HDR student in focus: Frédéric Barthet

2 November 2020

Frédéric Barthet

A love of books and history carried this Paris-born student into a PhD.

I am a pretty atypical PhD student. For years I thought I could just read history books and be a dilettante. But then I got pushed back into university by my wife, and now I’m doing a PhD in History.

I knew that I wanted to study history in the 1970s but somewhere along the way I lost confidence, I got cold feet. I went to a prestigious high school in Paris full of very smart people. I was laid back, I had thought that I wouldn’t really do anything with history. It was intellectually interesting, but I lacked confidence in myself and I went to Law School.

My parents didn’t go to university, there was no one in my family to guide me or push me intellectually. They wanted me to ‘get a job’, they were more didactic in their parenting. It wasn’t all bad, I made a career in insurance, met my wife, and move around the world to Brisbane.

When I came to UQ I fell in love with the campus. It was so beautiful. Universities in Paris, where I grew up, there is no campus. You ‘get in’ and ‘get out’. The student is the ‘enemy of the state’, historically. It’s not the same here. I have my spot in the library, I work there all day, get to meet people, wave hello. When I’m here working I’m not really working: Here I work like a maniac because I like what I study.

I have always been fascinated by the interwar period of history. Growing up it fascinated me on every level, in literature, film, and classical music. People were seeing films like Citizen Kane for the first time, being introduced to new ideas. Today in film, it is impossible to see anything for the first time because all movies look the same. You don’t see anything new or for the first time.

I grew up in an extreme period, in the ‘60s and ‘70s in France. It was a period of tension and protest. Today there are parallels as we are beginning to see the need to radically rethink how we live. We are in an extraordinary period of creation.

I am intense and determined. They say that genius is 99% sweat and 1% intellect. Determination get people a Nobel Prize rather than intellect alone.

As a kid I was a book lover. I read and collected books. I loved reading Tintin. Tintin is a great character, he wants to help people on their own level. He’s human. Nothing is ever black and white for me, everything is a shade of grey. My father wasn’t educated but he read and he was a good example. I am a different person today than when I was a kid but books have stayed with me.

You can be a historian with just books, books and archives. You don’t need any other tool most of the time.

I like running and walking. I find pleasure in walking the streets of Paris and going into the museums. The more you run the more you feel you need to run, the more you read the more you feel you need to read. I don’t read to pass the time. I read because I can’t help it. There’s a French phrase which doesn’t quite translate into English, “Je ne peux pas m’en empêcher”. It is stronger than “I can’t help it”, I think, because it means that it is not only a necessity but it is also deliberate.

What advice would I give a student? Know what you want. I took too long. In this climate, with so much uncertainty, you don’t have any time to waste. Know what you want and work intensely to get there. Don’t just to a degree and then go do something else, you have no time to waste. Determination will set you apart.

Real relaxation is sitting in my garden and reading, not going to the beach. Books offer a possibility to talk to other people. They are a way to link people and ideas together. Books are for thinking. Books are an inspiration.

Frederic is a PhD Candidate in History working with Andrew Bonnell and Geoff Ginn.

Narrative and photo by Ryan Williams