Care Conference Report

This is a guest post from Ellie Murray, a first-year PhD student at the University of Leeds working on children’s learning about parenthood in Britain between 1930 and 1980. Ellie was one of the co-organisers of the Who Cares? The past and present of caring conference held at the University of Leeds on 27th and 28th March, 2017.

This two-day conference, organised by the Women, Gender and Sexuality, Health, Medicine and Society and Medieval Studies research clusters at the University of Leeds, explored the past and present of caring. As well as traditional academic papers on the histories of care, a workshop provided space to explore current issues associated with care in academic institutions. Through this session, we explored how researchers at all stages of their academic careers care for themselves and for others. Panellists highlighted difficulties currently experienced within higher education, and were able to identify workable ways the academe can help to ensure personal well-being, and further support staff and students in their varied roles as carers.

Through this report, I will draw together some common themes which arose across the two days, before providing some reflections on the future directions of these discussions.

Care in Academia

As part of the care in academia workshop, academic staff, early career researchers and students formed four panels. These addressed personal experiences of motherhood, fatherhood, caring for those with additional needs, and self-care within the academe. These conversations were emotional, intensive and at times sensitive in their nature, but I will attempt to pull out some of the main discussion points and suggested changes within academic practice, raised across these panel sessions.

Guilt: One of the more striking reflections to come out of this workshop was the widespread feeling of guilt amongst the students and academics represented on the panels. On the motherhood and fatherhood panels in particular, parents studying or working within academia reported a sense of guilt that their careers prevented from becoming the parent they aspired to be. On the other hand, many working parents felt that due to their transition to parental caregiving roles, they were half the professional they once were, and felt that in some cases, they could not commit themselves as fully to their academic careers as they would perhaps like to. Childcare routines and nursery or school pick-up times mean that some parents cannot schedule meetings at certain times of the day, need to leave work at certain times, and cannot easily attend evening lectures or travel significant distances to present conference papers. For one mother in particular, her conversion to part-time work led to feelings of isolation, as she no longer felt included in the conversations within the department.

A need for greater understanding and flexibility for working parents was highlighted in these discussions. For example, promoting the possibility of skyping into conferences, and for student parents, the ability to move seminars classes and easily extend submission deadlines, to accommodate the reality of raising small children.

During the self-care session, some panellists and attendees spoke about the pressures associated with an academic career, which can lead individuals to work in the evenings, weekends and in some cases, over the bank holidays. The perceived need to be constantly productive, either in doing intellectual work or cultural activities weighs heavily upon researchers. Academia can often be stressful and isolating, and so it was suggested that the importance of resting and switching off from work entirely should be emphasised and indeed, encouraged.

Support: This sense of guilt can be attributed in part the difficulties of achieving a good work life balance, and the lack of support received from some institutions.  The Research Excellence Framework (REF) seems to pose a significant problem for parents. It was generally felt that the requirements upon staff submitting work to the REF did not adequately take into consideration the effect maternity leave would have upon academic outputs. Permanent academic staff are required to submit four outputs for each REF. Staff can submit one less output for every period of maternity leave taken within the seven year REF cycle, but it was felt among the mothers that this does acknowledge the amount of time each submission reasonably takes to prepare. Further issues with the REF system may be identified with the opportunity of shared parental leave. The motherhood and fatherhood panels also drew attention to examples of good practice, through their experiences of dealing with certain institutions or funding bodies. Some research grants accommodate periods of maternity or paternity leave within the period of the award.

The lack of support within academia was also raised in a discussion related to the care of those with additional needs. It was felt that UK institutions did not adequately support colleagues coping with bereavement. There is no standard procedure for notifying colleagues or students of a bereavement, which has the potential to make a situation more difficult for academic staff, who often have their own office spaces and teach different classes each term. Grief has a long-term impact upon individuals, and for some, a death can change life dramatically. It was suggested that UK institutions could offer some form of individualised support, such as providing a trained professional for the bereaved to speak to, if they feel this would be helpful.

The need for self-care within the research community was raised by the participants on the self-care panel. Research can be highly emotive or sensitive, and by their very nature, some testimonies or subjects can weigh heavily upon academics. The affect that research can have upon individuals needs to be recognised and discussed more widely, and it was suggested that academics be given an appropriate space in which to talk, digest, and reflect on their emotions.

