He was born in 1949 in South Shields, where he attended Laygate Lane Junior School and the Grammar Technical School for Boys. His father worked as a driller at the Tyne Dock Engineering Company, a ship repair yard. His mother worked at Harton Hospital as a ward assistant - a job she loved. Colls says now that the Westoe Methodist Young People's Fellowship (Sundays) taught him how to think, and Talbot Road Methodist Youth Club (Fridays) taught him how to dance.
After studying at the University of Sussex and undertaking Voluntary Service Overseas he worked for a PhD at the University of York under Professor G. A. Williams. Jobs followed at Loughton College (1975–79) and at the University of Leicester (1979-2012) where he was Professor of English History before joining the International Centre for Sports History and Culture at De Montfort in October 2012.
Colls's main interests are cultural and intellectual history. In recent years this has taken him into the study of regional and national identities. He also has a longstanding interest in the history of the English working class. His long essay ‘When We Lived in Communities’ (Cities of Ideas 2004) explains the intelligence that sustained industrial communities and, along with ‘English Journeys’ (Prospect July 2007) is the nearest he has come to memoir.
Colls's first book The Collier’s Rant (1977) explored popular song and image as expressed in 19th-century broadsheets and music hall. The Pitmen of the Northern Coalfield 1790-1850 (1987) tried to bring the miners into the orbit of E P Thompson’s path-breaking The Making of the English Working Class. Geordies (1992) is a collection of regionalist essays edited with Bill Lancaster to which Colls contributed a hefty piece. Newcastle upon Tyne: A Modern History (2001), and Northumbria. History and Identity (2007) completed his northern trilogy. Englishness: Politics and Letters 1880-1920 (1986), co-edited with Philip Dodd, was first of a new wave of studies on English national identity and and was published in a second edition by Bloomsbury in 2014 with a new Introduction by the editors and an Afterword by Will Self. His book Identity of England (2002) received significant critical acclaim. His most recent book, George Orwell: English Rebel, was published by Oxford University Press in 2013. D J Taylor in The Guardian thought it was a "prime ornament of Orwell Studies". A N Wilson in The Spectator said he thought it was "the most sensible and systematic interpretation of Orwell I have ever read". Simon Heffer in The Daily Telegraph said that "If there is a better book on George Orwell I have yet to discover it". David Aaronovitch in the New Statesman called Colls "a lovely writer, fearless in a way that academics too often are not". David Evans in The Independent remarked that "Colls writes like an offbeat mixture of Isaiah Berlin and Clive James" which Colls was happy to take as a compliment.
TV Radio and Journalism
He has written for Prospect and The New Statesman and regularly for The Literary Review.
He has written and broadcast for television and radio, including The South Bank Show (on Lee Hall), Who Do You Think You Are? (on Alan Carr). Analysis (on gentlemen), The Verb (on intellectuals), In Our Time (on Animal Farm), From Our Own Correspondent (on Donald Trump), Ramblings (in the steps of the Jarrow Crusade) and The Matter of the North (with Melvyn Bragg).
He has brought to this side of his work an appreciation of popular culture influenced both by his understanding of its critical importance and also by his sheer enjoyment of it (notably pop music, film, Leicester City and Newcastle United).
He has been:
- a Visiting Fellow at St John’s College Oxford
- a Mellon Fellow at Yale
- a Fulbright Scholar at Mississippi
- a Gambrinus Fellow at Dortmund
- a Leverhulme Senior Research Fellow.
Colls is currently writing a history of sporting culture in England and (with Jeremy Crump) a history of the Primitive Methodist Connexion
(with Richard Rodger), Cities of Ideas: Governance and Citizenship in Urban Britain (Ashgate 2004)
Articles, Chapters and Reviews
"The People's Orwell", in Clare Griffiths, James Nott and William Whyte, (eds.), Cultures, Classes and Politics: Essays in British History for Ross McKibbin (Oxford University Press 2011)
"Gael and Northumbrian: Separatism and Regionalism in the UK 1890-1920", in E Storm and J Augusteijn, (eds.), Nation and Region: Nation-building, Regional Identities and Separatism in 19th-century Europe (London 2011)
"Letter from North Haven, or What the President Should Do Next", in Political Quarterly, 82, 1, Jan-Mar 2011
"The Lion and the Eunuch: National Identity and the British Genius", in Political Quarterly, 82, 3, Oct-Dec 2011
"English Journeys", in Prospect, July 2007
Debate on Krishan Kumar's The Making of English National Identity with John Hutchinson, Susan Reynolds, Anthony D Smith, Krishan Kumar, in Nations and Nationalism, 13, 2, April 2007. pp 179–203.
"After Bagehot: Rethinking the Constitution", in Political Quarterly, 78, 4, 2007, pp 518–527.