Kathleen Burk Profile

Kathleen Burk (Rhodes Visiting Fellow for North America and the Caribbean & St Hugh’s 1977) is Professor Emerita of Modern and Contemporary History at University College London. Over the course of her career, she has published a number of books on Anglo-American relations and on finance and foreign policy, as well as a biography of the international historian A.J.P Taylor, and a book on wine. Her newest book on history is Old World, New World: The Story of Britain and America. Kathleen has been a regular commentator on contemporary politics and foreign affairs, as well as on various history topics, for radio and television. She has also delivered a wide range of public lectures as the Gresham Professor of Rhetoric in the City of London. She has pursued a secondary career in wine, both as a wine writer and an international judge.

Rhodes Project: How would you describe your time at Oxford as a student and a Rhodes Fellow? What experiences were significant for you?

Kathleen Burk: If I may backtrack briefly, I was at Berkeley before coming to Oxford, and did a double major in history and political science there. At one point during my undergraduate years, a woman who ran a longitudinal study on drinking where I worked said that she was going to London for six months, and I thought gosh, what a good idea. However, because I was working 20 hours a week during term and full-time during vacation, I had to go for a reason, and not merely to enjoy myself. Oxford University ran a summer school where I could earn six units of graduate credit, so I first went to Oxford as a summer school student. Living in Oxford, though, right across from Blackwell’s in Exeter, I thought, I want to come here properly. I went to speak with the vice-principal of the summer school, who was also the vice-principal of St Hugh’s, and when I left the meeting she said, go home and apply, my hat’s in the ring for you.

I went home and applied and didn’t think much more about it, expecting that I would be going to Stanford. Then the College sent me a letter offering me an undergraduate place, believing quite accurately that I did not know enough English history to do a research degree (I had not, in fact, ever had a course in the field). I was a senior status student, which meant that I did the degree in two years rather than three, which was a challenge, and then I stayed on for my DPhil. My thesis was on Anglo-American relations during the First World War and my supervisor, A.J.P. Taylor, was essentially the most famous man in the world for what we then called diplomatic history. He took a detached but kindly interest in me whilst I was doing the DPhil – I saw him once a term – but there was none better when it came to writing references. Once I had completed the DPhil we became good friends.

I was working on the final year of my DPhil and already teaching temporarily at the University of Dundee when the idea of the Rhodes Fellowships came up. At the time, the Rhodes Scholarships were not open to women, but these fellowships would be. One of my tutors at St Hugh’s suggested that I apply, so I did, but naturally assumed that I would not get it and thought no more about it until I was called up for interview. My interview was at nine o’clock in the morning, which meant, I assumed, that they might well forget all about me by the end of the afternoon. To my astonishment, I was told at teatime that they were giving it to me.

A year or two later, Lord Harcourt, the chairman of the Rhodes Trust, told me that they were able to open the Rhodes Scholarships to women by using the Fellowships to break the will (sadly, he didn’t tell me how they did it). This Fellowship funded my post-doctoral studies. By that time, I’d lived in Oxford for a number of years (I’d matriculated in 1970), I knew my way around and I had a network. One-third of my fellowship funding went to the Bank of America to re-pay my student loan, but I had a wonderful time. I then stepped from the Rhodes Fellowship into a permanent lectureship in London.

Rhodes Project: What drew you to history as an academic passion and career path? How did you come to specialize in finance, foreign policy and Anglo-American relations?

Kathleen Burk: I never really thought of doing anything except history. I remember asking my father when I was applying to college what I should major in, and he said, “Well, you’ve always seemed to like history,” and I thought, right, I’ll put down history. It was the perfect choice for me. I always wanted to be what I thought of in California as a college professor. Growing up, I remember thinking, golly, professors get a discount off the books in the student bookshop. It would be really great to get the money off the books when you wanted to buy them. Now, all sorts of things lead us into careers, but the idea that I would be paid to read history – I mean, how lucky is that? It’s what I had always wanted to do, and I was very fortunate to be able to do it at an outstanding institution.

