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.

Letters from the Past

It has been a long time since my last post. There is no specific reason. Life has remained busy, but not significantly busier than any other period in the years since I started this blog. But it has been harder to write, not just blog posts but everything – book reviews, articles, conference presentations, even emails. With the official publication of An Equal Burden in February, the pressure to write regularly has been lessened, and there has also been the on-going challenge of dealing with the emotions around my mother’s death.

The second of these has, I think, had the more profound impact on my failure to write here. In the first place, Mum was integral to this blog from the moment I set it up; from the start, she was my imagined audience, the person I so often wrote for. It was her voice in my ear telling me that my use of language was too academic, advising me to write shorter, clearer sentences, reminding to proofread multiple times before publishing. But there have also been other emotions that have arisen every time I have thought about writing here, relating to the points where my private and professional life intersect. Prime among these have been regret that Mum didn’t live long enough to see the book published – although she did get to see proofs of the cover – and guilt about how, as a social historian, I dealt with a very small part of my mother’s legacy.

It feels as if it is probably too late celebrate the book publication on here. There will be a formal launch in September (if I can ever pin down a suitable venue!) which may provide another opportunity. But, after several months of saying that I need to tell and reflexively explore the story of how I failed as a historian when clearing my mother’s apartment, this feels like the right time to do so, and, in doing so, start to revivify this blog.

So, the story. Mum died at the end of August 2018 in New York City. Both my siblings and I were at her side but both my sister (who lives in Colorado) had family and professional claims on us that meant we needed to return home soon after. There was no funeral but we made plans for a memorial service in the city in November, with my sister and I staying on for a week afterwards to help clear Mum’s apartment in preparation for its sale.

That week was, without question, one of the hardest of my life. We had moved to the apartment when I was 18 months old. It was the only childhood home my siblings had known, as well as being the place my mother drew her final breath. It had been renovated to suit her taste and was filled to the brim with her things – not only over 6,000 books but a lifetime’s collection of cooking equipment, bedding, family photographs and writings. There was all the medication from her final illness, but also all the audiotapes we had listened to on car rides as children, as well as enough stationary to keep a small company going for several years.

It took the three of us, supported by my brother- and sister-in-law, the full week to sort and clear the bulk of it. The most exhausting elements were the photographs and writings that my mother had stored in cupboards and boxes all over the house, sometimes in multiple copies. Either through a historical instinct to archive and preserve, or because I am naturally more sentimental, I chose to keep a larger number photographs and many of the papers relating to my mother’s education and professional life (although my brother has her computer hard drive, copied onto multiple external drives, a process which in itself took most of the week). I also took the bulk of the family archive, the documents relating to my mother’s parents and grandparents, including all the material she had collected researching her family’s history in her final years.

It was on the final day, the day my sister and her husband were flying out, the day before I was leaving to return to the UK, that it happened. I was going through the last few storage boxes in Mum’s bedroom that, somehow, hadn’t yet been looked at. Most contained books related to her teaching and additional copies of essays from her Master’s Degree course at Columbia. The books would be donated; the papers could be destroyed. But, right at the end, I cam across the two boxes of letters. The first was easy enough to deal with as it contained her correspondence with my father over the course of their courtship and marriage; those would come with me as part of her archive. The second also contained letters, but this time in many, and often unfamiliar, handwritings. Some were from names I knew; others were apparent strangers. It took me a moment to realise that this was the correspondence my mother had received as a young Englishwoman living in New York in the years before not only the internet but even inexpensive international telephony. They were letters from friends about her life and theirs, full of news and names, most of which meant little to me.

For several minutes I sat looking at this collection. I couldn’t face going through it to see what should be kept and what discarded. I could have simply decided to bring it home with me, along with all the rest of the family papers, to put off the task to another day. But could I ever face it? Or I could have brought it home to keep unsorted, preserving these scraps of source material for someone else to examine. Yet so much of the material was from people I did not know even in terms of their relationship with my mother, rendering the letters themselves without meaning. Did I have the space to house these documents. I did not have the capacity, either emotional or physical to deal with them.