Relationship between Care and Academia:

A significant point of discussion was of the various ways in which caregiving roles intersect with academia. Caregiving in its many different forms can change working practices, and shape individual relationships with research topics or historical subjects. It was felt among some of those on the motherhood and fatherhood panels that becoming a parent heightened their empathy with the experiences of those in the past, or changed the focus a study. Participants discussing care for those with additional needs felt that academia could act as form of therapy, by providing the tools with which to reflect upon or further understand changes in everyday life. The rhythm of academic work also helped those transitioning to the role of a caregiver, and their adjustment to new routines, or ways of working.

Through discussions on the motherhood and fatherhood panels, it was felt that shifting priorities could change the ways in which new parents worked, or the time they allocated to certain tasks. Some of the fathers on the panel said their experiences of becoming parents had forced to have time away from their work, to leave the office at a reasonable hour and make time for family holidays.

These personal experiences highlight some of the ways in which the flexibility and creative opportunities offered by academia can be made to fit around, or even complement caregiving responsibilities. At the same time, there is still much work to be done in improving experiences of a healthy work life balance.

Histories of Care

Panels on experiences of care were followed by traditional research papers exploring the histories of care. Holly Furneaux (Cardiff University) delivered the keynote lecture, discussing care between soldiers in the Crimean War. This was followed by papers on the themes of Care in Wartime, Parenthood, and Violent Care of Animals on the second day of the conference.

One of the advantages of a thematic conference is that it provides speakers and delegates the opportunity to engage with research from a wide-range of historical fields and periods, which can provide interesting questions for your own work. Several papers explored the relationship between caregivers and the recipients of care. On the Violent Care of Animals panel, Sunny Harrison (University of Leeds) examined the violent care of horses in the medieval period, while Jonathan Saha (University of Leeds) explored the care of working elephants in colonial Burma, which were captured from the wide elephant population. These papers argued that care and violence are often entangled when it comes to the care of working animals, as what could be thought of as violence was often used to instil discipline, and not intended to cause unnecessary suffering. The speakers offered thought provoking reflections on the power dynamics of caring relationships, particularly of the status of the non-human patient is unequal to that of the caregiver or handler. This raises important questions about who the care is intended to benefit in these situations, the animal or the human. As part of the Parenthood panel, Rose Sawyer (University of Leeds) examines medieval changeling motifs. The changeling often took the place of a young saint, and was characterised by a failure to thrive or meet expected developmental milestones. In these motifs, parents or guardians continued to care deeply for their infants, despite the anxieties caused. In this sense, Sawyer argues that these motifs can offer a perspective on the experiences of caring for disabled children in the medieval period.

Many speakers reflected upon the relationship between gender and care. Joanna Phillips (University of Leeds) explored bodily care during the Crusades. Care in the Crusades has often been examined through the lens of medical care, but distinctions between care and cure were very fine in the middle ages, with therapies tailored towards the senses, such as food, drink and smells. Looking for acts of care, rather than seeking references to trained medical practitioners, Phillips argues that it is possible to locate women in the Crusades, and understand the caring roles they played, which could be construed as an extension of their domestic roles.

Several papers explored themes around masculine caregiving. In her keynote lecture, Furneaux (University of Cardiff) explored the nature of soldierly heroism, and care between soldiers during the Crimean War. Soldiers were often perceived as nurturing and compassionate, with cases of unmarried soldiers adopting children from the battlefield, and male nurses caring for casualties. Furneaux argued that these men were often described by their contemporaries as being “as caring as women”, raising questions about how different forms of caregiving intersect with cultural gender norms.

The gendered nature of caregiving was further explored on the Care in Wartime panel by Laura Boyd (University of Leeds) and Rosemary Wall (University of Hull). Boyd examined the masculine identities of stretcher-bearers in the First World War. These solider did not bear arms but played important roles in attending to wounded soldiers, and Boyd argued that this form of care was not necessarily seen as feminine in the context of the Western Front. Rosemary Wall spoke about her attempts to uncover the experiences of male volunteers in the British Red Cross in the First World War, as popular memoirs such ‘A Testament of Youth’ have led to assumptions that these organisations were dominated by female volunteers providing care for wounded soldiers. On the ‘Parenthood’ panel, Nehaal Bajwar (University of Sussex) discussed cultural resources for ‘involved fatherhood’ in modern day Pakistan, while my paper explored public images of adolescent caregiving and private family experiences of older brotherhood in post-1945 Britain.

