Bullets and Bayonets

The Cornish Coast Murder (British Library Crime Classics)

Spoilers for The Cornish Coast Murder throughout.

One of the things that this extraordinary summer has allowed me to do has been to catch up on reading my way through my shelf of ‘to be read’ books. I don’t mean that the shelf has become emptier; I have been buying nearly as many books as I have read. Nonetheless, I have finally read all but one of the books that were waiting to be read when we moved house two and half years ago. (Wade Davies’ mammoth Into the Silence at over 600 pages is still proving too much of a challenge; I will tackle it eventually.) So last week I finally got around to reading John Bude’s The Cornish Coast Murder, one of several British Library Crime Classics editions that were given to me as a Christmas present several years ago.

The Cornish Coast Murder, first published in 1935, the same year that Dorothy L. Sayers published Gaudy Night, as Martin Edwards points out in his introduction, is very much a standard Golden Age detective novel of the puzzle variety. That is, the focus of the narrative is on the murder plot, with very little in the way of characterization. Indeed, the characters are such archetypes that the key players tend to be referred to as the Inspector, the Vicar or the Doctor (although we are given their names and some physical description). The interest and momentum of the book is generated by uncovering the method of the crime (including possibly the first description of the sort of forensic tracing of bullet trajectory popularised by early series of CSI), with contemplation of motives and morality reduced to an afterthought in the final few chapters. It thus fits well into Alison Light’s description of the interwar whodunit as ‘a literature of convalescence’, ‘as insensible to violence as it could be. … As many critics have noted (usually dismissively) it is the lack of emotional engagement in the detective fiction between the wars which matters.’ [1]

So no, The Cornish Coast Murder is not one of the great novels of the Golden Age. This is no The Nine Tailors (1934), The Beast Must Die (1938)or even And Then There Were None (1939). But it is of particular interest to a social and cultural historian of the First World War with an interest in detective fiction on two counts. Firstly, there are the various suspects and witnesses. Since writing my Phd, half of which looked at the figure of the wartime hero in interwar detective and crime fiction, I have been on the hunt for ex-servicemen, and particularly disabled ex-servicemen, in such fiction. The Cornish Coast Murder stands out for having not just one such character, but four. Two of them are said to be suffering from a psychological wound of war. Three of them are suspects, one a witness and one, ultimately, the murderer. The second, related, aspect of interest is the murder weapon, a service revolver, described in some detail. Indeed, as with ex-service characters, there is not merely one but a second which acts as a significant red herring for much of the novel.

Taken together, these two aspects of the novel mean that there is an awful lot of war and its legacy, for both individuals and society, in this book. This stands in direct contrast to Marzena Sokolowska-Paryz’s assertion that ‘In the interwar period, detective fiction retained its distinctive autonomy as a genre, refusing to embrace the subject matter of the war or its repercussions in the present.’ [2] In making her argument, Sokolowska-Paryz quotes John Scraggs’ assertion that ‘The Golden Age fixation with the upper class, or the upper middle class, is further compounded in British fiction of the period by the fact that the physical and social settings are so isolated from the postwar depression that it is as if the Great War never happened.’ [3]

These are pretty extraordinary assertions. One only has to have even a passing acquaintance with the works of Dorothy L. Sayers to take issue with both of them. The war and its legacy for the present are central to her novels, whether in the form of her shell-shocked ex-service detective (Whose Body? (1923)and passim), plots which turn on the ex-service status of suspects and victims (The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club (1928), The Nine Tailors (1934)), or passing references to social impacts such as the refugee crisis and ex-service employment or lack thereof (Whose Body?, Clouds of Witness (1926), The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, Gaudy Night). Sayers, to be sure, is something of an outlier within the genre, both in the sophistication of her novels as socially reflexive literature and the extent to which the war is referenced throughout, but she is certainly not alone. Examples of war reference can be found in the work of Ngaio March (Enter a Murderer (1935)) and, of course, both Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings have wartime backgrounds. Like these, what Bude’s plethora of ex-service characters demonstrates is the extent to which the war underpinned everything in interwar society. It did not need to be made the explicit subject of interwar detective fiction (although it could be); its violent legacy, including moral panics over both the brutalisation of ex-servicemen by war service and, conversely, the psychological damage inflicted by war which might lead them to lose control which forms the definition of Ronald Hardy’s shellshock in Bude’s novel, is always there, emerging at various times and in various ways, as it must have done off the page as well as on.

Sokolowska-Paryz and Scraggs’ arguments, and indeed Light’s, can thus be read as an interesting manifestation of the debate about what makes for an ‘authentic’ depiction of the war by post-war fictions. This debate has been going on since at least 1919, and not solely in relation to literary fiction. As Mark Connelly has argued, for the film critic Annie Winifred Ellerman, who wrote under the pseudonym Bryher, ‘realism about the war could mean one thing – only its horrors and miseries. This ideological position then categorically denied that chivalry, honour, or bravery were part of the reality of war. Alternatively, if they were accepted, they were either wasted in such an ignoble pursuit and/or such a tiny component of war as to be irrelevant. In turn, this meant that any depiction that foregrounded these qualities was inherently flawed, and worse still, fundamentally immoral.’ [4] Conversely, Cyril Falls, the literary critic and ex-serviceman, complained in 1959 that ‘The flood of anti-militarist literature, for the greater part fiction, which poured from the presses, deriding the leadership from top to bottom, treating patriotism as a vice when not a fraud, as it was bathed in blood and rolled in mud, was astonishing. It was far from being representative’.[5] While two sides to the debate of what constitutes an ‘authentic’ representation of the war clearly emerged in the interwar period, it is interesting that the Bryher position seems to have come so clearly to dominate contemporary criticism of the detective genre. If it isn’t brutally realist and violent, then it is not, by Sokolowska-Paryz, Scraggs or Light’s argument, a depiction of or reference to the war and its social legacy in Britain. While Sokolowska-Paryz does discuss the more heroic representation of the war in Anne Perry’s Joseph Reavley novels in her analysis of contemporary detective fictions about the war, these form only one of the five series she examines, with all the others adhering to the disillusionment narrative.

Webley Mk IV Revolver

Which brings us to the second interesting element of The Cornish Coast Murder, namely the service revolver. In Bude’s novel, the revolver (or rather the two revolvers, one belonging to the shell-shocked suspect Ronald Hardy and one belonging to the murderer) is the subject of much discussion and description. Both are Webley .45s, the standard issue service revolver during the war, with the Mark VI replacing the Mark IV and V from 1915. Issued to officers, pipers, range takers, airmen, naval crews, trench raiders, machine-gun teams and tank crews, service revolvers were not carried by every serviceman but nor were they reserved solely for the officer corps. Thus while Hardy’s monogrammed revolver reflects his former rank as a junior officer and his social status as a middle-class author, the murderer, a manual labourer, ‘scrounged [his] in France, before being demobbed in ’19, and several rounds of ammunition.’ [6] One of the suspects, Cowper, the groundsman at Greylings, served as a Lance Corporal in an undisclosed regiment but never handled a revolver during his service.

While two service revolvers in one novel is slightly unusual, these weapons appear with some regularity in interwar detective fiction. Christie, who as a pharmacists during the war, knew more about poisons than guns, tended to label the pistols that appeared in her novels as ‘army service revolvers’. Sayers, meanwhile, has the murdered in The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club shoot himself in the head. The type of gun used is not specified, but given the setting of a serivemen’s club (and the themes of the war and its legacy which are central to this book in particular), the reader might easily conclude that the weapon was a service revolver.