Yet I also found I did not have the emotional capacity to destroy them. I am a social and cultural historian. Letters, and personal letters in particular, are the lifeblood of my research. I can sit for days in archives reading just the sort of daily minutiae my mother’s letters contained about total strangers, sifting the in jokes and family gossip for words and phrases that illuminate their lives and experiences. My mother’s letters might, just might, be of equal value to some other, more dispassionate, reader, some day. Shredding them would destroy that capacity for ever – and even if I could have found an archive willing to take them, arranging this in the 24 hours I had left in the country would have been a logistic impossibility.

In the end, the only response I had to this dilemma was the instinctive one of the exhausted child – I fled to the room I had been sleeping in (my brother’s old bedroom), shut the door and howled. My sister, packing cleaning products in the kitchen next door, heard me and came to find out what was going on. I tried to explain through my tears, failed, and begged her to deal with the box. I couldn’t. More practical and less sentimental than I am, as well as a nurse by training and profession, she promptly shred them.

So the letters are gone, but as this post indicates, they haunt me still. As a daughter, I couldn’t give them space, either physically or emotionally. I know this now as clearly as I did that day in November. As a historian, I will always feel guilt that I was unable to do so. Some day a historian will write the quotidian history of transatlantic relations in the late 20th century, and I will wonder what they might have learned from that box of letters, that little bit of lost history.

What have I learned from this experience?  Nine months on I’m still not quite sure. That the materiality and emotionality of archives touches not just the creator of the sources and the historian examining it, but potentially anyone who encounters them in the process of their conservation, perhaps. Certainly I will return to the archives with a renewed respect for all those who, in the midst of mourning, found the capacity to preserve the past simply for the sake of that preservation.

In the meantime, five boxes and two folders of family history, including my father’s letters, sit in front of me as I write this. My ten-year-old son has, since his grandmother’s death, become fascinated by finding out more about his heritage. I have promised him we can open the boxes and start exploring them together this summer. Hopefully, as both a daughter and a mother, I can find the strength and courage to make good this promise.

A harder year

Three years ago, I posted an end-of-year reflection entitled ‘A Hard Year’. That year was, indeed, a hard year, as were the two years that came after, filled as they were with the stresses of family illnesses and the labour of writing my book and getting a large project off the ground. None of these, however, can bear comparison with this year, a year that will forever be marked by the terrifying speed with which my mother’s cancer accelerated, the intensity of helping care for her in the final month of her life and the grief induced by her death and the emotional aftermath of commemorating her and clearing her apartment, the home I grew up in, of a lifetime of objects and memories. Nothing could prepare me for facing how hard this would be; that I have survived this year with my marriage intact, my children alive and thriving and my relationships with my family and friends (particularly my two wonderful siblings) more or less intact is a source of wonder and amazement.

Because this year was never solely about loss, grief and mourning. There has been a great deal of happiness, joy, even plain old contentment, from my brother’s wedding through hot summer days spent clearing the garden to one of the happiest Christmas Days I have had in several years. Moving to a house that I grow to love more with each day (in spite of the daunting amount of work that needs doing to it) in a community that has been immensely welcoming has been the biggest source of happiness, even if it has made getting to and from work considerably more complicated.

You may have noticed by now that all of the things I have mentioned as shaping and defining my year have been those associated with my private, rather than my professional life, and this isn’t only because my professional life has increasingly been circumscribed by commuting and the incompetence of Northern Rail. Professionally, this has felt very much like a holding year, albeit one in which I published an article and completed the editing, copy-editing and other production matter on my book. I have worked on various bits of writing, presented at a couple of conferences, explored the possibilities of future intellectual enquiry, manage the project I am currently engaged on. But any accomplishments of the year have been acheived by those with whom it is my pleasure and privilege to work – students completing milestones in their research, colleagues completing books, my post-doc organising a successful and rightfully praised conference as part of Men, Women and Care project.

This has felt okay, even necessary – a moment taken to recalibrate at the end of one venture, the middle of another and the very faint possibility of the beginning of a third. It will provide, I hope, the basis of consolidating the gains made and putting into practice ideas which have been given some time to germinate, particularly around the direction of the International Society for First World War Studies. But if it has meant that my personal life has been the most dominant force in shaping my memories of this year, this professional breath has also provided the space to make some unexpected connections between intense personal experiences and my professional historical understanding.

