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

25 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


  5. Joe: I have not read your other articles and books (yet), but I certainly will. I was given your book, First You Write a Sentence, last Friday. I am devouring it, but savoring it at the same time. I read and re-read some of your sentences 6-8 times. It is nourishment for the soul. I am beginning to appreciate the part of my inner self that desires to create. I have something to say.

    Thank you Joe and thank you to the person who gave me your book. I am indebted.


  6. Joe, I just finished your new book ‘First You Write A Sentence’, and I must say that I like it a lot. Not only is it informative but also an example of great writing. Can you recommend authors with similar writing styles, authors you like reading or appreciate as a writer? I am particularly interested in non-fiction writers whose style feels modern and fresh.


    • Thank you! Authors I particularly enjoy for their style at the moment are Diana Athill, Yiyun Li (particularly her essays Dear Friend etc.), Natalia Ginzburg (The Little Virtues), Joan Didion, Kathleen Jamie, Eduardo Galeano, Mary Oliver (prose as well as poems), Vivian Gornick. And many others …


  7. Hi Joe
    I feel compelled to write to thank you. I’ve just finished reading your book ‘First you write a sentence’ and now feel invigorated to continue writing a little handbook, a simple textbook targeting untrained workers in care services. But until I read your book, I was rapidly losing confidence I could ever write anything that could engage and hold, let alone inspire, a potential reader. Now I look forward to my time writing and fixing, with more helpful reflection rather than unhelpful ridicule. I made notes on your advice in sentence and paragraph structure, and I lapped up your delicious examples in the text, but I most appreciate your advice to novice writers like myself to have the courage to use our own voice. Friends and associates in the sector told me I should write this book. You told me how I might achieve it, and then gave me the confidence to keep going. Thank you!


  8. Hi Joe, may I be among the many to congratulation you for Armchair Nation. I can’t put it down – the interwoven stories of how it changed Britain are fascinating, such as how it changed knitting habits or the growth of collared doves. Its the history of post-war Britain itself. Why can’t all academics write this lucidly? There really needs to a be a movement within the universities.


  9. Hi Joe!
    When do you reckon “If You Should Fail” will be available in hard or soft copy in Canada? I read an excerpt and was bummed that I couldn’t purchase a copy and continue.

    Thanks 🙂


    • Thanks for your interest, Diana – my north American publisher turned the book down I’m afraid 😦 but they are trying other publishers I think. I suspect you can order it from the UK but it might take a while to arrive. Hope you get a copy somehow eventually, anyway …


  10. Dear Joe,
    Your writing is so warmly clear that I feel we are old friends, so I began with Dear. You are proving to be one for my art assignment. In my final year of a Fine Art and Professional writing and publishing degree in Australia, my visual art topic is touch, and the title is Skin Hunger. Your article, ‘The power of touch: is this the sense we’ve missed most?’ (The Guardian, 28th Feb 2021) has been enthusiastically marked with a yellow highlighter, and your beautifully crafted words are finding expression in my artworks.

    And dear Joe, thank you for writing the book on Failure and the Sentences other admirers have commented on, are also finding their way into my world.


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