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Professor James Smith


Professor in the Department of English Studies


Most of my research examines the interactions between modern literature, culture, and secret branches of the British government, particularly concerning topics such as surveillance, intelligence, and propaganda.

My current project, ‘The SOE, Covert Action, and the British Cultural Imaginary’, looks at the complex ways that Britain’s Special Operations Executive has shaped public and cultural perceptions of covert action since the Second World War. This project is funded by the Leverhulme Trust and will run 2023-2027 – you can find details of the project and team members here:

This builds on a recently concluded project, also funded by the Leverhulme Trust, which examined propaganda operations during the Second World War and specifically the role of many writers in the Political Warfare Executive. Outcomes from this project include a forthcoming article (with Guy Woodward) in Modernism/Modernity looking at the dissemination of modernist literature in propaganda magazine, and a co-edited collection looking at the different roles writers played in British propaganda campaigns during the Second World War and Cold War. You can find further details of this project here: .

This interest in the history of rumour and disinformation also led me to collaborate (as a Co-I) on the AHRC-funded ‘COVID-19 rumours in historical context’ project, which tracked the evolving rumours circulating in the UK relating to the COVID-19 pandemic and compared them to historical precedents.

I have published on various other aspects of literature and the secret state. My book, British Writers and MI5 Surveillance, 1930-1960, looked at the MI5 records held on key figures such as Auden, Spender, Koestler, and Orwell, and tried to show how many of these authors were not passive victims of the secret state but also conscious movers within it. (You can read a review of it in The Guardian). Other articles and chapters drawing from MI5’s records concern government involvement in film censorship, security monitoring of radical literary magazines, and (with David Bradshaw) the collaboration between Ezra Pound and the fascist propagandist James Strachey Barnes.

I also have published widely on spy fiction/film and cultural depictions of intelligence, espionage, and the secret state. These include pieces exploring how the James Bond franchise has adapted to the context of recent political debates on surveillance and intelligence, an article re-examining John le Carre’s The Looking Glass War in the light of historical disputes in the intelligence community, a chapter looking at how Black Mirror ironically imagined the future of GCHQ surveillance, and a chapter looking at how the legacy of wartime secret work manifests in the writing of George Orwell, Graham Greene, and Muriel Spark.

I would be very interested to hear from potential research students or those applying for postdoctoral fellowships looking to work in some area of the above topics, as I think there are a range of worthwhile project to be done based in the archives of the secret state and/or on overlooked areas of espionage fiction and film.


I came to Durham in 2012 to take up my current post. I sometimes offer the 3rd year special topic ‘Modern Literature and the British Secret State’, and I lecture and tutor on various other modules. I am at present the chair of the department’s undergraduate Board of Examiners, and have undertaken various other administrative roles, such as leading the department’s Athena Swan self-assessment team which resulted in our first bronze award in 2020.

Before coming to Durham, I grew up in Australia and studied for my first degrees at the University of Sydney, before coming to the UK to do my PhD at Cambridge. After teaching for a year at Homerton College, Cambridge, I held a Postdoctoral Research Fellowship at the University of Queensland and then a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship at Oxford. I was awarded a Philip Leverhulme Prize for my work in 2013.



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