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Dr Clare Makepeace

Hazel Croft writes:

Clare Makepeace, who died suddenly on 3 April, was a talented and innovative historian, a brilliant writer and, above all, a wonderful friend. Clare was the author of a highly-praised monograph, Captives of War: British Prisoners of War in Europe in the Second World War (2017), and an honorary research fellow in the department of History, Classics and Archaeology at Birkbeck.

I first met Clare in 2007, when we were both doing Masters’ degrees at Birkbeck and we found ourselves on a Cultural History of War course run by Joanna Bourke. Both of us went on to do PhDs under Joanna's supervision and from then on we became firm friends and writing buddies, attending workshops, seminars and conferences together.  Most importantly, we started reading and commenting on each other's research and writing. This would cement a friendship that would last through the course of our respective PhDs and beyond.  Clare’s writing was beautiful and exquisite – even in the early drafts I read of her thesis chapters. Clare loved writing, even when she found it challenging. I remember the look of amazement on her face once when I failed to send her a paper she’d promised to comment on because I had writers’ block. ‘I’ve never experienced that’, she said. Although she became a very well-liked and respected lecturer, at Birkbeck and then teaching gender history at UCL, her research and writing were her first love and animated all her conversations with me about history.   

I had the great privilege of reading early drafts of her book, Captives of War, as she transformed her brilliant PhD into an even more remarkable book, adding new research and insights as she deepened her understanding of the men’s experiences as POWs. Clare’s research was meticulous, painstakingly examining the diaries and letters of 75 POWs, and Captives of War provided a compelling and moving account of the men’s inner lives and emotions. It was a cut above most other history I have ever read, both in the beautiful way it was written and in the insight Clare provided into the men’s fears, feelings and mental anxieties while in captivity. Clare was able to write with such insight and sensitivity because she really cared about the subjects of her research and strove to do their stories and experiences justice. I always remember how movingly Clare spoke to me of how her research was first inspired by her grandfather’s reluctance to talk about his experiences during the war, despite her urging him to write his memoirs. She said she always wanted to make him proud and that she felt that all the subjects of her research deserved the same respect.

Clare attempted to contact the relatives of those whose lives she researched, and it is testament to the effort and care she took that so many families of POWs she wrote about came to the book launch of Captives of War. The book launch, which Clare organised with the help of her husband Richard in the atmospheric Ironmonger’s Hall in the City of London, was an unforgettable experience for all who attended. It showed how proud Clare felt about her accomplishment, and what the book meant to her, to her family and friends, and to the relatives of POWs. Along with music from the fabulous Hayward sisters, the event featured a brilliant performance of a script Clare had written, based on the diaries of Captain Mansell, one of the prominent POWs in her research. It encapsulated how talented Clare was, and her fresh and innovative approach to history.

Clare was a prolific writer, publishing a wide range of academic and popular articles. She wanted her research and ideas to reach the widest possible audience, and to not remain confined to a small academic readership. She was passionate and proud about her writing being read, shared and discussed by a diverse audience. To this end, Clare made several appearances on TV and radio, and wrote for a wide range of publications – from academic journals, to medical publications such as the Lancet, to articles in the popular tabloids. When I once challenged her about why she had published an article in the Daily Mail online, she said she wanted her work to reach a wider audience. What is the point of all the research and writing, she declared, if no-one reads your work? Clare was thrilled when Buglight Theatre were inspired by her research in the Mail article to write and perform a play about sex workers in the First World War, The House Behind the Lines, which toured the UK.  Clare’s latest book project had been to write a wide ranging and popular history of prisoners of war, which she had hoped would reach a popular audience without compromising her high standards of historical research.

My friendship with Clare grew closer when we became next door neighbours in east London, popping round each other’s houses for cups of tea and catch up sessions on our research and writing. We would even have a moan about the perils and pitfalls of academia over the garden fence while hanging out the washing! Clare was a great traveller with her husband Richard, and I would listen with admiration to her adventurous travellers’ tales, which included trips to Thailand, Myanmar and Siberia. Clare was not only engaging company, but also a loyal and caring friend. She was helpful when I was ill, providing meals and sympathy, and thoughtful and kind when my stepfather died. She always made time to read and to comment on my history writing, usually in double-quick time, even when she was not fully well herself. I lost count of the number of conference abstracts and papers, book and thesis chapters, proposals and job applications she commented on over the years. She was my most thorough reader and toughest critic. But even when I disagreed with comments, I valued her feedback because her opinions were always straight to the point and honest. I knew she’d really thought and cared about what I’d written, and despite voicing her criticisms, she never knocked my confidence. More than anyone, Clare encouraged me to believe I could write and she never stopped encouraging me to turn my PhD into a book. I have repeatedly returned to her insightful comments on my work and I am devastated that she won’t be able to read the final version.

I am still reeling from Clare’s sudden death from secondary liver cancer at the terribly young age of 40. Clare’s breast cancer had been in remission and she had been determined not to be defined by the cancer and had continued to live her life to the full – embarking on new travel adventures with her husband Richard, and starting to research and write her new book on prisoners of war. She had moved to live by the sea in Cornwall, a place she loved, and she spoke of swimming in the sea, and going for long cycle rides and walks with Richard and their dog, Fenton. When I last saw her at the end of January she was well and happy, brimming over with tales of her travel plans and history writing. But the liver cancer took hold swiftly and fatally less than two weeks following the diagnosis. 

I treasured Clare as a historian and writer, but most of all I treasured her as a friend and I will miss her immeasurably. My thoughts and love go out to Clare’s husband, Richard Stokoe, her parents, Alan and Penny Makepeace, and all her family and friends at this unbearably sad time.

Joanna Bourke writes:

Clare Makepeace was an empathetic historian, who always strove to understand the people she was writing about. I first met her in 2007-8 when she joined my MA class on the cultural history of war. It was immediately obvious that there was first-class mind at work. She exuded a quiet, intellectual confidence that contributed to what was an extraordinary term of scholarship, discussion, and debate.

Her MA dissertation was on brothels, masculinity, and soldiering during the First World War. Those of us who warned that the primary material for such a topic would be thin were proved wrong: hard-work and the investment of an incredible amount of time in the archives paid off. The dissertation was published. When Clare sent me a tentative email about the possibility of doing a PhD, I was elated. Her proposal was polished: focussed, analytical, aware of the historiography, and beautifully composed. These were to be her trademarks. Funded by the AHRC, Clare finished her PhD in time and was quickly offered a book contract with Cambridge University Press. But Clare was a perfectionist. She rewrote the thesis and polished, polished, polished it. It was worth the wait. Captives of War: British Prisoners of War in Europe in the Second World War (2017) is an original account of the subjectivities of POWs. She demonstrates that POWs looked beyond the barbed wire: they dreamt of their loved ones back home; they made extraordinary art; they shared their hopes and fears. Endurance, she maintained, requires not only bread but also the roses of fantasy. As with all her writing, Clare pays attention to individuals, as well as contexts. Like the best historians, Clare was passionate in her quest to comprehend the life-experiences of people unlike herself. It is that vision that inspired everyone she met. I learnt such a lot from her.