Within these papers, it was implied that men participating in care were in some way subverting or reshaping masculine ideals.  This implies that caregiving is an inherently feminine role. As made clear during the discussions of motherhood in academia, the perception that women are naturally more competent carers than men can be inhibitive to mothers balancing academic work and caring responsibilities. This has led me to question whether conceptualising gender in this way is actually useful as an analytical tool. I have begun to consider whether examining family care in a gendered way could in fact mask how individuals understood their relationship with care, and the care which they provided for others.


As a result of this conference, the participants and delegates have put forward suggestions about how we can progress our conversations from here. These experiences and discussions need to be heard as widely as possible, to promote tangible changes within academic culture. A report with suggestions for changes in academic practice, proposed as part of the care in academia workshop, will be circulated to conference participants and other groups working on related issues around equality and diversity in the academy. There have also been calls for further events exploring the particular issues faced by certain groups within academia, such as postgraduate researchers. A recently published report found that one in two PhD researchers experience some form of psychological distress, demonstrating the necessity for a discussion around mental health, research practice and institutional support for this section of the academic community.

This event, and the future plans arising from it, highlight the importance of such discussions, and of pooling experiences and ideas for improving working practice within UK institutions. Indeed, this conference forms part of a wider series of conversations taking place at the University of Leeds. In October, staff and students gathered to discuss women’s experiences within academia, and later this month, a conference organised by Jonathan Saha and Anyaa Anim-Addo will address the under-representation of Black and minority ethnic communities in the field of history, and discuss the difficulties faced by individuals working or studying in predominantly white universities.

It is likely that more events of this nature will take place within the academic community in the near future. Through raising the profile of such discussions, and circulating examples of best practice, we hope that substantive changes within academic culture can be made, to create a more equal and supportive working environments for current and future academic researchers.



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.

Talking about caring

I am still planning on writing a post about Sgt. Arnold Loosemore, VC, but while I wait to hear from someone who has done far more research into his life than I have yet done about a query, I am also helping organise the ‘Who Cares?’ conference to be held in the School of History at the University of Leeds on 27th and 28th March, 2017. In particular, I have been approaching people to ask if they will talk about their personal experiences of providing care as academics.

So far, everyone I have asked to contribute has responded positively, not to say enthusiastically, providing evidence that there is an appetite for having these discussions within the academic community.  This has been a huge personal relief to me as I have been finding it surprisingly uncomfortable to make these approaches in the first place.  While my head has been telling me that these are conversations we need to have, and have in public forums, not privately behind closed doors, my gut has been questioning whether these really are conversations people want to have and are comfortable having.  Are these subjects too personal?  Should we be combining our work and family lives in this way?  Do we risk one colonizing the other in unhelpful ways if we start to blur whatever boundaries we may have established as individuals to maintain our sanity?

I am hoping that all these questions will be explored in March.  But even if they are not discussed directly, then at least the very fact that I feel such discomfort has reaffirmed for me the importance of starting and continuing these discussions as part of our professional lives.  The more openly we can talk about our family responsiblities and how they combine with our professional commitments, the burdens they place on us and the support we get from our colleagues and communities, the easier it will come to have such discussions and to establish good practice for all concerned.  If the end result is a free-flowing discussion where everyone feels heard, then it will have been worth every gut-tightening moment of anxiety that organizing this event is causing.

In the meantime, I am hugely grateful for the generous enthusiasm of colleagues who have agreed to contribute.  It will, I believe, be worth all our effort.

Who Cares? Call for Papers

Next March the Health, Medicine and Society and Women, Gender and Sexuality research clusters in the School of History at the University of Leeds will be jointly running a conference on histories of care.  There will be a conference website in due course, but as this is taking some time to set up properly, I am posting the Call for Papers here as well.

Who cares?: The Past and Present of Caring

Monday 27th – Tuesday 28th March, 2017

School of History

University of Leeds

A collaboration between the Women, Gender and Sexuality, and the Health, Medicine and Society research clusters.

Call for Papers

Deadline for Abstracts: 13th January 2017


At all stages of life, people give and receive care. Rapidly changing demographics are affecting the dynamics of care, and now more than ever, gender-based expectations of caregiving in history are being called into question. A growing emphasis on personal well-being denotes a generation that is complicating traditional notions of care.

The way care has been understood and delivered has developed across time.  Approaches to care have historically been and continue to be changed and challenged by spatial, temporal, and socio-political boundaries. This conference seeks to shed light on care within communities and across borders, exploring changes in its perception throughout history and how it intersects with different ages, cultures, and identities.