As I wrote previously, caring for my mother allowed me to make a more profound connection, both intellectual and emotional, with the historical work of caring undertaken historically by women in the home, the sort of care which is going to be the subject of my next book. But, since my son has started singing in a church choir a half hour drive from our home, requiring me to act as a ferrying service, I have found myself attending church regularly. While this hasn’t altered my personal belief or relationship to faith, it has given me time to reflect, sitting under the regimental monument listing all the great engagements of the First World War, on the place of faith and worship in the lives of those I study. The routine and rhythm of the cycle of services, the music created by voice and organ, the ceremony and ceremonial may not have brought me closer to God, but may have brought me closer to my historical subjects in whose lives faith played so much greater a regular part than it does in British society today. It is something I am struggling to articulate, although I hope to do so in a blog on Sarah Phelps’s adaptation of The ABC Murders for BBC1 in the next couple of weeks.

There will be other blog posts, too, in the new year, as well as other work to be done, not least the continued population of the Men, Women and Care database, which is already throwing up interesting material. There will be stresses and strains (other family illnesses are ongoing and my son will be applying for secondary school places come the autumn). And there will be much to celebrate, both professionally and personally. The book’s official release date is 7th February, to be followed in short order by the expected arrival of two new babies in the family.  There is the house to work on, friendships to nurture, ideas to pursue.  It has been another hard year, the hardest yet, and one that I will never forget. But there is a new year to come with all its fears and promises.  May yours be filled with more of the latter than the former.

Happy New Year.

On Time

14947785_10154825019871042_8680925260221803816_nMy mother was early for everything. She believed deeply that both that punctuality was the politeness of princes and that if a travel delay could occur, it would. As a result, she left hours of time for delayed subways, traffic jams and accidents whenever she traveled. From an early age my brother, sister and I became used to arriving cinemas not merely in time for the previews (and later both the ads and the previews) but with time to spare before.  When flying, we would get to the airport not the recommended two-to-three hours ahead of departure, to deal with long check in and security queues, but another hour or so on top of that, when the predicted traffic jam on the way to the airport failed to materialise. It is a habit all three of us have internalised, adopting or reacting against in varying degrees. Now, living at wide geographical distances from each other and our parents, being early has become an important part of our common heritage.

* * *

My mother died six weeks ago, age 73. She left, as always, far too early.

* * *

Time does funny things when you are caring for the ill and dying. The final month of my mother’s life was the longest I have ever lived through. Life was on hold for me and my family. The deadlines which have governed so much of my adult life ceased to matter to its structure, ceased almost to exist at all. Time was measured out in taxi rides, subway delays and promises that we would hear about a hospice bed by next week, Wednesday, that evening, soon. And yet the week I took my children to the seaside, on my own and away from my mother, a week that by all expectations should have stretched out endlessly through stress and worry, passed by in a flash, a suspended interlude of reading, swimming, laughing, paddling, digging and reflection. The day the much-desired hospice bed became available was mainly spent waiting – for the paperwork to be completed, for the doctor to come and see my mother – or driving in entirely the wrong direction, an error which meant my mother’s carefully timed dose of medication was missed. Boredom and anxiety should have stretched the day to eternity; yet it was only when I arrived home that evening, 12 hours after I had left, that I realised just how long it had lasted. By contrast, the hours between 8 and midnight, when I kept vigil at my mother’s bedside for three nights during her final days, drew out endlessly as I listened to her sedated breathing, willing each agonizing, eternal pause between breaths to end.

* * *

And then there were the moments when caring meant stretching out to touch hands with the past. On an earlier visit, when looking after my mother after she had come out of hospital following an operation to fuse her spine, fractured by the pressure of the cancerous tumours that had invaded it, one of my main tasks was to help her shower. Washing her hair and towelling her dry, I was echoing her bathing of me as child and my own bathing of my daughter, linking age and generations through caring touch. I don’t know if my brother, cradling our mother in his arms, with touch the only tool at his disposal to help her contain her pain, felt the same inversion of the parent-child relationship, but generational reciprocity echoed there too. And there were the couple of times my sister, sister-in-law and I shared the task of cleaning and changing her in her final day. In those few moments, within the wider pattern of caring shared among all her children, it felt as if we three joined the long, long history of women caring for the ill and dying in domestic spaces. All the modern technologies and advanced analgesics which we turned to help my mother keep pain as much at bay as possible in those final days could not replace the need for caring human contact, contact which had the power, at least in my case, to take us beyond the immediacy of family relationship and weave us into a longer narrative of human history.