Rhodes Project: What have been some of the most personally significant projects you have worked on?

Kathleen Burk: There are two or three things that stand out for me because I played a role in initiating them. One is that I founded a journal called Contemporary European History, which Cambridge publishes, and which is about to celebrate its 25th anniversary; I’m very pleased to say that it has a very high reputation. I developed the idea, wrote the proposal, sold it to Cambridge, established it, and served as editor for the first thirteen years, at which point it was time to turn it over to other people. Secondly, in the mid-1980s I founded with two colleagues a small publishing imprint called The Historians’ Press, which lasted for about 25 years, until my two colleagues and I decided that we no longer had the time needed to produce the books, given our full-time academic careers. We were three historians, and we published a lot of primary sources: diaries of politicians, very useful but less accessible letters of politicians and civil servants, and so forth.

Thirdly, it is the books that I have written – I was told some years ago, which may or may not have been the case, that in some sense I established the field of economic diplomacy in Britain. During the early years of my working life, I focused on the use of finance as a weapon in foreign policy and the impact that the economy had on politicians. When I was writing my DPhil thesis, I was apparently the first to analyse in some detail what turned out to be a revelatory aspect of Anglo-American relations during the First World War, the financial relationship. Because Britain and the United States exchanged positions as supreme and inferior international financial powers as a result of the war, I could trace, day by day, the financial decline of Great Britain and the rise of the US. I remember that at first, I wasn’t going to look at Treasury papers because I assumed that I would not be able to understand them; then I thought, look, the American Secretary of the Treasury was a failed Wall Street speculator – if he could understand them, I can understand them. So I threw myself into it and I found that I really enjoyed investigating finance as a weapon. The US for the subsequent 30 years used that weapon to try to drive Britain out of her empire.

Rhodes Project: Reflecting back on your experiences, what advice would you give to women who are in the early stages of their careers? Is there anything you would have done differently?

Kathleen Burk: A couple of years ago, there was an issue of a journal called Diplomacy & Statecraft that was devoted to me. One essay in it was a biographical essay, ‘Kathleen Burk and the History of Diplomacy,’ written by a former research student of mine who now has a chair. He apparently asked people who knew me, former students and colleagues, about my position as a woman. What they all said – and looking back I would agree – is that she never paid any attention to it. She walked confidently and just was.

A few other things. I always networked. You have to go to conferences, and say things. I would also go to the pub or the pizza house with everyone else after the seminars. If you sit in a corner, no one is going to come to find you. So you have to gird your loins, grasp a glass of wine, and get out there. Fortunately for me, I like people. Also, there’s the type of history I do, which is international history and particularly foreign affairs – not many women did it when I started. For the first 20 years of my academic life, I was sometimes the only woman in the seminar. It occurred to me fairly early on that there are all of these chaps and I’m not going to remember them all, but as the only woman, they’re going to remember me. So I say, don’t sweat the small stuff. Don’t keep trying to find that you’ve been injured, because that just makes you feel like a victim, and no one’s going to like that. Secondly, even if you don’t feel confident, pretend that you are, because if you look confident, people will want to talk to you. You look as though you know something.

And if opportunities come up, you just have to grab them. You have to chance your arm. As much as anything that would be my advice, and I think that’s what I did. And there’s a bit of luck involved. You can’t get around that.

Rhodes Project: You have had a passion for wine, with a secondary career as a wine writer and international judge. Can you tell me more about these experiences?

Kathleen Burk: I grew up on a farm in California which included a couple of hundred acres of grape vines, along with the peaches, plums, nectarines and oranges. Because it was a family farm, we had to do a lot of the work, so I’ve tied vines, picked grapes, and driven tractors. Normally you’re not born liking wine, but by the time I got to Berkeley I did. At Berkeley my boyfriend had a 750cc motorcycle, so we went around Napa where he drove and I tasted, and I got to know Californian wine.