Our keynote speaker will be Professor Holly Furneaux, Cardiff University, author of Military Men of Feeling: Masculinity, Emotion and Tactility in the Crimean War (OUP, 2016).

The conference will also include a half-day workshop exploring issues associated with care in academic institutions. Through a discussion of parenthood, experiences of supporting family members, and mental health, this workshop will provide a space to explore how researchers at all stages of their academic careers care for themselves and for others. This session aims to highlight difficulties currently experienced within higher education, and identify workable ways the academe can help to ensure personal well-being, and further support staff and students in their varied roles as carers.

Submissions are now invited for 20-minute papers on subjects which may include but are not limited to:


–       Varieties of medical care

–       Gender and caregiving

–       Self-care and mental health

–       Care in the military

–       Care and the family

–       Care and the life cycle

–       End of life care

–       Care and the non-human

–       Care and marginalised communities

–       The economies of care

–       The politics of care

–       Critical care


We particularly welcome proposals from postgraduate and early career researchers.

Submission guidelines

Abstracts must be no longer than 250 words for 20-minute papers.

Please send abstracts to no later than 13th January 2017. Please ensure abstracts contain your name and institutional affiliation (if any).

Any general enquiries may be sent to

Conference Report – Resistance to War

Following on (rather belatedly) from my last post, one of the conferences I was only able to attend partially in March was the Resistance to War conference, held in Leeds on 18th-20th March.  In addition to Twitter, an important, and more established, way of keeping up with conferences that one can’t attend in person is via conference reports.  It gives me great pleasure to publish a report of the Resistance to War conference written by Charlotte Tomlinson, a former undergraduate and current MA student in the School of History, University of Leeds, and founder of the HUll Blitz Trail project (which can be followed on Twitter @hullblitztrail).  My thanks to Charlotte for taking the time to write and reflect on what sounds like a fascinating few days.

As the centenary of the First World War has come upon us in the last two years, scholars across fields have turned their attention to the conflict and offered new ways to look at it. As well as encouraging commemoration and highlighting traditional narratives, the anniversary has inspired fresh perspectives and uncovered previously untold (or at least under-told) stories. One such strand of new thought was recently celebrated at the Resistance to War conference, held in Leeds March 18th-20th. It was a truly international event, with speakers visiting from stretches as far as Auckland, and covered an equally diverse scope of subjects relating to resistance to war. Inevitably then, the conference encouraged consideration of a less traditional approach to the First World War. However, as all papers seem to, the event had me thinking more broadly about how we, and I, approach histories of war.

The event began with a series of panels exploring different aspects of war resistance. I decided upon one which explored resistance and gender through the lens of wartime literature in France (Philippa Read), Germany (Corinne Painter) and Britain (Sabine Grimshaw and Sarah Hellawell). After four extremely interesting talks, and a few books added to my ever-growing summer reading list, it was a question on how these works were received at the time that really peaked my interest. Not in the answer, but in that it made me contemplate how we use literature in history more widely. As happens so often lately, I found myself pondering the representation vs reception debate, comparing the cultural and social approaches to sources such as those discussed. While our own readings of literature are insightful, and were hugely fascinating to listen to, the panel left me with more questions about my own research than theirs.

The following day, another question of how we approach history left me a little more excited. In a fascinating talk on two ‘gender dissidents’ of the early twentieth century, Conscientious Objectors and Suffragettes, Lois Bibbings argued for a more complex understanding of how the two groups used gender in their resistance. In doing so, she highlighted how Emmeline Pankhurst’s WSPU used fashion as a method of resistance, how suffragettes ‘consciously played on gender’ by maintaining a prim and proper appearance in order to defend their femininity, and oppose media representations of them as unruly and manly. In a later conversation, we discussed how the loss of control over appearance was also central to the suffragette prison experience. It was encouraging to see how the issue of fashion, so often overlooked as a trivial matter, could be integrated into an analysis of war resistance and I was left feeling quite uplifted about the potential for this research to be taken further in the future.