What is interesting is the extent to which in more contemporary detective fiction with a wartime or interwar setting, the service revolver has, in large part, been displaced by the bayonet as a weapon with wartime associations. [7] On my recent rewatching of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, for example, I was interested to note that bayonets were used twice, once as a murder weapon in Dead Weight (2013) and once by a disabled ex-serviceman when confronted with evidence of drug theft from a medical clinic in Blood and Money (2015). Sokolowska-Paryz points to the symbolic significance of the bayonet as the murder weapon in Rennie Airth’s Rivers of Darkness (1999), noting that the ‘sexual overtones of the killings is made apparent through the psychoanalytic meaning of the bayonet’ as a substitute penis. [8]

The symbolism of the bayonet, however, goes beyond its Freudian overtones. As Paul Hodges has argued, it was a weapon fetishized during the war and after as one of masculine aggression and face-to-face combat in ways which led to its use in wartime atrocities such as the killing of prisoners of war and the wounded. [9] Used in infantry training to instill aggression in the private soldier, its use as a weapon in modern industrialised warfare was generally perceived by servicemen as futile, a throwback to an earlier age. It is thus the symbolic inverse of the service revolver, a middle-class officer’s weapon associated with duty and honour and fired from a distance. Even when duty leads to violence and the taking of life, there is always an explicable motive, including the defense of the domestic, a common justification for war service. The distance between murder and victim, meanwhile, is particularly emphasized in The Cornish Coast Murder by the fact that the murderer fires from a boat, requiring three widely spaced shots to hit his target. The revolver, therefore, comes closer to wartime artillery as a fatal force, a distanced and almost random form of killing.

The service revolver and the bayonet can thus be read as emblematic of the two interpretations of the war at the heart of the debate over authenticity – the technologically advanced form associated with honourable (or at least explicable) motivations and the middle-class officer corps and the brutal, apparently futile form associated with psychopathy and men damaged physically or psychologically by war. It is interesting to note that there appears to have been a decisive shift from one to the other as the symbolic weapon of the war between detective fictions of the interwar period and those of the past quarter century which have the war as its setting. As I start to think about the wider implications of this shift for understandings of the war and its legacy, I would be interested in hearing about appearances of both weapons in other fictions, both then and now. I promise not to wait as long to read them as I did with The Cornish Coast Murder.

[1] Alison Light, Forever England: Femininity, Literature and Conservatism Between the Wars (London: Routledge, 1991), p.70.

[2] Marzena Sokolowska-Paryz, ‘The Great War in Detective Fiction’ in The Great War: From Memory to History, ed. by Kellen Kurschinski, et. al. (Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 2015), p.84.

[3] John Scraggs, Crime Fiction (London: Routledge, 2005), p.48.

[4] Mark Connelly, ‘The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands (1927) and the Struggle for the Cinematic Image of the Great War’ in The Great War, ed. by Kurschinski, et. al., p. 317.

[5] Cyril Falls, The Great War (New York: Putnam, 1959), p. 421, quoted in Ian Andrew Isherwood, Remembering the Great War: Writing and Publishing the Experiences of World War I (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2017), p. 160.

[6] John Bude, The Cornish Coast Murder (London: The British Library, 2014; first published London: Skeffington & Son, 1935), p. 275.

[7] By bayonet I mean here the rifle bayonet; interestingly, the Webley Mk VI could be modified to take a small bayonet as well.

[8] Sokolowska-Paryz, ‘The Great War in Detective Fiction’, p. 94.

[9] Paul Hodges, ‘They Don’t Like It Up ‘Em!’: Bayonet fetishization in the British Army during the First World War’, Journal of War & Culture Studies, 1:2 (2008), 123-138, DOI: 10.1386/jwcs.1.2.123_1.

What’s in a Name?

Cover of The New York Times, 24th May, 2020

I was in Cambridge on 11th September, 2001, but I went home to New York City for the Christmas holiday that year. My memory of that holiday is dominated two experiences: first seeing the city skyline without the domination of the Twin Towers as the cab drove me from JFK to Manhattan, and sitting for days at a time on the sofa in my father’s tiny apartment on 79th and Broadway reading the obituaries of those who died in the New York Times. Every day the paper included several pages of these, brief biographies, some accompanied by photographs, of the cross-section of New Yorkers and Americans who had lost their lives so inexplicably and suddenly. I found my old babysitter and a girl I had studied history of art there; I was introduced to firemen and cleaners, bankers and parents, real people with real lives cut brutally short.

On Sunday, the New York Times again placed a list of the dead at the heart of its publication, this time a list of those who lost their lives to Covid-19 as the number of pandemic fatalities in the US neared 100,000, over 30 times the number who died on 9/11. This time there was no space for pictures, even the short life stories of the 9/11 obituaries. Instead the front page lists names, ages, place of residence and, for most, a brief phrase describing something which made that person unique. These descriptions range from the banal through the humorous to the startling. They capture working lives, domesticities, private passions. They help to illustrate the claim of the sub-heading that these ‘were not simply names on a list. They were us.’

In all, the front page, and the continuation on page 12, lists 1,000 names, 1% of the marked death toll. It is, for me, as for so many others, profoundly moving in its personalisation of the loss that this pandemic is causing, not just in the US but across the world. But does it, as my cousin, who specialises in the visualisation of enormous numbers, asked, really convey the scale of this loss? Remembering these people as individuals is important, he implied, but in doing we lose a sense of the enormity of what 100,000 deaths really looks like.

The tension that my cousin is flagging here is one that has shaped commemorative practice for over a century, at least in the Anglophone world. While epidemic and pandemic illness have shaped society through extensive and profound loss of life for centuries, the First World War (and the ‘flu pandemic which followed it) brought this tension into focus as concentrated mass death occurred for the first time in a world of the nation state and global communication. Each death in and of itself was a personal tragedy and a loss to a community, but it was also, in the case of the deaths in war service, a death in the service of the state and thus required a more public marking. In Britain, this came in the form of casualty lists, published initially daily in the press, and later, as the numbers grew, weekly. Visually, these lists bear a startling resemblance to the New York Times cover, although they include none of the personalising details, only name, rank and unit of service.

It was after the war, however, that the process of naming the dead as a way of remembering them as individuals rather than as part of a mass truly came into its own in Britain. The decision not to repatriate the dead meant that traditional forms of naming on gravestones were precluded for all who died overseas. The loss of bodies meant that, for many, even a corner of a foreign field was an impossibility. Instead the names themselves became the markers and the memorials, both at home and overseas. It is impossible to travel around Britain without encountering a memorial listing the names of the dead – churches and churchyards, in schools and universities, on railway station concourses and street corners. The pattern is repeated in memorials overseas, most notably Lutyen’s monumental arches at Thiepval, with their overwhelming list of the 73,000 names of the missing of the Somme.

Panel of names, Thiepval Memorial, Thiepval

Thiepval seems, one way, to illustrate the problem of naming as a way of commemorating the enormity of mass death through naming. The scale of the memorial is such that it is impossible to see some of the names in its highest reaches from the ground. The names of the dead on my local village war memorial may mean little to me as an incomer of three years’ standing, but I can still read each and acknowledge them as individuals in a way that the sheer scale of Thiepval precludes. Unlike Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial, which most notably took on the tradition of naming as commemorative practice in the US, those visiting Thiepval cannot touch the names, as those visiting Washington often do. Sensory connection, whether of eye or fingertip, seem to be denied. The visitor to Thiepval risks being overwhelmed by the size, the number, the enormity of so many names who cannot be comprehended as individuals.

