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Warning: this post may have an excess of punctuation.

I have had a standing notification for items relating to the Floating University set up on ebay for about, oh, five years. I did this once I realised (too late) that there was quite a bit of ephemera that had been put up for sale and that was being snapped up by someone in the Netherlands. Since then what has turned up has mostly been the same three photographs of a woman on an elephant and occasionally an issue of the student newspaper, the Binnacle (on which more some other in time).

However, a few weeks ago my standing search turned up the JACKPOT! Some dear soul in Pennsylvania had put up for sale Walter C. Harris’ book of Photographs of The First University World Cruise – a handsome leather-bound volume containing more than one thousand pictures (one thousand pictures!) of the 1926-27 Floating University trip.

This was scholarly gold!

Harris was the official photographer aboard the voyage and as the trip progressed, he took orders for prints and postcards which he made up en route in the ship’s “print office” or dark room. The demand for these was enormous, with students wishing to send them back to their friends at home upon arrival in each new port. Sniffing a commercial opportunity, Harris announced that he would publish the entire run of his photographs available at the end of the voyage, and of course orders for these could be placed at any time.

I’d seen the book before, having tracked one of the few remaining copies down to the New York Public Library, but the prospect of actually owning it (ah the material presence of the past, don’t tell me you don’t also have a tendency to be captured by it) was almost too good to be true.

The problem was, I seemed to have an ebay rival who was equally as excited and also flush with cash. Oh don’t worry, I mobilised all the justifications I could, but it was really the extreme enthusiasm and competitive instincts (ok and bankrolling) of my partner that resulted in the book making its way into my excited hands this week (as evidenced above).

It is every bit as brilliant as I remembered. Harris took some beautiful pictures (I give you No. 42, below, taken in the Cemetery in Havana) and they are already proving useful in the writing, writing, writing.

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But perhaps best of all was the note from the seller that I discovered slipped inside the front cover  (if you are reading this now, Mr Pennsylvania, you’ll know already how happy you’ve made me):

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Episodically collected historians in the world. If historians don’t think temporally, who will?

And this because it is genius:

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In September 1926, 500 American university students left New York aboard the Floating University, on a journey around the world that involved stops at forty-seven ports and visits to foreign dignitaries including the King of Siam, the Sultan of Lahej, Mussolini and the Pope. Organised by New York University professor, James Edwin Lough, and promising a ‘world education’ to its students, the venture was influenced by new approaches to psychology and education, the internationalism of the period, as well as economic and social imperatives. But if its organisers thought the voyage would be a way for American students to know the world, it also became a laboratory for American imperial diplomacy, a stage for nationalist and anti-imperial politics, and a magnet for scandal.

For the last few years I’ve been chasing the Floating University and its 500 students in archives scattered across the United States and the world. I’ve found them in diaries and artwork and photographs and radio transcripts and legal records and newspaper articles. Much like the students on the ship, I’ve frequently found myself in unfamiliar surroundings, following leads down dark passageways and IT’S ALL SO INTERESTING. I mean who wouldn’t be diverted by the thrills and spills of what has often seemed the Great Gatsby version of a gap year?!

But more recently I’ve been trying to work out what the whole thing adds up to. There are so many possible angles of approach and there’s so many threads to the story that the project has sometimes seemed to me to be in danger of proliferating endlessly.  But for better of worse, I’ve got to begin. For the next few months, thanks to New College and the Rothermere American Institute, I have a desk in Oxford and my job is to put words on a page.

Which is obviously why I’m getting straight on with that task by writing this blog.