Another talk inspired a less encouraging but equally interesting reflection, on how collective histories continue to shape how researchers approach resistance to war. The huge success of the conference showed how far we have embraced less typically-glorified narratives of the conflict which do not place the volunteer soldier suffering in the trench as the quintessential war narrative. Benjamin Ziemann’s keynote paper, on German soldiers who refused to fight from July 1918 onwards and how these have been remembered in Germany since, did however cause me to consider how we approach war resisters who were not pacifists. Crucially, a point was raised about the likelihood that a similar project would be undertaken on British so-called ‘cowards’. While popular opinions of war resisters has undoubtedly altered in past decades and become more positive, it was rightly argued that our changing cultural memory in Britain of heroic fighters or brave COs has not yet allowed a shift that adequately acknowledges our ‘cowards’ too.

It is hardly surprising that Cyril Pearce’s paper proved thoroughly inspiring. His work continues to influence scholarly thought on conscientious objectors and encourage new work. It was not his insights into war resistance here that had me thinking though, but his approach. In using statistics and maps to explore the pattern of conscientious war resistance in Britain, the paper was undeniably unique in a historical conference. Outside of economic histories, it is perhaps unsettling for many of us to deal with such mathematically presented ideas, but by mapping COs it was easy to highlight resistance hotspots and identify interesting communities that require further study. Ultimately, it was refreshing and inspiring to see an approach many researchers, myself included, would usually shy away from and provided a visual exploration of COs that really brought the issue to life.

Finally, a paper on the infamous Alice Wheeldon left me thinking about the significance of new perspectives on war resistance beyond the weekend conference, and beyond academia. A moving paper was given by Nick Hiley and Wheeldon’s great granddaughter, Chloe Mason on how the conviction of her family for conspiring to murder the then Prime Minister Lloyd George should be overturned. Hiley and Mason unpacked the case and highlighted the secrecy surrounding it, explaining how they are now appealing for the conviction to be quashed. In doing this, rather than reflecting on war resistance as much of the other papers had, the paper reminded us that our memory of war and war resistance remains a contemporary issue that touches lives today.

Driving home after a long couple of days, my (non-academic) dad asked me, ‘so what’s the point in a conference?’ What followed was a lengthy answer which I don’t think he was quite expecting. In the first instance, the papers given offered interesting insights into many areas of resistance to the First World War, some related to my own research, some not. But more importantly, the papers, as always, left me with a number of questions and points to reflect upon, a few of which I have briefly discussed here. These relate above all to how both I, and we, approach history. So more than just gaining knowledge and enjoying papers from across the globe in a celebration of centenary research, I left the conference with a greater self-awareness of myself as a researcher. Once again I was reminded that no matter the topic, there is always something to be learned in hearing about another’s work.

Doing history across space

This forms the third of a three-part series of posts reflecting on conferences I am have attended in recent months.  The previous posts in this series can be found here and here.

I am writing this on a train on my way to London where, tomorrow, I will attend a workshop before meeting with a potential collaborator.  I have done this journey in one day, getting up to catch the 6 am train and arriving home, bone weary at some time after the rest of my family is in bed.  The second half of the programme will remain the same this trip, but I am taking advantage of having the opportunity to stay with my cousin overnight, which should mean I get at least an hour’s more sleep (although possibly not more, given that she lives in Dulwich and I need to be in central London by 9).

Although this trip feels as if I have found the right balance between productivity and calm, it is nonetheless undertaken with a bit of regret.  In an ideal world, I would have been on this train two days ago, preparing to spend yesterday at a study day on First World War nursing held at the Wellcome Collection. The demands of family life meant, however, that I instead had to follow what looked like a fascinating series of talks, delivered by a number of colleagues whom I hold in very high regard via Twitter.

The dilemmas that this weekend has presented me with are something of a distillation of my experiences of travelling for work and conference attendance over the past few months.  In both February and March I dedicated a week to traveling to conferences, attending two or three within a seven-day period, a schedule which while exciting and often inspiring, was also exhausting and occasionally confusing.  While staying within Britain, I moved intellectually around contintal Europe and the British empire, as well as travelling from the seventeenth to the 21st centuries.

And even as I did all of this, absorbing and communicating information and ideas, I was still missing out. I did not go to Valencia, where what felt like the entirety of my Twitter feed spent a sun-drenched week at the European Social Science History Conference, nor, for the second year running, did I make is to the Social History Society Conference the wee before.  The latter took place at the same time as other conferences I had committed to; the former during a week when my young children desperately needed me around to remind them that they have a mother as well as a father to care for them and help structure their lives.

