons in times that I'm quite pleased with. I also do lots of other distances, often with members of the running clubs I'm part of. In normal times, I'm an avid parkrunner and I've done over 100 of these runs (at 50 different locations!).
I'm an old fashioned - and quite obsessive - reader of newspapers and I try and get through most of the main titles in a week, especially over the weekend. I really like cooking for friends, or just for me and my long-term partner, and we do go out and eat too often as well! I'm also genuinely interested in the production process and the history of wine-making, which also involves drinking the stuff too.
My other half is Australian so we try and go there once a year. I like travelling but I also think we have a wealth of amazing places on our doorstep so I love exploring the Welsh and wider British countryside. If that ends with a dog-friendly pub that serves nice beer or good wines, then all the better!
What legacy would you like to leave to future generations?
I have never given this any thought. Now I'm being asked I guess: to author some good, interesting and mildly amusing books. I hope my students think I'm a good teacher. And I hope that some people who watch me on TV think I have something to say that defies boring conventional wisdom. There's too much of that around.