An Academic Life: Matt Jones - the escape artist

There’s ‘getting away from it all’…and then there’s the Matt Jones way of escaping during downtime.

The 34-year-old is Reader in Cinema Audiences and Reception at De Montfort University (DMU) and he loves his job, but he also goes that extra mile (or few) to take a break from academia.

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Matt Jones explores the magnificent ruined Inca city Machu Picchu

“I throw myself headlong into my work,” he said, “but then when I find a hobby, I throw myself headlong into that as well!

“I love travel and I head off to climb mountains and yes, that’s partly because there are no films on top of mountains. I never go in the UK, it has to be abroad. Twice a year I go somewhere.

“I tend to go to places where I know the mobile phone and the internet won’t work. I always go alone and don’t get lonely. I love my own company and I love to come back from my trips having accomplished specific things.”

At work, Matt is part of DMU’s Cinema and Television History Research Institute, where he specialises in mid-twentieth century British cinema, its relationship with the audiences, their memories of cinema-going, and on how cinemas fit within our urban spaces, connect with transport routes, and affect urban design. 

He also loves collaborative projects such as an Immersive Theatre Project which recreated the experience of 1960s cinema-going. 

In his holidays, however, his wanderlust has so far ticked off mountain treks in Bolivia, Peru (including an exhausting 16-day trek to the fabled Machu Picchu ruined Inca city), Brazil and Nepal.

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Enjoying the glitz and energy of the Rio Carnival

But it’s not a pastime that comes without any dangers - his last trip to Rio de Janeiro in Brazil saw him robbed of his mobile phone, plus return with what turned out to be pneumonia.

“I got knocked to the floor,” he recalled. “They must have seen me putting my phone back in my money belt which was what they were trying to cut off.

“I was on the ground and one of them was over the top of me. In trying to put my hands up in the air to say ‘go on, take it, I won’t stop you’, they must have thought I was trying to fight them off.

“They were just trying to rob me but sometimes things go wrong. I know I was lucky, but then these things happen if you’re travelling.”

Undeterred, he’s contemplating heading off this summer either to the Himalayas in Bhutan, or to complete an ambitious journey by train to Paris, to Moscow, catching the Trans-Siberian Railway before branching through Mongolia and aiming to finish at Angkor Wat in Cambodia.

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On the expanse of the Uyuni salt lake in Bolivia

Escaping to another world features in Matt’s other pastimes. Several times a year, Matt, his old schoolfriend Alex and university friend Kate stay at each other’s homes to embark on logic and strategy board game binges, including Twilight Struggle (based on the Cold War, one of Matt’s research favourites) and the Pandemic Legacy, a challenge of 12 back-to-back games.

He said: “I’m one of those people who has always enjoyed logic problems, puzzles to be answered, and I get a kick out of finding intellectual solutions to them. Nothing makes me happier than solving a problem.”

He and Alex also team up to spend weekends travelling the country to tackle Escape Rooms – venues where teams are put into rooms to solve mental and physical adventure game puzzles within set time limits. This year they passed the 100 mark.

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Alex and Matt in seasonal spirit for one Escape Room challenge

Born in 1984, Matt’s father was a GP and his mum a practice manager, which meant they moved quite a bit, but the home he remembers most was a fairly isolated old farmhouse, sitting on top of a hill with a dirt path to it, in rural Derbyshire, in Tansley, near Matlock.

He went to public school in Sheffield and had formal elocution lessons so has no remnants of a regional accent.

“I had a fairly miserable time at school,” Matt admitted. “I was quite geeky and I tried to get into the sports culture to fit in - I became the scorer for the cricket team - but none of this worked and I got bullied badly.

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In front of Sugarloaf Mountain, Rio de Janeiro 

“I also came out when I was 13, which didn’t help. I’d known that I was gay for quite a while but it was the mid-90s and I was very aware it was still socially unacceptable in many places.

“We went on a cruise with my parents and I thought of it as a practice. I decided to tell people I was gay and if it went badly, I could always go home and keep it to myself there instead. It went fine on the cruise so I came back and told a few people at school - but it was awful. Many of the teachers didn’t really support me and it was the school who told my parents.”

The bullying and ostracism got so bad, Matt moved to a different school with a much more accepting environment. 

A Levels in German, English Literature and Drama, plus General Studies AS Level, led him to Manchester University to study a Joint Honours degree in English Literature and Drama - where he also gained a complete new freedom from his schooldays and was lucky to find a new group of friends that he got on very well with. 

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Alex and Matt tick off another Escape Room in style

“I had something of a divided identity; one was the new career and studies that I had chosen, and outside halls and courses I felt very liberated, particularly with Manchester being a big city/gay village.

“I was a lazy student and did all the things I now tell my own students off for – God knows how I still managed to produce quality work and graduate with a 2:1.”

Soon after arriving in Manchester he got a part-time bar job and it was there that he met and fell for the bar manager, Rich, who would be his partner for the next 15 years.

He stayed on to study a Master’s in Screen Studies and for the first time got properly engaged in his academic work. His love of watching films had been encouraged in his childhood by his cinophile grandmother in Sheffield but when he graduated in 2012 there were no suitable academic jobs about and his first employment was effectively a sales position for a software firm producing video CVs.

He hated it but was eventually offered some cover teaching work at the University of Central Lancashire. At one point he was teaching at seven different universities before he landed a post-doctoral research post at UCL, where he stayed until he joined DMU in May 2014.

He said: “I’ve been able to do a lot of work here that I wouldn’t have been able to elsewhere, including collaborative work and mentoring work. In Cinema and Television History we have this reputation as a leading, research active, institute that does help with securing funding, which is great.”

Posted on Monday 24th June 2019

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