When I got to Oxford as an undergraduate, I did not have enough money to both live and buy books, and so I did a lot of things – I cleaned houses for 50p an hour, I babysat, I taught, and so on. During the summer of my second undergraduate year, I worked as an au pair for my mediaeval history tutor, Susan Wood. Her husband Oscar Wood, a Fellow and Tutor in Philosophy at Christ Church, was also the Fellow who chose the wine for his college. I had a lot of opportunities to taste wine. Once I became the Rhodes Fellow, I joined the St Hugh’s SCR wine committee.

I met my husband when he was at New College, and we both liked wine. We got married once I had a job, and I think that it was about 1984 when I decided that we had enough money for me to lay down one case of good wine, in addition to the miscellaneous bottles that we bought. We didn’t have a cellar. We had a north-facing loo where I put a rack, and it sort of started there and the collection grew and we bought more and more wine and stuck it under the stairs and everywhere else that was not in the heat and light. In due course we finally acquired a cellar.

By the late 1990s, I wanted to learn more. What I knew about wine was lots of details, but nothing coherent. In London the Wine and Spirits Educational Trust runs courses for the wine trade and I studied for and sat three years of wine exams. I was then asked to write a wine column for Prospect magazine in London, which I did for two or three years; I later published a book on wine called Is This Bottle Corked? The Secret Life of Wine with a friend Michael Bywater, and I now write occasional long articles on wine history and wine culture for the periodical The World of Fine Wine.

I also do quite a bit of tasting, judging and teaching about wine.  I’m responsible for the sections on Germany, Austria and Virginia for the wine guide Wine Behind the Label. Some years ago, I was proposed as a judge for the International Wine and Spirits Competition, and they decided to give me a try; as a result I’ve been a judge there for about 13 years, as well as for several other competitions. Teaching about wine came as a result of the government’s deciding that here in Britain we had to provide what they called ‘transferable skills’ for students: it was not enough just to teach them to think, analyse, and write. So colleagues ran classes about how to write a curriculum vitae, give a presentation, and respond in an interview. My transferable skill, I decided, was wine. And so I helped start a student wine society at University College London, which is where I hold my chair. After two years it had 60 members, and I began organising separate term-long advanced wine tasting courses for a dozen students at a time. They were wildly popular, and a number of those students remain good friends. I certainly lightened the social burden for a number of UCL students, who no longer feared a wine list. I also give a lot of tastings, particularly in London.

Rhodes Project: Who have been your mentors or role models, professionally and personally? How have they shaped your thinking?

Kathleen Burk: Role models – a difficult question. I don’t think that I had any particular role model. I defined myself against other people, not least against my mother: I was not going to be married, I was not going to have children, I was not going to be stuck in the middle of a farm with few adults to talk to. So of course, I eventually got married and had a child. There were, of course, people whom I admired, not least some academic historians, but that’s rather different from taking them as models.

In terms of mentors in wine, the answer is a bit easier. One was Oscar Wood at Oxford. Whilst I worked in his house for three months as an au pair, he took an interest in my development in wine and started me on the whole pathway of treating wine as an intellectual as well as a hedonistic drink, one might say. There’s a whole life and culture about wine, which I am writing about now. It has a cachet that most other drinks lack. It has all sorts of symbolic meanings. It theoretically reflects not only the personal – the type of person you are and the socioeconomic position you inhabit – but it also implies things about countries and almost eras. There is a lot in wine. It is more than just a drink. I also had wine mentors in London, including Michael Schuster, who is one of the great Bordeaux experts, and from whom I took some courses. Now I find myself being a wine mentor to others, and this feels a touch strange.

Rhodes Project: What writing projects are you currently focusing on?