Blackshaw Head War Memorial

And yet Thiepval remains one of the most profoundly moving memorials to British war losses, inspiration for at least two generations of historians and cultural critics. The invocation of names, with their assertion of an individuality, and individual loss, mirrored in the gravestones of the Commonwealth War Cemeteries across the world, aids our perception of the scale of loss, rather than distracting from it. Smaller local war memorials can have a similar effect, particularly once one is aware of their prevalence. The relentlessness of encounter wherever one travels in Britain serves to bring home the sheer number of dead as profoundly as any weekly gazette of casualties or daily listing of obituaries. The dead are many, but they are not numbers. They are names – of soldiers, students, workers, congregation members, parents, children, siblings. This, then, is the power that the mass listing of names has in commemorative practice, to bridge the gap between the unknown individual and the incomprehensible scale of loss. Names make not just the dead but the meaning of their deaths as one of many known to us. They never were just names on a list, then or now. They were, they are us.

Why I haven’t been posting on my blog

I had all the best intentions. I was going to post regular on my –

[‘Mummy, is my porridge ready?’ ‘No, can you get ready to do Joe Wicks, it will be ready when you are done.’ ‘Don’t want to do Joe Wicks.’ ‘You need some sort of exercise. If you don’t do Joe Wicks, I’ll have to take you for a long walk later.’ ‘Fine, I’ll do Joe Wicks but it’s so unfair. This is the worst day of my life!’ *loud stomping*]

blog. I was going to write about the links between Covid-19 and the history of wartime medicine. I was going to write about the militarisation of medical language. I –

[‘Mummy! He’s pushing me!’ ‘I’m not! She’s getting in my way!’ ‘For goodness sake! You stand there; you stand there. Face the television and watch what you are supposed to be doing!’]

was going to keep a daily diary, an outlet for my anxieties, a record of the social history of –

[‘Right, you go have a bath and you go practice your piano.’ ‘But he always has a bath first and do I have to do my piano?’ ‘I want to do my piano.’ ‘Fine. You do you piano and you have a bath.’ *5 minutes later* ‘That’s enough water! Please can you do that again – and don’t rush this time.’ *dramatic sighs all round*]

corona virus, a boon to future generations of historians.

But of course it hasn’t happened. Partly because –

[‘Are you out of the bath? Dressed? Right, come do your piano please while your brother has a bath.’ ‘No!’ ‘You need to do your piano practice.’ ‘Want to do it later.’ ‘No, you are going to do it now.’ *stomping, followed by discordant banging on the keyboard over the sound of running water*]

not a lot of what I have to say feels very original. The comparisons with the 1918 flu –

[‘Time to get out of the bath, please.’ ‘What work do I have to do?’ ‘Do I have to do writing?’ ‘I don’t understand this maths.’ Can I work in my bedroom?’ ‘Not if you are going to listen to Harry Potter while you work.’ ‘But I work better listening to things.’ ‘Mummy, is strange a noun, verb, adjective, adverb, or preposition?’ ‘Go get you dictionary and look it up.’ ‘No! Why do I have to! This is too hard! I hate you!’ ‘Are there 180 degrees in a right angle?’ ‘I can’t answer you both if you talk to me at the same time!’]

have been relentless, and the subject isn’t really my area of specialism. Discussing the resilience of medical caregivers –

[‘Can I make coffee?’ ‘Go on then.’ ‘Mummy, what does this mean?’ ‘What does what mean?’ ‘This.’ ‘Which one are you talking about? Show me.’ ‘This one!’ ‘Which of these sentences is an example of a modal verb? Hang on, let me check what a modal verb is.’ ‘Here’s your coffee, Mummy.’ ‘Thank you, sweetie.’ *spends the next five minutes wiping up spilled coffee grounds, dripped coffee and biscuit crumbs* ‘What’s for lunch?’ ‘Soup.’ ‘Don’t want soup, we always have soup, why can’t we have pasta!’ ‘Because I can’t get pasta from the shops.’ ‘It’s not fair! I never, ever get what I want and you always get what you want!’ ‘Please just get on with your work.’]

feels unnecessary with all the articulate voices of medical caregivers bearing moving witness to that resilience. Yes, there will come a time to –

[‘I’ve finished my worksheets.’ ‘Have you done BBC Bitesize?’ ‘But the internet isn’t working.’ *checks internet connection* ‘Yes, it is, you just have to wait for the page to load.’ ‘Stupid computer! I hate you! – Oh, now it’s working.’]

unpick the meaning of heroism as it has been applied to key workers, but I’m not sure that it has come yet. And as for my own stresses and strains –

[‘I’m hungry!’ ‘Fine, I’ll get lunch. Can someone lay the table, please?’ *I lay the table* ‘If you’ve finished, can you put your dishes in the dish washer, please?’ ‘Do I have to? She’s not doing it!’ ‘She will do it when she finishes her fruit.’ *dramatic sighs* *I clear my dishes, wash up the cooking utensils, wipe down the table*]

I’m certainly not the only parent struggling to balance working from home, home school and keep my family fed and exercised. I am not the only –

[‘What do I do now?’ ‘Have you done Duolingo? Typesy?’ ‘Yes, yes.’ ‘Please can you tidy your room? Yes, you can listen to Harry Potter.’ ‘Where’s Dad?’ ‘He’s in the office, recording a lecture. Please don’t go in there – did you hear what I said? What are those things attached to the side of your head?!’ ‘Ears?’ ‘Well – use them!’]

struggling with anxiety about how to support my children’s mental and emotional health when they can’t see their friends, when I don’t know if they will be able to go back to school this year, when plans to visit family, both in the UK and in the US are indefinitely on hold.

And then there is the fact –

[‘I’ll take them for a bike ride.’ ‘Great. Have fun.’ ‘Mum, Dad’s taking us for a bike ride.’ ‘Yes, he told me, have fun.’ ‘Mummy, we’re going on a bike ride.’ ‘Yes, I know.’ ‘Where’s my helmet?’ ‘Where are my shoes?’ ‘I need socks, don’t I?’ ‘Do you really want to cycle in that skirt?’ ‘Have you seen the bike shed key?’ ]

that I am still at work. I am fortunate in not having had to scramble to put teaching on-line the way many of my colleagues have, but I have been supporting post-graduate students –

[‘Has the mail come?’ ‘I haven’t seen the mail man since you last checked the mail ten minutes ago.’ ‘I’m going to check anyway to see if my Beano has come.’]

who are anxious about funding, who can’t access vital archives, who are on the verge of submitting their dissertations and facing the prospect of remote vivas. I am still revising –

[‘What do I do now? I’m bored.’ ‘Why don’t you read a book? No, not one of your Beanos.’ ‘I don’t know what to read!’ ‘Fine, let’s go to your room to see if we can find something in the dozens of books on the bookshelf.’]

a REF impact case study, still working with a colleague to get the manuscript of a long-standing edited collection submitted to the publisher, still supervising –

[‘Mummy – he pushed me off the swing!’ ‘Mummy – she won’t let me have a turn on the swing!’ *sounds of conflict from the garden*]

my funded research project (although making very slow progress with any of the actual research myself). So I’m not getting very much writing –

[‘Can I watch television?’ ‘In five minutes.’ ‘But, Mum – !’ ‘Five minutes!’ ‘Mum, can I watch television?’ ‘Okay, okay, fine, watch television.’]

done, not even the book proposals I’m supposed to be writing, let alone anything else. Which is why I haven’t posted much on this blog.