* * *

Time, according to the cliché, is a greater healer. The witness of the many friends and acquaintances who share the common but entirely unique grief of losing a mother is contradictory on this subject. Some have learned to accommodate its ache; for other, the pain has become in time different but not less. Today I remain in the midst of mourning, sideswiped at unexpected moments by furious anger at the fates that did not give my mother more time – time to welcome grandchildren and watch them grow, to celebrate her children’s achievements, to see more films, television programmes, theatre, to read more books – and then to tell us precisely what she thought of them. I still find myself in tears at odd and unexpected times – on the train, on street corners, walking my children to school. I hope that, in time, I will learn to live in a more comfortable way with this new reality of loss and absence that I inhabit. In the meantime, all I can do is take my memories of my mother – her gifts and her faults, her idiosyncracies and habits, her passions and mundanities – and make them transcend time by writing them into my history.

* * *

Mum was the first and most loyal of my readers, whether of my articles, my books or this blog. On the day of her move to the hospice, stuck in traffic on the FDR Drive, with her pain medication wearing off, she asked me if I was planning any more blog posts and, if so, what. Yes, I said, I’m planning to write on care and temporality, but I’m not quite sure how yet. This is that post.

* * *

There have been many who have taught and inspired me over the years, many of them women. All have, over time, shaped me into the historian and writer that I am today.  But first, last, and always, there was my mother.

* * *

In loving memory of

Joanna Anderson

30th July, 1945 – 30th August, 2018.

Beginnings and Endings

Just over five years ago, I posted the first post on this blog, beginning what I thought would be a process of recording the researching and writing of a book about the men of the Royal Army Medical Corps in the First World War. Just under two weeks ago, I submitted the completed manuscript to the publisher, on the final day the university was open this calendar year. It was a climax, a culmination. But it wasn’t an ending.

There are several reasons why I say this with some confidence, about both the book and this blog. As far at the book is concerned, there is still a great deal left to do – permissions to be sought, images to be sourced, indexes to be completed – and the manuscript itself is to be sent to yet another reader. And this blog has, in the past five years, wandered into all sorts of byways unrelated to the project it was set up to chronicle.  In spite of my neglect of it over the past few months as I’ve concentrated on finishing the manuscript, it remains an important outlet for me, and I will continue to use it to chronicle the ups and downs of academic life, my new research project, my eternal struggle to create an acceptable work/life and, inevitable, a range of thoughts and responses the commemoration and memory of the First World War in British culture.

Yet, while this has been a moment of transition rather than ending, there have been points of ending and new beginnings along the way. The direct funding for this project ended two years ago. In its place, I’ve started on new (related) research , as well as gaining two new job titles. Intellectually and personally life has interwoven, overlapped, bled into itself.

Which, particularly at this time of year, doesn’t stop me looking for tidy endings and new beginnings. Even as I am aware of the chaos of books all over the floor that awaits my return to the office, along with all the projects I’ve been putting off for the past three months, I am also hoping that having given myself permission not to work for two weeks over the holiday period will give me the energy to start if not anew in January, then at least afresh.  There is the blog post I’ve been meaning to write since the summer which, with space from other deadlines, I hope to finally complete; there is the pile of books I’ve been collecting, looking for the time and space to engage with them properly.

There will, I hope, be more, and more definite endings in the coming year, with the final completion of the book. There will also, I anticipate, be beginnings – of ideas, projects, collaborations – as well as the new beginning marked by moving to a new home in the spring. All have looking forward to the near future in ways that hasn’t been true for the past couple of years.

So, at this turning of the year, I wish you all successful endings and hopeful beginnings for the new year.

Happy new year, one and all.

 

A (belated) report from the wilds of Borsetshire

A recent post on Twitter asked if we are starting to witness the demise of the personal academic blog, at least in the field of history. Reasons put forward for the decline in the number of posts being written were pressures on time, developments in the research cycle (implicitly related to the increased imminence of the Research Excellence Framework) and variations in the teaching cycle, as posited by George Gosling.  Concern was also expressed that blogging was coming to be viewed as a requirement of postgraduate and early careers scholars, rather than more established ones.