Kathleen Burk: More and more over the course of my career, as I wrote books and articles about Anglo-American relations, I got to the point where I felt that I had the bones of a history of the two countries over the whole period over all sorts of areas – diplomatic, political, economic, social and cultural. So I wrote a book called Old World, New World: The Story of Britain and America, in which I tried to set out the whole relationship from 1497, when John Cabot, a man from Bristol, landed in the New World, to March 2003, when Britain became a member of the American-led ‘coalition of the willing’ to invade Iraq. I received a particularly nice review in The Times Literary Supplement, but the reviewer also pointed out that I had not followed the thread of empire. This got me to thinking about the British and American empires – and I do believe that there has been an American empire since the very beginning. How did they interact? Where were they in conflict? Where did they co-operate? Where did they have little to do with each other? This is what I’m writing about now, the interaction of the British and American empires from 1783 to 1972.

Once that is finished, I’m going to look at wine and diplomacy. I have been accumulating material from the ancient Near East and Georgia to what the White House and Buckingham Palace and the Élysée Palace have in their cellars and the relationship between the quality of wines served and the status of the visitors. Wine and diplomacy are two of my very favourite words, and the idea of crowning my career with a book on the subject is quite wonderful.

Rhodes Project: Could you share your thoughts on the decision to have a child, where that came in your career and how it impacted your career?

Kathleen Burk: I was quite late in all of this, because by the time I’d picked up four degrees and a Rhodes Fellowship, I had been at university for 13 years. I got my DPhil when I was 31 and I got married at 34. Now the thing is, as I’ve already indicated, I never thought that I wanted children. I’d seen what had happened to my mother, a highly, highly intelligent woman stuck out in the middle of nowhere on a farm in California with six kids, until she went back to university and took Masters degrees in Russian and Latin.

I just wasn’t going to be like that. I said that the issue was marriage and I said that the issue was children. I did get married because I found someone—and this is going to sound very strange—who was as clever as I was. You know, highly intelligent women fear being bored. As well, it takes a highly intelligent man to have the courage to marry a highly intelligent woman. Fortunately, I found one at New College, in a very different field so that we don’t compete, which I think can be important. Otherwise, someone is likely to lose out, and we know who it is likely to be more often than not.

Furthermore, no matter who I married, I wasn’t going to have children. As the eldest of six, I was used to children and I knew how much trouble they could be. But at the age of 36, I asked myself, to whom am I going to leave all my books? My husband and I decided that we would have a child. Now the thing is, I didn’t do it until I had published four books, which is one reason that I was 39 when I had my daughter. That’s very important. Now there are those who say that you should have your children early, and then grow up with them, I suppose. This may well be a good idea biologically, but it is more problematic if you want to be an academic of some stature: you can’t drop out for a few years and then come back – no one would hire you, what with the crowd of younger people trying to get an academic post. Few people realise just how much time and trouble and energy having and raising a child takes. It took me a year after the birth of my daughter before I could regularly work until midnight again.

Child care is vital, which is why I think that it’s the single most important element for women that has to be sorted out in this country. Having married for love, I also married a man who made enough money that we could share a nanny, and, therefore, I could continue with my work without sacrificing my daughter. You know, when I look back, I think my God, I was a superwoman in those days. I never missed a lecture or class in London, yet I always made it to her school in South Oxfordshire where we live in time for all of her performances and parents’ evenings. My daughter still loves me and rings me most days (she’s now in publishing in London), so there clearly wasn’t any alienation beyond the usual dislike of the teenager for her parents. You can have it all, or at least most of it, as long as 1) you have amazing amounts of energy, 2) you are focused and don’t sweat the small stuff, and 3) you have enough money to afford to have people around to provide help. The first thing you get if you have any extra cash is someone to help with the cleaning. There’s no getting around the fact that having help is vital. What you can do sometimes is to co-operate with colleagues: I’ll take care of your child whilst you’re teaching and you then take care of mine. You have to be able to get by without much sleep. But you also have to have a certain amount of chutzpah. You just have to want it, family, work, dinner parties, music. There are no easy answers. If having four children is more important to you than writing four books, that’s a choice. I wanted the joy of having a child, but I also wanted the satisfaction of publishing books. I managed it. 

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