[‘Mum, what’s for dinner? I’m hungry!’]

To hold the hot hand of the man who talks wild

There have been a lot of war metaphors thrown about since the start of the Covid-19 crisis. Donald Trump has styled himself as a ‘war’ president; commentators compare Boris Johnson to Churchill, both favourably and unfavourably; the ‘Blitz spirit’ has been invoked (and critiqued) as the public response to social distancing and lockdown; and manufacturing has, in an echo of the economic mobilisation of total war, been rallied to supply ventilators and other necessary medical supplies. Our language has become military  with talk of care workers and food supplier being on the ‘front line’, of shirkers and spivs and black markets. In my own home, having reached the end of fourteen days in self-isolation during which we were unable to get any food delivered other than milk and eggs (blessings be on our milkman!), my children have learned a great deal about the history of rationing – and how to bake bread.

But there is another, more difficult way in which the history of war has echoes in today’s crisis. Because, like so many battlefield casualties, those dying with or of Covid-19 are doing so far from their families. The emotional burden that this fact brings with it is something that the history of both British mourning practices and medical care in the First World War can tell us about.

The Victorian ideal of a ‘good death’ – the individual dying in bed surrounded by their loved ones with time to utter final profound, pious words – was, of course, always a myth. [1] That myth, however, was utterly demolished by carnage of the First World War. Men died in large numbers, far from their families. The technology of war had the power not merely to kill but to destroy, even obliterate bodies. The recording and reporting of deaths in such circumstances meant that official news could take time to reach families, often contained only the barest details and could, in some cases, be inaccurate. The result was the reinforcement of the importance of one mourning practice of the pre-war era, that of writing letters of condolence.

While official notification of death could be brief and brutal, a telegram informing the family that their loved one had been killed in action, died of wounds or was missing, it would almost always be followed, or indeed occasionally preceded, by a letter from a commanding officer. In many cases, this would then be followed by letters from the deceased man’s comrades; in some cases, particularly where a man was missing, presumed dead, extensive correspondences grew up between men’s families and the men of their military unit.

These letters were more detailed than the initial announcement, not only celebrating the character of the man in question, but also telling the story of his death. Depending on how well known the man was to his officer and comrades, these letters could be generic or personal in their description of men as individuals. But the detail they contained acknowledged the importance for families of knowing both that their loved one had been known as an individual and also how he had died. As E. K. Smith’s platoon sergeant wrote to his parents, he was ‘only too tell you what actually happened, & being as you say a parent myself, I know you would like even the smallest details concerning the sad event.’ [2]

The descriptions of the death itself could vary in detail, depending on when and where it happened. A death in the midst of an action could be more difficult to describe than one which occurred on quiet day in the line. Almost all, however, had one thing in common – the depiction of the death as ‘clean’ and usually quick. Gerald Stewart’s parents were reassured, for example, that ‘Your son was killed by a bullet and died without suffering any pain. He was not one whit mutilated, and as I looked down at his face as he lay in the battle field I remarked how bonny he looked.’ [3] W. Lindsey ‘was at the time of being wounded splendidly advanced and skilfully leading his men’ while A. R. William’s ‘died a soldier’s death giving his live saving the lives of his comrades.’ [4] Wartime letters of condolence did not seek to tell the truth of death to families who could not be there when their loved one died. Rather they sought to bring emotional solace by emphasising lack of suffering and even heroism in the face of death. While deaths from coronavirus may not lend themselves as clearly to stories of heroic action, the daily newspaper columns giving brief descriptions of those who died points to the need, both of families and society more broadly, to construct a narrative around individual deaths. The need to articulate death as meaningful only becomes more powerful when it occurs at a distance.

Not all or even most of those who died during the First World War did so on the battlefield, however. The system of medical evacuation, which emphasised clearing the ill and wounded from the field in order to leave it clear for combat, meant that many men died in one of the sites of medical care that made up the chain of evacuation. For men who made it as far back as a base or home hospital, there was the potential for their families to be by their sides. Wealthy families could pay to travel to and stay near where their loved one was hospitalised, even as far as the base ports in France. For the majority of families, such travel was beyond their means; in the case of fatal wounds and illness, grants were made available for families to travel to be with their loved ones at the point of death. The importance of such connections was acknowledged by the British state and society at the time.

However, even where money was available and families were able to travel, only a tiny minority were able to be at there for men dying in hospitals. And for men dying in Casualty Clearing Stations or dressing stations, family visits were never an option. For the vast majority of men dying in sites of care during the war, those by their sides at the end were care providers – nurses, chaplains and medical orderlies. To these men and women fell the task of ensuring not only that the story of a man’s death was told to his family but, even more importantly, that he did not die alone.

The emotional labour that this entailed was immense. George Swindell, a Royal Army Medical Corps stretcher bearer recalled the period he spent seconded to a moribund ward, nursing men whose wounds were too serious to treat alongside a chaplain, as one of the most difficult of his military service. [5] As Alice Kelly has noted in relation to nurses, ‘A large part of the … role was comforter, and all of the nurses’ accounts record the men seeking comfort from the author, both physically and mentally.’ [6] Chaplains, working in religious traditions of death bed visiting and vigil, might have some experience with this form of labour. Nurses and orderlies as a rule did not. Yet throughout the war they acted as bridges between the dying and their families, taking final messages to pass on to loved ones, reassuring the dying that they were cared for and not alone.

If the conditions reported on hospital wards in Spain and Italy are anything to go by, this is a form of labour that hospital staff will increasingly be required perform as part of their care for Covid-19 sufferers. The nature of the illness is such that they must be isolated from their family in extremis, and treated by carers shielded, where available, by extensive personal protective equipment. In such circumstances, where the dying sufferer is isolated, with limited physical contact with other people, the importance of communicating emotion between the sufferer and their loved ones becomes even more important. This will come, as it did for caregivers in the First World War, on top of immense physical strains to simply provide care for all those suffering.

Are there lessons to be learned from this history? Until comparatively recently, the emotional labour of carers was not the subject of much discussion. [7] And, as the late Sir Michael Howard noted, ‘historians may claim to teach lessons …. But “history” as such does not.’ [8] But in acknowledging the significance of the role that care providers, not just doctors and nurses but nursing assistants, orderlies, even cleaning staff, can potentially play in bridging the distance between the dying and those they love and who love them, we can, perhaps, more fully appreciate the care being given not only to the bodies of individual patients but to the psyche of society as a whole.

In 1917, Private W.H. Atkins wrote a poem in praise of the quiet heroism of the men of the Royal Army Medical Corps, including the nursing orderly:

Oh! it’s weary work in the white-washed ward,

Or the blood-stained Hospital base,

To number the kit of the man who was hit

And cover the pale, cold face,

To hold the hot hand of the man who talks wild

And blabs of his wife or his kids,

Who dreams he is back in the old home again,

Till the morphia bites, and he loses his pain

As sleep settles down on his lids. [8]

Today, in hospitals up and down the country and across the world, carergivers will be doing similar weary work. It may not earn as much recognition as the physical labour of medical caregiving or the danger that they will be putting themselves in of catching a potentially fatal illness. But this necessary emotional work is heroic nonetheless.

