Whatever happened to the PhD?

Its been a long time since I posted anything in this blog, so you can be forgiven for thinking that I had utterly abandoned the Exclusive PhD project. I guess for a while, I did a bit, but I’ve never entirely parted ways with it, and lately I’ve been throwing myself back into the project with renewed interest.

It might help though to update those who were kind enough to support me early on, as much has changed. As I haven’t written on here in a decade, please allow me to try and fill you in on the gaps.

This is a little more personal than my blogs usually are here, but it might be useful to understand the frustrations of academic research. I’ve heard from too many friends who have had to give up on funded PhDs because they picked the wrong topic, or had personal life interfere. Students often don’t talk about it because of a sense of failure, and presumably also because of the money invested in them that isn’t returned.

I had made attempts to secure funding for my PhD without success. So when I started it, I was completely self-funded. I took out a loan to see me through my first year, and worked to pay that off, while I attempted to find an inroad later on – I was advised that sometimes it is easier to secure funding in a second year. It was a huge amount of money for me and wasn’t going to be sustainable for the duration.

Firstly, and probably no surprise, I’m no longer at Trinity College Dublin, and the PhD itself is in essence on hold. On hold, not abandoned.

The situation was complicated. Around the time of the last posts on here, back in 2010. I was going through massive upheavals in my personal life which are a matter of public record if anyone cares to dig around online. I took ill and had to step out for a year from TCD. Then there were some delays getting back in, and some breakdowns in communication between the university administration and me. I took redundancy from my job as a librarian in Belfast at the end of 2011 and planned to put much of my redundancy payment into my fees. But found myself in a position where I had to pay the fees for the year with very little time to find the money and submit a 20k chapter while recovering from a series of breakdowns. I might have been able to do it, just, but to pay for a whole year when for half that time I hadn’t had any access to university resources made it impossible, and seemed unfair. With great regret I had to pull out.

My supervisor, Dr Ruth Barton, was never anything but hugely supportive and encouraging with the research, and I would have loved to stay on. As a result I felt I’d let myself down, her, and the others who had offered their support.

While there was some discussion about transferring the project to another university, the realities of my personal situation at the time meant that wasn’t something I would be able to progress – at that moment. I hoped I might be able to resolve those in time and to pick up the project with a new institution behind me.

It is soul-destroying to have to give up on something you have been working at for a long time owing to circumstances you can’t control. Frustrating to have to set aside a promising research project because you are financially crippled. Not because I wasn’t capable, but because I couldn’t make the logistics work on my own. The reality of trying to work near full-time hours to fund a PhD, which one then hasn’t the time to dedicate to is a drain. I spent thousands of pounds on fees, plus additional research expenses. To walk away from that still stings.

Nonetheless in June 2012 I curated a strand on Hammer at the Fantastic Films Weekend in Bradford’s National Media Museum, which included a strong Exclusive Films angle including a screening of rarely seen thriller The Man In Black and an on-stage interview with Hammer/Exclusive veteran Renee Glynne. Every chance I could get to open up people to the earlier part of Hammer’s history and my own particular interests, I would take.

The following month I took part in the ‘Hammer Has Risen From The Grave’ conference organised by DeMontfort University’s CATH centre. This included a number of on-stage interviews, a screening of the once-thought lost Exclusive/Hammer crime drama River Patrol (sourced from my personal 16mm print) and a talk on the early history of the company.

Mark McKenna summarised my paper for Cine-Excess:

The festival began appropriately at the beginning of Hammer’s long and colourful history, and after an overview of the conference from organiser Professor Steve Chibnall, Robert J.E. Simpson, the official Hammer archivist introduced Exclusive Films, parent company and distribution arm to Hammer, whose relationship continues in Hammer’s current incarnation. The insight into Hammer’s early years was fascinating, documenting the company’s many and varied business ventures from jewellers to hairdressers!

My archival researches had clarified some of the comments half-quoted in articles and documentaries over the years, and I started to flesh out a real picture of the company and their activities.