Such conflicts are, of course, an embarrassment of riches.  It is exciting to have so many possibilities for intellectual contact and cross-fertilisation available.  But there are drawbacks too.  Modern technologies, particularly Twitter and podcasting, mean that conference papers can be communicated and followed from a distance, but this is reliant on the good will, dedication and skill of presenters and live tweeters whose interests and priorities may or may not overlap with your own. In addition, following a Twitter hashtag or a podcast requires a certain amount of time and concentration on the part of both  the reader/listener and the communicator.  Trying to follow one conference while attending another, I have found, is incredibly difficult, while if I am live tweeting a panel, I have given up on taking my own notes, relying on my tweets as a form of note-taking.  Also tough is trying to follow a conference while getting a four-year-old’s lunch.  And ‘attending’ a conference at a distance does not allow for discussion, whether the back-and-forth of a question and answer session or the potential serendipities of coffee and lunch break discussions.  This last point was brought home to me when a live tweeter pointed out to his followers that he coudn’t actually put any of their questions to the panellists.

Then there is the question of cost.  I am in the fortunate position of being able to pay for conference attendance out of my current grant, but even that is not limitless, any more than the departmental budgets available to colleagues are.  For students and early careers researchers, the situation is even more parlous. Even when organisers try their hardest to keep registration costs reasonable (and not all do), travel and accommodation costs can make attendance at even one, let alone multiple events impossible.

Despite these problems, the sheer amount of intellectual activity happening around history, particularly the various types of history which I do (First World War, gender, social, cultural, British), is, as I say, immensely exciting and stimulating.  Which brings me to one of those conferences that I did manage to jam into my week of March madness, the Globalising and Localisng the Great War Graduate Conference on Stories, Spaces & Societies in Oxford. (I also attended the final day of the Resistance to War 1914-1924 conference in Leeds that weekend. A report on second day of that conference will be posted next week.) The scope for this conference, as the title indicates, was immense, and in terms of approach the two days covered military, social and cultural history in a truly interdisciplinary fashion.  Casualty statistics were deployed alongside diary entries and poetry, and discussion was enlightening and enlivening.  For my own part, I came away with a number of nascent ideas, two concrete references to follow up on, and the hope of recruiting another member to my research team at some point in the future.

One of the most interesting sessions was the roundtable discussion which concluded the first day during which current Oxford postgraduates reflected on their explicitly transnational approaches to researching the First World War, before discussion broadened out to a wider discussion of the transnational history of the war in the centenary period.  What struck me was the extent to which definitions of the transnational were defined, in the British context, by the British empire and dominions.  While the subjects of historical study were extra-European, the identity of historical actors from India, Africa, Canada, Australia, was inevitably intimately bound up with their understandings of themselves as imperial subjects, so that studies of these varying cultures and their participation in and memory of the war remain rooted in British history in complicated ways. This paradox was further reflected in the wider discussion, particularly Jane Potter’s point about the difficulties of editing a scholarly handbook of First World War poetry.  With all the good will in the world towards including as many national and supranational cultural perspectives as possibles, the limits of space, expertise and time, as well as the complexities of intellectual debate around definitions, inevitably mean that ambitions for comprehensiveness have to be reigned in, usually at the cost of the lesser known national literatures.

What the discussion highlighted for me is the extent to which we remain bounded by space in our work, whether analytically or physically.  Transnational history is shaped by historically constituted definitions of the nation, itself defined by borders both concrete and ephemeral. Location shapes our perspective, what archives we have access to, which scholars we encounter who influence our own scholarship, who we talk to and in what language.  Collaboration is, of course, a route to transcending boundaries, which are in turn enabled and enhanced by modern technologies.  But, as with conference attendance (that prime space for the development of collaborations), modern technologies cannot overcome every barrier or make space immaterial to the way in which we work.  As frustrating as the limits of space (and the inability to be in two places at once) may be, reflecting on them may, in a small way, help us in our understanding of the significance of space and its limits in the past.

Doing history across time

This post forms the second of three related posts on questions about historical methodologies arising from conferences I have recently attended.  The first of these can be found here.

I hadn’t intended to start this post this way.  This was (and eventually will be) a reflection on the Passions of War workshops I attended in February.  But, in a lovely example of the utility of blogging to academic practice, my previous post on interdisciplinarity has sparked a fascinating and detailed response from Jeanne de Montbaston, making the case for the value of reading sexual subtexts in historic literature from a contemporary perspective.  And it is a strong case (although I’m afraid Dr Allen and I are going to have to agree to disagree about finding Sir Impey a convincing object of Wimsey’s desire).  Reading ‘against the grain’ in this way can be an intellectually valid, not to say illuminating, exercise when done rigorously [1] and with the awareness that such readings tell us as much if not more about the reader and their cultural context than about the text itself.