[1] Pat Jalland, Death in the Victorian Family (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996); David Cannadine, ‘War and Death, Grief and Mourning in Modern Britain’ in Mirrors of Mortality: Studies in the Social History of Death, ed. Joachim Whaley (London: Europa, 1981), pp.187-242.

[1] G. Gould, letter to Mrs. E. Smith, 24th January, 1916, Letters of E. K. Smith, Documents.2535, Imperial War Museums, London (IWM).

[2] Lt.-Col. S MacDonald, Letter to Mr Stewart, 14th April, 1917, Papers of G. Stewart, Documents.8572, IWM.

[3] W. Gillam, letter to Mr Lindsay, 4th August, 1917, Papers of W Lindsay, Documents.11765, IWM; Lt. Collinson, letter Mr Williams, Papers of A. R. Williams, Documents.4436, IWM.

[4] George Swindell, ‘In Arduis Fidelus: Being the story of 4 ½ years in the Royal Army Medical Corps’. TS memoir, RAMC 421, The Wellcome Library, pp. 118–19.

 [5] Alice Kelly, ‘”Can One Grow Used to Death?”: Deathbed Scenes in Great War Nurses’ Narratives’ in The Great War: From Memory to History, eds. Kellen Kurschinski, et. al. (Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 2015), p.338.

[6] Carol Acton and Jane Potter, ‘”These frightful sights would work havoc with one’s brain”: Subjective Experience, Trauma, and Resilience in First World War Writings by Medical Personnel’, Literature and Medicine 30(1), 61-85, here 62.

[7] Michael Howard, The Lessons of History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991), p.11.

[8] W. H. Atkins, ‘The R.A.M.C.’, The ‘Southern’ Cross 2 (June 1917).

1917 and All That

After a week of reading (and commenting on) reviews of 1917, I have finally had a chance to see it. And yes, it is good, very good. Not perfect, but very good indeed.

*Spoiler alert hereon in*

So, what works? The device of the ‘single continuous shot’ (which isn’t actually) is engaging and hugely propulsive, linking and driving the different episodes of the narrative to gripping effect. The depiction of landscape is visually impressive, particularly in its range and variety. The narrative allows for movement through a huge range of different spaces, each of which is beautifully evoked. In particular, the two transitions from the area behind the lines into the trenches, with the communication trenches rising organically from the land, are incredibly moving, while the nighttime scenes of Écoust lit by flares are, quite simply, works of art.

Some of the incidental (and not so incidental) details are lovely, and attest to the level of research undertaken. The ubiquity and size of rats, the visceral horror of crawling over the bloated bodies of the drowned, men’s ability to sleep where they drop, the importance of rumour as the way in which soldiers understood their situation, the humour they employed to wile away time, are all evocative, effective images and references which give the film a sense of emotional authenticity.

Many of secondary characterisations are also beautifully done. Impressively, while all are brief, almost none are black-and-white. Even the Germans are shown as humans with agency, neither solely evil nor solely victims. Of the recognisable cameos, while both Mark Strong and Benedict Cumberbatch are very good (the latter in particular capturing once again something ellusive about the paradoxical nature of British martial masculinity in the period), Andrew Scott’s turn as a lieutenant awaiting his relief after a long night in the lines, stands out as pure Journey’s End.

And that characterization is important for understanding what makes this film such a good film about the First World War. Because its basis is not in the history of the war, but rather in the history of its cultural representation. Yes, the script writers have read soldiers’ memoirs (and possibly also letters and diaries) as well as, I suspect, more historical analysis than they have admitted to. Yes, the costume and set designers have consulted with all the right historical consultants. But the film makers as a whole have also clearly been influenced by the films, fiction and poetry that have so profoundly shaped our understandings of the war over the past century. So, in addition to Journey’s End (1928), we get references to the visual trope of going over the top that has defined First World War films since The Battle of the Somme (1916), to the unheimlich of Wilfred Owen’s ‘Strange Meeting’ (1918), and to the final dramatic scene of Peter Weir’s Gallipoli (1981). This is a film as much about, and as rooted in, the artistic interpretation of the war as it is the war itself.

This positioning of the film does not detracted from its quality as a work of cinematic art in itself. But it does help to explain some of the problems with it, because it is not a perfect film. Yes, there are inconsistencies and inaccuracies of detail which, for someone with a deep familiarity with the war and its history, can have the effect of breaking into any suspension of disbelief. As a historian of medicine and the war, while I cheered the use of first field dressings, both to bind wounds and staunch blood, I was always going to notice the continuity error where a bandage disappears and then reappears, complete with a hastily tied knot that apparently managed to survive some pretty extreme activities. (I’m not sure what it is with continuity editors and First World War hand wounds, but referencing the disappearance and reappearance of Thomas’s hand wound in Downton Abbey was probably not the the effect they were aiming for.) And having a man put his wounded hand into a corpse without any reference to the heightened risk of infection (even when he ends up at a medical unit a day later) feels like a wasted opportunity for an otherwise striking historical detail.

As for the final scenes, while it nice to see so many stretcher bearers (not orderlies, as per the script), both regimental and RAMC, represented, did they really all have to be two to a stretcher with no harnesses? Bearer units were four to a stretcher for reasons. Equally, their negotiation of the trenches rather defies belief, particularly in the year when the British Medical Journal was publishing articles about the difficulties bearers faced in moving standard stretchers around the corners of trenches. Oh, and that medical unit? It is a dressing station, not a Casualty Clearing Station (CCS), as claimed by Major Hepburn.

Are these niggly little details which won’t affect the viewing enjoyment of those who haven’t spent nearly ten years researching the history of British medical care provision in the war? Yes, of course they are. Even as they affected my ability to suspend my disbelief, they didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the film as a film. And, if nothing else, they have given me a very good argument to present to a publisher of the need for a good accessible history on this subject. But they are not the only, or even the main reason why I call this a very good but not a great film, although the classification of a dressing station as a CCS is symptomatic of the wider problem.

That wider problem, bluntly, is the necessity for films to compress historic realities. There isn’t the time for the film to portray the slog of several hours, over relays between multiple dressing stations, that was the reality of evacuation to a CCS. So dressing stations, and the work of Field Ambulance bearers and orderlies disappear, with space and time collapsed to represent an over-simplified image of the medical evacuation process.

As I say, this won’t be a problem for the vast majority of viewers, but it isn’t a narrative issue limited to medical evacuations. Unfortunately, it also effects the relationship between the two central characters in ways that are confusing and ultimately problematic for the film itself. On the one hand, Blake and Schofield are part of the same regiment, comrades in arms under the authority of the same chain of command from their sergeant on up. They know each other and they know (a bit) about each other. On the other hand, their partnership is presented as accidental, a result of proximity as much as of intimacy. This allows their backstory to be told through their conversation, which is a useful dramatic device, but it robs the relationship of any sense of the intimacy that developed between men who shared lives in the trenches. [1] The result of this apparent lack of connection between the characters is that it undermines the emotional connection forged with the audience. Ultimately, I found myself unmoved either by Blake’s death or Schofield’s contemplation of his family photographs. The importance of these men as individuals, with emotional lives beyond their immediate surroundings, was never developed enough for me to care about them as anything other than carriers of the film’s driving adventure narrative.