Starting that August, Hammer themselves launched a dedicated YouTube channel featuring a select number of films available for free via the platform. I was contracted to provide a number of short introductions for the Exclusive titles [these have just been made unavailable as of July 2021, as Hammer no longer seem to be maintaining their social media accounts]. In the end intros were published for River Patrol (the copy of the feature uploaded to YouTube, as at the Leicester conference, came from a scan of my personal 16mm print), Cloudburst, Dick Barton: Special Agent, Stolen Face, The Last Page, The Man In Black, Murder By Proxy, and The Glass Tomb. I had also prepped at least two more before the project was called to an early halt. Produced under very trying circumstances with kit that didn’t quite do what it needed to, I attempted to compensate for the short fallings by making these in a 1.33:1 ratio in black and white, akin to the aesthetic many would have encountered the films in. A decade on, I’d love to revisit them with the skills I’ve learned since, and the benefit of a lot more screen and broadcasting time.

During the first half of 2013 in the midst of corporate restructuring I lost my freelance contract with Hammer themselves, which had been incredibly useful opening up certain archives to me. I had made some interesting findings that required following up, but without official backing, or the support of a university programme, I simply couldn’t afford the expense in time or money.

I had also prior to this been discussing the prospect of publishing the research in book form – and had broached the idea of doing it as an officially licensed text – and had a couple of interested publishers on hand. As my ability to research was curtailed, so too did everything else.

[I keep returning here to the issue of finance, but its an important one. For the fan at home, spending their cash on blu-rays, books and other memorabilia, it can be an expensive prospect. But to produce the material, to trawl archives, find the time to write up, and acquire material, all costs a great deal. When I left TCD, typical fees were in excess of £6,000 per annum, and they’ve grown since. That’s a lot of spare money to find. At a later date I may blog about the costs involved in more detail.]

Between mental health battles, an acrimonious divorce, and unemployment, the PhD quickly crumbled, and my sense of dissatisfaction with myself intensified and academia became sullied.

A few years before an academic I had trusted and previously admired, was overhead boasting to a colleague about how I needed brought down. And the result at the time had been that I lost a lot of faith in my abilities and worth. It had taken some time to rebuild that. My research was about the only thing giving me focus during the personal turmoil of 2012/3, but inevitably one impacted the other. My personal situation meant I wasn’t allowed to focus adequately on my work, and I dare say it suffered. I won’t bore you with that stuff here, as I’ve written about it on other blogs and social media at. However, I would say it seems self-evident that the intensity of research will impact one’s personal life and one’s personal life will impact work. I found myself in a situation were I could do none of the things I wanted, and couldn’t fix any of the problems that had arisen. I lost meaning and value and largely retreated from the public life I had built within the field.

For the May 2014 issue of Little Shoppe of Horrors (#32) I wrote my first proper feature for the long-running Hammer magazine, on ‘The Original/First Hammer House of Theatre’.
Hammer had recently started exploring theatrical productions as a new ‘Hammer House of Horror’ strand, and I saw this as an opportunity to explore my own thesis that Hammer Films was originally about providing another outlet for Will Hammer’s theatrical pursuits. Drawing on my growing personal archive of material surrounding Will Hammer’s theatre projects I provided what I believe is the first article since the 1950s to actually explore this area of the Hammer brand. I was fiercely proud of it, editor Dick Klemensen was very kind about it, but otherwise the response was disappointingly quiet.

As a creative I have always needed feedback in order to do my work. If something is bad, or needs changing I would rather know. I can adapt, modify and hopefully improve. When there is no response it is too easy to loose one’s way. That article had been my last attempt to keep a hand in, packed with original research, and excited no-one. My feeling, after working with the brand for many years, is that the bulk of the fans only care about the horror films. Certainly they’re probably the most accessible. But it is only a fraction of the story.

By 2015 I felt adrift without the resolution of the project, and the dull response to the LSoH article. I had, I have to admit, continued sporadic research and revision of its scope when I could find a little time to think. The LSoH piece had demonstrated the direction the research was now swinging, less about Exclusive as distributor, and more about the wider Hammer brand. In my head new avenues presented themselves and I hoped I might still be able to return to an academic setting and give them some validation.

Then a major international conference in Paris came up, and I put forward a paper on the origins of Hammer, which would incorporate some of the new directions of my research and a better grounding of the Exclusive history.

