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.