This, of course, is a key difference between the time-limited fictional representation of a film and a historian’s engagement with the historical sources which underpin. Reading a collection of letters or a diary covering months and years of war can demonstrate the development of a man’s (or woman’s) character over time, but it can, at times, be incredibly dull. Much of war is extremely boring, and that is reflected in the source material. Most men who served in the war were not great stylists. Their diaries and even many of their letters home are filled with in jokes, family gossip relating to unknown individuals and endless quotidian details about what they had for dinner or how cold the weather is. Films, particularly commercial films, cannot afford to be boring in this way, and 1917 is anything but boring. The compression of the narrative into just under two hours means that choices have to be made, and in this case the choice was made to flatten characterisations for the sake of narrative propulsion. It is, I think, a valid artistic choice in this case, but it has to be acknowledged as that, an artistic choice about how to represent the war. The history, and the men who made it, are inevitably more complex and complicated than any single film can capture.

So, a very, very good film rather than a great one and one which tells us more about the way in which we remember the war than about the war itself. However, as well as enjoying the film, I remain fascinated by the way in which it is being used by reviewers to project their own ideas about the history and meaning of the war, with The Guardian characteristically identifying it a pacifist film (it isn’t) and Variety locating firmly in the history of Hollywood films. And I think it has a great deal to say about the way in which our reading of the war has evolved over time, not least over the course of the centenary period. In fact, I would suggest that this film marks a good moment for Dan Todman to update The Great War: Myth and Memory (2005) to include another generation’s worth of interpretations of the war.

So, as a historian and teacher of history, would I recommend 1917 to students of the history of the war? Only in conjunction with primary sources to illuminate and deepen understanding of its representation. Would I use it as a source for teaching the history of the memory of the war and its cultural representation in Britain? In a heartbeat. It has earned its place in the canon of great Great War fictions.

[1] Joanna Bourke, Dismembering the Male: Men’s Bodies, Britain and the Great War (London: Reaktion Books, 1996), Chapter 3.

Uncertain and Afraid

I sit down to write this at a quarter past eight (GMT) on New Year’s Eve. As has become my habit, since I started this blog, I want to take the opportunity to pause, as so many others do at this time of year, and assess all that has passed since I last wrote such a post. Like many of those others, this time I will also be reflecting on the changes the past ten years have wrought. While I know pedants will point out that the new decade doesn’t start until 2021, as a mathematician’s wife I believe in the reality and power of zero, and the the changing of the third as well as the fourth digit of the year seems a good moment to plant a marker in time.

Over the past six years, I have written about hard years, and harder ones. I have written about poetry, both that which has accompanied me since childhood and that which I have discovered more recently. I have written of my family and of my work, of triumphs and of troubles. I have tried, throughout, to write with hope. I hope this evening that, despite the title of this post, I can continue that tradition.

So, how has the last decade been for me? Hard is probably the right word for it. In January 2010 I was the married mother of a young son with a PhD but no career. My first book had been published for just under a year. I lived in a rented house without a garden in a city that, after two and half years, I was starting to learn to call home. I had a loving family, many of them far away. I was teaching myself to bake bread and trying, for the first time since I was an undergraduate, to write fiction. I wasn’t sure where I was going or what I was doing.

In the intervening years I have had my second child (a daughter) and written my second book. I have found and forged an academic career, winning two significant grants and moving from an ‘early career academic’ to a mid-career one. I have developed new skills as a teacher and public speaker. With my husband, I have bought two houses and sold one, both with gardens. I no longer live (although I still work) in the same city, but feel that yes, I have come home. I have gained a niece and a nephew (as well as an honourary niece and a goddaughter); I have lost both my parents. I have learned to cope with long-term illness in those I love best. I no longer bake bread but have become very good at preserving, particularly marmalade and sloe gin. I am teaching myself to quilt and am trying, for the first time in a decade, to write fiction. I sleep less and run (and shout) more. Robert Frost and W.H. Auden are still my favourite poets.

So where does this leave me, on the cusp of the new decade, one which many people are hailing as holding the possibility of being the new ‘Roaring Twenties’? As a historian of that decade, I can’t but be ambivalent about such predictions. The Twenties, after all, were, for many, a decade marked as much by violence, displacement, disability, poverty, joblessness and illness as by bootleg gin, jazz and art deco styling. This was the decade of the British General Strike and the art of Otto Dix, of the Irish War of Independence (and associated Civil War) and the Scopes Monkey Trial. And there are enough echoes in both the politics and public discourse of the present to make me feel wary. Like Auden, writing about the following decade, I cannot help but feel ‘uncertain and afraid/ As the clever hopes expire / Of a low, dishonest decade.’ [1]

This sense of uncertainty and fear is reflected in my feelings about my personal life. This coming year will see the end of the funding for my current project. I need to write up that research in some form(s) and work out what the next project is, and while I have some ideas for both, ideas which excite and enthuse me, I don’t have the energy I did a decade ago. I look back on the woman that I was and wonder how I could have achieved so much in such a short space of time. I can’t do that again, nor anything like it.

As I say, I still love my subject. I want to read and to write and to teach and to talk about it. But I cannot do it in the way I have been. Grief, and family life, and private passions have become part of my being in a way they weren’t a decade ago. I am still learning how to live with the weight they bring, the space they occupy as a professional historian.

So looking forward, for me I am not sure that the Twenties will roar. Instead, they will be slower, perhaps more considered, a time of conserving energy and prioritizing passions, of learning how to give of myself without losing myself. There will be more reading, and more writing, but probably more fiction and less history. There will, I hope, be a lot of gardening and cooking (although not immediately, as we are on the verge of ripping out and replacing our kitchen, an act weighted with a symbolic mixture of hope and frustration). There will be friends and family, new and old, near and far.

I don’t know if those ambitions and expectations are as hopeful as those I have looked forward to in earlier years, but they are what I have to fortify myself against exhaustion, uncertainty and fear. However modest or ambitious, I hope your own hopes for the coming year and years are fortifying and fulfilling.

Wishing you a very happy new year, one and all.

[1] W. H. Auden, ‘September 1st, 1939’, lines 3-5.

The Past is Personal

IMG_4813‘What do you think?’

It is a cold, wet morning in October last year and I am standing in an old Jewish cemetery in Hackney, looking at a newly unveiled sign, formed out of an old steel beam. On the plaque are etched the words:

Here lie Helena and Lehmann Glückstein.

Matriarch and patriarch of the family,

who founded the catering firm J. Lyons

and the tobacco retailer Salmon & Gluckstein

Whose legacy was:

Find a safe place. Love your family and friends.

Give back to society. Savour the good things.

Tell your story.

Pass it on.

What do I think? To be honest, I don’t know what to think. I am experiencing one of the worst weekends of my life. A carefully constructed complex of plans – to visit family, meet up with one of my mother’s oldest friends, attend this unveiling and deliver a keynote address – had all but foundered on the shoal of sudden family illness which had sent me pelting back from Doncaster to Hebden Bridge for a night, before trying again, with a revised schedule, the next day.