At this point I was utterly unemployed and had been for some time. I was living on the UK government’s Job Seekers Allowance, which was something along the lines of £70 per week. From that I had to pay my bills and eat. And here was I looking at disappearing to France for the best part of a week. I didn’t know until the last minute if I’d actually be able to make it work. But I did. I would have to sign off for the time I was away (so no income that week), but it was too good an opportunity not to do it. I paid my accommodation and flights off ahead of time, and managed to get enough cash together that I’d be able to get around for a few days on the cheap. When I got pickpocketed on my penultimate day it felt like a real kick in the teeth, but the buzz of being involved got me through.

Laura Mayne, in a review of the conference summed up my paper thus:

Robert Simpson delivered a fascinating insight into Hammer’s early history with ‘261 Goldhawk Road: William Hinds and the Birth of Hammer Films’. Drawing on a wide range of archival research, his focus was on the very early years of the company and the importance of its founder William Hinds (stage name Will Hammer) to its identity, and to the eventual ‘Hammer’ branding.

It was a superb conference to be part of. I delivered my paper just an hour or so after hearing that Sir Christopher Lee had died, and that evening would broadcast from my AirBnB an obituary to BBC Radio Ulster listeners back home. Some of the paper I gave at the conference was a re-tread of material delivered in Leicester, but there were new findings too, and with talk of published conference proceedings to follow it seemed like a good opportunity to share the findings with a wider audience. That publication, incidentally, does not appear to have been advanced.

Perhaps strangest was attending a paper by Steve Chibnall from De Montfort University, and seeing a photo of myself symbolically overseeing the handing over of the Hammer script archive from Hammer to DMU, projected as part of the presentation. I wasn’t expecting that.

Steve Chibnall presents a paper in Paris about the work of the CATH research centre at DMU

I came back revived and reconnected, but still ultimately a bit lost and alone. I no longer had the excuses to publish on the subject on a regular basis. And so far I haven’t. I packed my books and files away. I ignored the films on my shelves. Hammer had become tainted – reminding me only of my personal disappointments and regret.

For the last few years I have been trying to work discreetly on a related project, but failing to see it to completion. In 2019 I made inroads again in my professional life, and the confidence to maybe do something. Then the pandemic hit.

The last year and a half has been a roller coaster for so many of us. Removing so much of our respective normalities, depriving us of friends, family and colleagues. Some of us have lost our livelihoods. Some of us have just about hung on thanks to furlough. Many of us have retreated into our homes and the safety of the television, and beloved programmes from our past.

I found myself essentially out of work, with intermittent furlough support. I then found myself leading a series of writing workshops, and alongside trying to inspire my group to get past their own writers block, I found myself joining in and breaking free of my own. Not something I had expected. The little bit of fiction was enough to allow me to start getting back into non-fiction writing. And so gradually, I started going through my old files, and watching some of the films I’ve had on hold. Perhaps most significantly, I started to go through the collection I inherited from my late friend Robert Lane (more about him in another post). Something clicked, and I’ve managed to make a substantial progress on the book.

Nothing is ever simple though. A couple of very long-term projects have had to be given up. I’ve conceded defeat. I’ve given my apologies to those I was working with, and remain racked with guilt.

They’ve found other people to collaborate with, who I hope will be able to deliver for them as they deserve. I know its for the best. In the process, they’ll get the outcomes they need. And I can reprioritise and manage what I have.

At time of writing, the Exclusive Films book contains over 81,000 words and the main catalogue of titles is complete. I’d hoped to be finished by end of this summer (2021), but critical commentary, revisions, and additional research could mean its the end of the year now. Then there’s the photos to scan and ready. But it is coming. And soon. I’ll be opening a mailing list for it shortly, and pre-orders once the book is near ready.

The frustration now, is that no matter what way the work turns out, there wont be a PhD in it for me. Academia is very particular about what you publish and who you publish with for it to be counted, and this won’t hit those marks. I just hope that some of you are interested in purchasing the work and reading it. I’m confident you’ll learn something from it.

So here we are. A decade later, somewhat beaten, but still progressing. And now this blog can continue what it was meant to do – tell the story of the research and supplement the findings and eventual publication.

Feel free to hit me up with comments and questions. And thanks for your support.

Robert

Published by

avalard

Professional Nostalgist: writer, publisher, broadcaster, archivist, former-librarian, film historian, teacher, editor, film-maker, photographer, artist.

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