What concerns me about such readings is not that they are amateur or uninformed but that their perfectly defined ’21st-century strobe lighting’, while illuminating particular facets of the text will, in turn, obscure others. Because I worry that in defining Peter Wimsey as bisexual we run the risk of losing the full historical complexity of same-sex desires and relationships in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Britain, complexity which historian such as John Tosh, Joanna Bourke and, most recently, Helen Smith have all addressed. [2]  The contemporary category of bisexuality appears to me (and I am very willing to be corrected on this) to limit rather than expand our perceptions of relationships, both physical and emotional, that were, in reality fluid and multi-faceted.  Tosh might argue that ‘Emotionally intense and physically demonstrative friendship between men was not new [to the Victorian era] – in fact in most historical periods it has been taken for granted.’ [3]  He goes on, however, to discuss the historical contingency of interpretations of such friendships in the late nineteenth century, a historical contingency which surely equally effects our own more legally tolerant age.

Which brings me, in a rather roundabout way, to the original point of this post, the consideration of the problems, as well as the benefits, of doing gender history across time.  This was sparked, as I say, by discussions at the Passions of War workshops held at the University of Leicester on 19th-20th February this year.  Part of an on-going series of AHRC-funded workshops, the Passions of War network is interdisciplinary, including scholars of literature, history, sociology and political science, and international, being organised by the University of Leicester, Ghent University, Dr. Guislain Museum and the National Army Museum, as well spanning a time frame from the 17th to the 21st centuries.

I have written previously about how inspiring the diversity of this workshop series has been to me.  My primary reflection on this occasion, however, was the ways in which scholars of a range of historical periods spoke to and with each other.  On several occasions I found myself mentioning the women, gender and sexuality reading group run by two enterprising postgraduates here at Leeds which deliberately selects an article by a medievalist and one by a modern historian for discussion at each session.  Just as at Leicester, where the panel on ‘Tender Encounters’ during the Napoleonic, American Civil and Crimean Wars had me revising and reevaluating my arguments about medical intimacy in the First World War, these groups have been illuminating for the historical continuities in understandings of gender they have uncovered. And yet, that question of historical contingency and specificity haunted our discussions as well.  As Rachel Bates demonstrated, our readings of Victorian images of wounded servicemen need to made in light of our knowledge of technological limitations and the social import of the fact that they were made for Queen Victoria’s private collection.  Their fundamental differences from, say, newspaper photographs of cheerful First World War limbless soldiers may tell us as much about their significance as their superficial similarities.

How, then, do we do history effectively across time?  Can we make comparisons between a medieval world shaped by religious and social understandings of sex, gender and the body which may see alien to us, and a Victorian world in which some forms of (particularly female) sexuality and bodily experience were so taboo that they could not be spoken of openly?  Is it simply a matter of applying similar tools of analysis across periods to uncover or fill in the archival silences? Or are there wider experiential truths which transcend our contemporary attempts at periodisation? How do we balance the insight that the probing if narrow brilliance of the strobe of light of contemporary perspective with the the wider, more shadowy world uncovered by historical context?

When people ask me what I do professionally, I tend to provide an answer that defines my work periodically – I am a First World War historian.  And yet, the joy of attending workshops like the Passions of War, of participating in the women, gender and sexuality reading group, of engaging with those such as Jeanne de Montbaston who are grappling with related questions in provocative and interesting ways, is the realization that the questions I am dealing with cannot and must not be confined by period.  As John Arnold and Sean Brady argued in their defense of long durée histories of masculinity, we need to ‘look beyond the confines of historical periodization, context, evidence and discipline, to provide new insights and challenges in questions of the relational qualities of gender’. [4] Doing so is not always comfortable or easy, but it can be immensely stimulating.  I look forward to more such discussions, on line, in reading groups and in the final Passions of War workshop, due to take place in September.

[1] On this point I will continue quibbling about Sir Impey’s flushed face which, in my copy of the novel occurs a page before Wimsey enters the witness box and three pages before his poetic mockery of ‘Biggy and Wiggy’.  The text itself, rather than a literal reading of it, would seem to preclude association, innuendo-laden or otherwise, between the two instances.