So here I am. My toes are freezing and I am fathoms deep in grief for my mother who had died two months before. She is the one who should have been here. This bit of family history was her project, the words on the memorial one of the last things we know that she heard, read out by my sister so that she could give her approval. I am here as her representative, and trying to express what she would have thought about this – the ceremony, the memorial – are beyond my ability to articulate or even, I realise, comprehend.

But if I am here to stand in for my mother, I am also here in my own right, both as a descendant of Helena and Lehmann, and as one of two professional historians present. The other is my interlocutor, Thomas Harding, my third cousin and the prime mover of this memorial project and the gathering we are at. He is also the author of the book, Legacy: One Family, a Cup of Tea and the Company that Took on the World, which was the original basis for both.

Nine months later, after the birth of my niece and nephew in the US, after the second memorial celebrating my mother’s life, after grief has had a chance to work its way into my heart and become part of my day-to-day life, I will read the book.  It will take me several weeks, read in gulps and dribbles between my commitments to work and childcare.

And what do I think of the book?

I’m still not quite sure I know. I cannot make the judgement as to whether or not it is an informative, perceptive, well-written history; I simply do not have that objectivity and, purely based on accepted professional ethics, I shouldn’t be reviewing it as all, as I, along with my siblings, appear in the acknowledgements. With my professional hat on, there are definite quibbles (is it really fair to quote an Orwell essay published in 1952 to illustrate a description of the Trocadero in 1897?), but this is a very different sort of history form that which I have written to date. As I try to write a more general ‘trade’ history of my own research, seeing how it can be done is extremely useful. And yes, I learned a huge amount, much of it absolutely fascinating, about the history of J. Lyons & Co. and its place in the social history of nineteenth and twentieth century Britain, as well as about the personal relations within the family. If the sign of a good book is the need to share it with others, then the many, many snippets and interesting facts I read aloud to my husband in bed in the evenings stand as testament to this one’s quality.

But in the end, I cannot read this book as I would any other history, academic or trade. It is, after all, the history of my family, or at least a partial history. As Thomas notes in the conclusion, the Salmon and Glückstein dynasties have, over the generations, developed an extraordinary number of off-shoots and ramifications, ranging across the globe. The impossibility of writing a comprehensive history of a family which contained 12 siblings in each of two generations and 14 in another (even if many didn’t survive childhood) means that strategies are needed to tell the family history of a family business empire. The one that Thomas has chosen is to focus on the lives and work of five men who form his own ancestry, Sam Salmon (his grandfather), Sir Isidore Salmon (his great-grandfather), Monte Gluckstein (his great-great uncle), Samuel Gluckstein (his great-great-great grandfather) and Lehmann Gluckstëin (Samuel’s father and the family patriarch).

In many ways, this strategy makes sense. Samuel was the entrepreneur behind the founding of Salmon & Gluckstein, Monte the moving force in turning the family firm into the empire that was J. Lyons and Co., Isidore the great example of the family’s assimilation into the British Establishment, Sam clearly Thomas’s closest personal tie to the family history as a remembered and clearly loved grandfather. For me, however, it was frustrating on two counts. Firstly, it left me with many questions about my own branch of the family.  Through my mother, I am descended from Julia Gluckstein, Samuel’s daughter, mother of Kitty, Isidore’s wife, and twin sister of Lena, herself Isidore’s mother (there is a notable tendency for cousins to marry in this generation of the family). Julia married Abraham Abrahams who, we are told in passing, drank whiskey, even in the mornings, and could be violent. This is not a comfortable history, but one I feel I should know more about than this book has (or perhaps can) give me.

Which relates to the second, larger source of frustration. While Julia and Abraham’s story is mentioned only in passing, as the context of Kitty and Isidore’s relationship, it becomes patently obvious throughout the sections on Monte that Julia’s twin, Lena, had a significant, not to say vital, role in the success and expansion of Salmon & Gluckstein. Lena is only the most obvious example because, although Thomas has chosen to focus on the men, the story of Salmon & Gluckstein, of J. Lyons, of ‘The Fund’ set up to share the profits across the family, is the story of women. It is the story of Helena, the family matriarch; it is the story of Lena, who managed the tobacconist business while her brother developed the catering firm; it is the story of Gluck, the gender non-conforming lesbian artist who flits in and out of the narrative across the twentieth century; it is the story of all the women of the family who were never allowed access to the ‘The Fund’ in their own right, with their dowries controlled by their fathers and brothers throughout the twentieth century; it is the story of Belinda, Thomas’s mother, whose voice provides much of the witness of later generations of the family.  Thomas acknowledges all this, but there remains a story to be told about these women themselves, rather than as part of a story structured around men.

But in the end, the telling of the story transcended these concerns for me. At its heart, as Thomas argues, it is a story of belonging, of finding a place in the world, in society, in a family, even if that place isn’t always secure or comfortable. The loss of my mother, with all its accompanying psychic dislocation, the selling of her apartment, which cut the last physical tie to the city of my birth, had shaken my sense of belonging – to Britain, to Yorkshire, to the academic community. But through this book I was able to at least start to find it again.

It was not just that Legacy introduced me to the history of my family in more depth and detail than I had known before (I had no idea of the important role the company had played in the development of ice cream as a leisure product in Britain). It was also, in part, my mother’s legacy to me, my siblings and our children. In the years before she died, she had, along with her cousin Susan, become deeply involved in researching the history of the family. Through Susan, she had been introduced to Thomas and had become involved in their plans for the memorial to Helena and Lehmann. That scene of her listening to the words of the memorial with us, her three children, gathered around her, is captured in the final pages of the book.

As a professional historian, I long resisted the tug of family history, proud as I have always been of its richness. I am still resisting, in many ways, telling myself that it can wait until the next book, the next project, the next grant application is complete. But now the years of research undertaken by my mother – the family trees which spread widthways across living room floors, the folders of letters, the books on nineteenth century catering – sit in three boxes in my office. My son has developed a passionate interest in the subject, asking to read the book. One day, and soon I suspect, I am going to have to open those boxes. They are going to become part of where I belong, professionally as well as personally.

So, as a historian, what do I think? I think that Thomas was right in the dedication he made in the copy of the book he gave to me and my siblings and, above all, in the words he chose for Helena and Lehmann’s memorial.

The past is personal. Tell your story. Pass it on.

Because Remembrance is more than an Act

The Unknown Soldier

 

When a delegate visits a foreign country,

He brings a crown of flowers for the grave of the Unknown Soldier.

 

If tomorrow, a delegate came to my country and asked me:

Where is the grave of the Unknown Soldier?

 

I would say: Sir,

At the bank of every stream

Under the dome of every mosque

At the doorstep of every house

Every church

Every cave

Under the boulder of every mountain

Under the branches of every garden in this country

Over every inch of earth

Under every yard of sky,

Don’t be afraid, bow your head, and there set down your crown of flowers.

Abdulla Pashew

This poem forms the epigraph to my brother’s book of photographs of Kurdistan: Sebastian Meyer, Under Every Yard of Sky, Red Hook Editions, 2019.

Writing/Not Writing

It is 3rd November. For the past week, I have been traveling with my children along the eastern seaboard of the US, visiting family members, including two very new additions in the form of my nephew and honourary niece. It has been a lovely, if exhausting half term, although I will admit that I am looking forward to spending some time away from my own children after ten days constantly in their company.