I didn’t respond, all too aware that it has been months since I posted anything here, and even more since I directly posted anything related directly to either of my research projects.  This is due to all of the above reasons. I am teaching this term, not much but a new module that requires a certain amount of additional preparation and organisation.  I have committed myself to a large number of speaking engagements and forthcoming publications, as well as helping to organise two conferences.  On top of my research commitments and administrative obligations, this leaves me little time for writing the remaining chapters of the book, let alone reflections for the blog. And then there is the question of what I write about.  While I agree that blogging should not be the sole responsibility of PGRs and ECRs, I am becoming increasingly aware that it is easier to blog about searching for a job than it is about applying for promotion.  Similarly, blogging about ideas at the start of a project enabled me to work through key themes in ways that now seem to have less utility as I actively incorporate them into the book. If I am going to write about these ideas, I need to do it as part of my manuscript, not as a shorter reflection.

Which doesn’t mean that I don’t have things to write about (beyond my despair at the current political situation).  There are stories emerging from the new research project, although as this has its own blog now, I tend to reserve them for that forum.  And the number of speaking engagements I have undertaken means I am regularly coming into contact with the work and ideas of others which is giving me much food for thought and which is worthy of putting on record.

Which brings me to the Academic Archers conference, possibly one of the oddest but also  among the most interesting academic experiences I have had since I spent two days up to my ankles in mud talking about medical care on the Somme last summer.  This was the second annual conference organised to bring together academic analysis subjects based on or inspired by Radio 4’s long-running rural soap opera and the immensely knowlegable ‘Research Associates’, the long-term listeners whose knowledge of the world of Ambridge and Borsetshire is unrivalled in terms of breadth and depth.  Papers presented range from sociological analyses of familial relationships among prominent family groups, and the wider social implications of the resulting (matriarchal) power structures through an examination of the programme as an exemplar of rural theology to a discussion of the social standing of male characters and the relationship to perceived penis size (a phrase I never thought I would type on this blog or, indeed, anywhere else).

Arguably this was all tongue-in-cheek good fun, something not to be taken very seriously but to be played predominantly for laughs.  Certainly the most popular papers, such as the ones picked up by the press looking at negative aspects of competing in village flower and produce shows, and the ‘Ambridge Paradox’, or why all the characters don’t suffer from type 2 diabetes, involved much laughter along with the learning.  But there was very serious scholarship being undertaken here as well.  The session focussing specifically on the Rob and Helen story line of domestic violence and coercive control was sobering not only in terms of the subject matter, but also in relation to the information conveyed, whether on the forensic analysis of blood spatter patterns or the cost per day of food for women in prison.  Additionally, my understanding of my own work has been enhanced by a number of papers.  I have come away with a long list of recent sociological texts on masculinity, disability and violence taken from Katherine Runswick-Cole and Becky Wood’s paper on the use of the stoma bag in representing Rob’s disability and Jennifer Brown’s keynot on using Rob to understand the antecendents of domestic violence perpetration. Amber Medland’s concept of culinary coercion, while derived from the domestic context of Rob’s control of Helen, has opened up questions for me about the regulation of food in the institutional setting of the military hospital.  And I am looking forward to learning a lot more about masculinity in post-Second World War literature, particularly as it relates to birdwatching, in the on-going work of Joanna Dobson.

As for my own paper, I’m not sure I got the balance between humour and scholarship quite right.  ‘Erudite’ was one description of it, and I can only apologise to the tweeter whose brain apparently hurt when I finished speaking.  But the opportunity to explore how this particular artefact of British popular culture has memorialised the First World War – and to use the title ‘Some Corner of a Foreign Field/That is Forever Ambridge’ – was too good an opportunity to miss.  Among other things, it provided me with the opportunity to design an academicMeyer Poster poster in collaboration with some very excited and supportive colleagues. [1] I will, I hope, be publishing an extended version of the paper in the forthcoming edited collection (the one from last year’s conference is a beautiful object, available to buy from Amazon).  Writing it up will enable me to engage more fully with debates around imagined communities and invented traditions than I have done since I was a post-graduate, a useful exercise that will enhance my other academic endeavours.

