I am a writer, lecturer and professor of English and cultural history at Liverpool John Moores University. My most recent books are Queuing for Beginners (2007), a cultural history of daily habits since the war, inspired in part by the Mass-Observation surveys of the 1930s and 1940s: On Roads: A Hidden History (2009); and Armchair Nation: An Intimate History of Britain in Front of the TV (2013). As well as publishing articles in obscure academic journals, I write for the Guardian, the New Statesman, the Financial Times and other publications. I am a literary and cultural historian focusing on the very recent past, with a particular interest in the everyday. My latest book is Shrinking Violets: A Field Guide to Shyness (Profile 2016), which was published in February 2017 in a revised North American edition by Yale University Press as Shrinking Violets: The Secret Life of Shyness.

This website is an archive of the writing I have done over the years, assembled in an effort to persuade myself that I haven’t been entirely wasting my time. ‘A luxurious task, this cobbling up of ancient toil,’ as Ronald Blythe puts it.

My banner image is by the wonderful Czech artist and children’s illustrator, Miroslav Sasek. As Sasek died in 1980 without an heir, it is difficult to determine who holds the rights to his work, but no copyright infringement is intended. All the other images on this site are either my own or are marked for non-commercial reuse on Google Images.

I hope you enjoy my site and find something of interest on it.

My old blog is archived here.

Image above: ‘London Visitors 1962’ by Don O’Brien – originally posted to Flickr. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

11 thoughts on “About

  1. I went to your talk about shyness, and it gave me an appreciation of my own. Thanks so much. It has made me see my ‘strangenesses’ in a new light.

    You, who I dare say can be rendered inarticulate in certain situations, are so exceedingly articulate when in front of an audience.

    I should have loved to ask you questions. (but I am too shy to speak in public.)

    My aunt, when I was little said “I’ve no time for shyness. It is pure vanity.” I guess being self conscious is a form of vanity…


  2. Hi Joe,

    I checked out Shrinking Violets after reading your article in the Guardian and I loved it. You have many great insights on the paradoxical power of shyness and its relation to the production of art, and how nonparticipation can enable an acute sense of perception that can decipher others’ interactions with sociological precision, or, if improperly managed, can turn insular and distort one’s sense of self until it feels performative and fantastical. I’ve long believed that art is a means of giving expression to feelings that would otherwise be too shameful or monstrous or trivial to mention in a conversation, even with an intimate friend. I’m writing a novel that also deals with isolation and the neuroses that arise from loneliness, and you’ve helped me understand better why my own characters act the way they do.

    I loved this in particular: “One of the impulses underlying art is our sense that other kinds of dialogue have failed and that we need to absent ourselves and communicate at one remove if we are to communicate at all…it may require years of self-imposed solitude, so that something intended as a cure or coping mechanism for shyness only ends up aggravating it. Shy artists, unable to bear the risk of potentially awkward conversation in the present, take an even bigger risk, betting on a vicarious exchange that might, if they are lucky, pay off in some long-deferred future.”


  3. I loved your recent article on slow reading in The Guardian (15/9/2018). And the phrase “the obdurate otherness of another person’s mind” resonated especially strongly with me!


  4. Joe,
    I much appreciated your article on reading slowly. It well reflects my approach in writing fiction, where I’ve tried to slow the reading of it. As a reader, while also enjoying the occasional ‘page turner’, the phrase often makes me feel a little sick. It’s this apparent wish to get to the end of something quickly, which to my mind has undertones of being involved with/in something of no great value.
    Many thanks for the article and best wishes


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