Being November, it is also both NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) and AcWriMo (Academic Writing Month). My Twitter feed is consequently full of friends, acquaintances and stranger posting their daily word counts, preparation spreadsheets, planned chapter breakdowns and research goals. As in previous years, these glimpses of others’ creative processes are inspiring and seductive. They also make me extremely jealous.

I would love to dedicate myself to a month-long writing marathon. It isn’t as if I don’t have plenty write, academic and otherwise. And I have been making some progress with all three academic projects, plus the two (yes, there is now a second) pieces of fiction that insist on intruding themselves into my creative brain space. But making the time and space to write every for a month? Ay, there’s the rub.

One AcWriMo video on YouTube offers to teach you ‘how to bend space and time to your will this November! Or, failing that, strategies to make all this writing fit into the life that you actually have, not the one you think you should have.’ Which sounds perfect, but I’m not sure that being on the road across three cities in ten days with two primary-school-age children and five bags is quite the real life the presenter had in mind. Even if I had the room to sit and write once the children were asleep (generally impossible in a shared hotel room with the lights switched out), I simply have not had the mental capacity to do anything other than switch off at the end of the day. And while we do arrive home tomorrow (hopefully to a car waiting for us at the train station and meal cooked by my husband) the combination of jetlag and all the stuff that will need catching up on after a week off work make carving out writing space on a daily basis a challenge I simply don’t think I am up to.

And yet here I am writing this. Nor has this trip been an entire void when it comes to making progress on various writing projects. A discussion with my sister-in-law has made me determined to actually complete the piece of fiction that I have made a 7,500-word start on, however long it takes. An afternoon walk around the monuments in DC in glorious autumn sunshine resulted in my finally working out what the Men, Women and Care book is going to be about, even if planning the actually outline was interspersed with tangential discourses on American history for the edification of my son. And the seven-hour train ride that we are currently embarked on as the first stage of our journey home looks to be providing a good opportunity to write not only this but also a bit more of the chapter on improvisation for the trade book on the RAMC that I am still determined to try to get an agent for.

So I many not have set pen to paper for the first two days of November. My chances of completing 50,000 words of fiction in the next three-and-a-bit weeks are slim-to-none, much as I would love to do so. And I will continue to produce my academic writing fueled by deadline-induced panic rather than the allocation of dedicated time on a daily basis. Maybe NaNoWriMo or AcWriMo will happen for me next year. I am sure that I will have things to write when they roll around again. In the meantime, if you are taking up the challenge of either (or both) this year, I wish you the best of luck and may the words (and the hours) be kind to you.

The Return of Downton Abbey

DowntonAbbey2019PosterI went to see Downton Abbey, the film, last night. Well, I had to, didn’t I, given that I have written about it with enough seriousness that I am seriously considering including my article on the television programme as part of my REF submission slate? And yes, I enjoyed it, a couple of hours of beautiful costumes and historical and dramatic silliness.

But goodness me, what a shaggy dog story of a narrative! Branson alone had three different plots – a Boys’ Own Paper adventure, a Mills & Boon romance and an encounter with Princess Mary that was so underdeveloped that it’s origins and significance were completely obscure. Given that pretty much every one of the major characters, both upstairs and downstairs, had their own plot lines (sometimes multiple), encompassing pregnancy (wanted and unwanted), illness, power struggles, theft and sexual jealousy, there really was far too much going on. There was also, particularly towards the end, some extremely heavy-handed special pleading for the significance of the aristocracy to national life which felt out of time. It was, as David Cannadine has argued, ‘the period since the Second World War [which] has seen the almost total disintegratin of patrician high society’. [1] I don’t believe that Lady Mary would have needed telling by anyone that the Big House formed the centre of community life c.1927.

There were other moments where, as so often with Downton, I found it hard to sustain my suspension of historical disbelief. The relationship between Princess Mary and Lord Lascelles was one, principally because, for all the focus on the King and Queen’s anxiety about their daughter and her relationship, the characters were entirely undeveloped. I don’t know enough royal history to comment on how accurate even this superficial representation of their relationship might be in relation to the historical record. However, the dramatic arc made no sort of psychological sense purely in terms of the portrayal of the characters as human beings.

The storyline that really had me yelling at the screen (internally at least, so as not to spoil the enjoyment of my viewing companions who had kindly included me on their evening out), however, was that involving, yet again, Thomas Barrow. I have noted before how Barrow’s identity as a gay man in an era when sexual activity between men was illegal and subject to prosecution has been used by the programme to obscure more interesting histories of medicine and war disability. This time, this identity was given a social, rather than a medical, storyline to make a plea for tolerance of difference in sexuality that was framed as modern beyond the scope of 1920s imagination. Yet just because sex between men was illegal in interwar Britain does not mean that it was either unimaginable or unknown at the time. Barrow’s naive wonder at the all-male dance club that he is taken to suggests a life entirely sheltered from same-sex encounters. Yet we know that he served as a soldier during the war, when the sight of men dancing together would not have been either unknown or particular shocking in male dominated spaces of rest and relaxation. Nor, indeed, as Helen Smith has pointed out, would Barrow have had to have left Yorkshire to encounter the idea of sex between men as part of a range of expressions of sexual desire (although the club itself appears to be a less likely phenomenon to be found in a city like York). As Smith notes:

Encounters took place all over the region, and were not limited to large towns and cities. … Away from work, men met in pubs, cafes, toilets, urinals and the street, often with the purpose of sex in mind. However, the north differed from London, as well as from large American cities such as New York and San Francisco, in that these venues of sex and socialisation did not become linked to form a distinct and often visible subculture. These examples of sex between men still operated under the veil of discretion and privacy … and this ensured that venues where men could meet other men for sex remained part of the wider landscape of working-class social life and entertainment. [2]

Smith’s argument is mainly concerned with working-class men in industrial occupations in the region. Working in domestic service in a rural location may have isolated Barrow, but I can’t quite believe that, at his time of life, he would be as innocent as he is portrayed here.

None of which is to suggest that I didn’t enjoy the film, not least because one of the pleasures of watching Downton for me has always been the opportunity to pick historical holes in the plot and presentation. But there were also incidental pleasures: drooling over the costumes, particularly the hats and tiaras, the former of which has inspired me to branch out from my collection of cloches to search for a) something like Lady Mary’s feminine pseudo-Homburg and b) an a-symetrical number as modeled by the incomparable Dowager Duchess of Grantham; the joy of  Maggie Smith out-act everyone else on screen with the mere lift of an eyebrow; watching Smith, Penelope Wilton and Imelda Staunton enjoying themselves doing what they love so well. And there were the cultural references, intended or not, which kept me amused throughout. From the visual reference of The Night Mail in the opening sequence through the BOP and Mills & Boon plots involving Branson already noted to the undeniable overtones of Bertie Wooster’s morning-after recollections in the raid on the nightclub, Julian Fellowes once again plundered the culture of interwar Britain for his ideas and images. There was even a bit of Laurel and Hardy slapstick in Mrs Patmore’s subversion of Mr Wilson.

So, yes, I enjoyed myself. The film ticks all the boxes I wanted it to – luscious visuals, good, comforting acting by familiar faces, some good, if rather obvious jokes, and just enough historical anachronism to keep me nicely irritated. I’m not sure I would recommend it as such, but I am glad to have seen it.

[1] David Cannadine, The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy (New York: Anchor Books, 1992), p.691.

[2] Helen Smith, Masculinity, Class and Same-Sex Desire in Industrial England, 1895-1957 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), p.154.