And, in a sign of just how stimulating and welcoming the conference was, I’m already considering the topic of next year’s proposal. Leading the field is a plan to recreate the Ambridge War Memorial using the information from English Heritage uncovered by Laurie MacLeod, one of the attending RAs.  I’m even thinking about putting together an application to the Heritage Lottery Fund, if any of the Academic Archers community would like to form a group to work on this.  And I know there are several other First World War historians, many more eminent than I, who might be persuaded to trace the progress of the Borsetshire Regiment on the Western Front, analyse the minor poetry of Lt. Rupert Pargeter, explore the records of the Borsetshire Military Appeals Tribunal or discuss the impact of the use of women and prisoners of war in agricultural labour on wartime Ambridge.  I hope they will consider putting in a proposal when the call goes out.  The experience, both intellectual and social, will be well worth it.

 

[1] My thanks to Sara Barker, Tess Hornsby-Smith and Sabina Peck for their encouragement and insight.

Not about Arnold Loosemore

I was in the US two weeks ago, staying with my mother on my way to give a paper about Sgt. Arnold Loosemore at the North American Conference for British Studies, held this year in Washington, D.C.  Loosemore, a V.C. who lost his leg in the war and died of TB in 1924, is a fascinating character, whose life and death contain more information to be analysed than I can possible cover in a 20-minute conference paper or, indeed, the 8,000-word book chapter I am currently turning that paper into.  So I planned to write a post about the treatment Loosemore received from the British government and his local community in the aftermath of the war, and about the ambiguity of the word ‘pension’ in interwar society.

Except that I was in the US two weeks ago and two weeks ago, on the night of my 39th birthday, the US, and with it the world, changed.

I, like millions of others, have been trying to come to terms with what a Trump presidency will mean for me, for those I love, for the communities I was raised and live in, for those I work alongside, for my fellow countrymen and women, for my fellow citizens of the world.  But doing so is incredibly hard, not least because I, like many others, have been here before.  On 24th June I posted on here, without comment, W.H. Auden’s September 1st, 1939On the morning of 9th November, I posted a link to the same poem via Twitter, this time pulling out the lines ‘The habit-forming pain/ Mismanagement and grief:/ We must suffer them all again’, although to be quite honest, many, many other lines from the ‘The windiest militant trash/ Important persons shout/ is not so crude as our wish’ to ‘The lie of Authority/ Whose buildings grope the sky’ seemed just as apposite.  In fact, in the week that followed I read and passed on to friends and loved ones quite a lot of Auden, including his mocking description of ogres and his far from funny poem, Epitaph on a Tyrant.

This last may seem like the most inappropriate.  Trump appears a buffoon, a spoiled child, not the subtle manipulator of human folly described by Auden.  And yet the terror of the last two lines is palpably in the air in both the US and Britain.  Trump himself is offensive, but what is far more frightening are those to whom he gives succor and entitlement.  And this has only become more true as the weeks have gone.  Initially the thought of a cabinet made up of Rudy Gulliani, Newt Gingrich and John Bolton was horrifying enough – a return to the hatred and prejudice of a past age, a rule by gerontocracy that brought with it whiffs of Weimar.  What we have seen since – the appointment of Steve Bannon, the celebrations of the far-right, the smug bravado of Nigel Farage as he ignores all modern standards of international diplomacy in his effort to peddle influence – has been worse.

Do I, as a historian, think this is the return of fascism to political dominance?  No, although it would be interesting, if it were possible to gain any scholarly detachment, to compare contemporary America to Weimar Germany, not least the men of the so-called ‘alt-right’ to those analysed by Klaus Theweleit in his two-volume gender history of the rise of fascism in Germany, Male Fantasies.  But scholarly detachment about this is something I am finding next to impossible.  Who I am, as a scholar, an ‘expert’ even, a woman, a liberal (with heart proudly bleeding on my sleeve), and everything I have been taught to value – compassion, education, kindness, community, generosity, solidarity , the value of women as more than their bodies, the human value of all people, whatever their colour, creed, sexuality or gender – feels under attack.  All the small gains my grandparents fought for in war and my parents worked for in peace may not have been enough but they now look to be undone and I don’t know what I can do to help heal the rents being torn in the societies I felt so secure in.  For two weeks I have been paralysed by exhaustion and a sense of hopelessness in face of this social unraveling, a tiny frail individual caught in the current of history that is bearing us all backwards.  These are not emotions that lend themselves to calm, clear-eyed analysis of the contemporary events in light of the past.

But, in the end, I come back again, inevitably, to Auden.  ‘All I have is voice/ To undo the folded lie’.  Tomorrow I will write about Sgt. Arnold Loosemore, V.C.