[2] John Tosh, A Man’s Place: Masculinity and the Middle-Class Home in Victorian England (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), 185; Joanna Bourke, Dismembering the Male: Men’s Bodies, Britain and the Great War (London: Reaktion, 1996), Chapter 3; Helen Smith, Masculinity, Class and Same-Sex Desire in Industrial England, 1895-1957 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).

[3] Tosh, A Man’s Place, 185.

[4] John H. Arnold and Sean Brady, ‘Introduction’ in John H. Arnold and Sean Brady (eds.), What is Masculinity: Historical Dynamics from Antiquity to the Contemporary World (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 14.

A question to which the answer is no

This is the first of three interrelated posts about doing history across disciplines, time and space.  These reflections were inspired by two events I have attended in the past couple of months, the second of the Passions of War workshop series, held at the University of Leicester on 19-20 February, and the Globalising and Localising the Great War Graduate Conference on Spaces, Stories and Societies, which took place in Oxford on 17-18 March.  Both were interdisciplinary and both took place either coinciding with or within a week of other academic events I was either attending or wanted to attend. In this first post, I want consider the how interdisciplinarity can inform understandings of historical sexuality.

Recently the blogger Jeanne de Montbaston published a post asking ‘Is Peter Wimsey Bisexual?‘ de Montbaston is the pen name of Lucy Allen, a medievalist examining the relationships between popular culture and medieval literature, particularly in relation to gender.  It is a little unclear, but the post suggests that Allen has only begun reading the eleven novels by Dorothy L. Sayers featuring her aristocratic detective fairly recently.  As someone who has some small pretensions as a Wimsey (if not exactly a Sayers) scholar, in that an entire chapter of my PhD thesis analysed the construction of Wimsey as a post-war heroic figure, I would answer the question in the posts title with an emphatic ‘no’.  This is for two reasons: firstly, the weakness of the evidence deployed by Allen in her post; secondly, the wider problem of the relationship between effeminacy and deviant sexualities in the period under discussion.

Clouds of Witness  To begin with the actual evidence deployed by Allen which is drawn from the second novel in the series, Clouds of Witness, and relies entirely on the relationship between Wimsey and the barrister Sir Impey Biggs, QC.  There can be little doubt that, as a character, Sir Impey is coded as gay for all the reasons that Allen lays out.  What is more problematic is the reading of Sir Impey as Wimsey’s ‘good friend and oftentimes colleague’.  There may be a friendship between the two men to be read in their episodic encounters but, in the two novels and one short story where Sir Impey actually appears (rather than simply being referred to in conversation) their professional relationship is not that of colleagues.  In both Clouds of Witness and Strong Poison Wimsey is in the position of a pseudo-client, with deep emotional attachments to the accused whom Sir Impey is defending as well as that of detective.  But Sir Impey is not a fellow detective, or even a legal detective in the mould of Anthony Gilbert’s Arthur G. Crook or, later, John Mortimer’s Horace Rumpole.  Indeed, in both novels, Wimsey’s detective work actively conflicts with Biggs’s legal interests, leading to professional, if not necessarily personal breaches between the two men. If Wimsey does have a good male friend and colleague in the novels, it is not Biggs, but Detective Inspector Charles Parker, with whom he gets incapably, childishly drunk at the end of Clouds of Witness. But Parker is a figure of such rigid petit-bourgeois social and sexual respectability that he ends up marrying Peter’s sister – after a long struggle with whether even asking her to marry him is a socially appropriate thing to do.[1]

What of Allen’s other evidence, Wimsey’s ‘husky’ voice when speaking to Biggs, the comparison of Biggs to Greek statuary, and Wimsey’s parody of Mother Goose in court?  The first two are matters of interpretation.  Certainly Wimsey later, particularly in Gaudy Night, speaks huskily on several occasions to his acknowledged love-interest, Harriet Vane.  But I have always read the emotion of that meeting as relating a) to the frustrating interview with the police that Wimsey has just returned from and b) the fact that his brother is in prison on a charge of murder which is referred to in the next line.  Similarly, the Greek beauty of the Charioteer of Delphi may be a hint at Oscar Wilde’s ‘Greek love’, but given the consistent playful use that Sayers makes of classical imagery and quotation throughout the novels, and which is clearly the overt intention of association the Charioteer with the (female) Oracle, I can’t help feeling Allen may be reading too much into this.  As I am sure she is in the case of the ‘Biggy and Wiggy’ rhyme.  There is nothing in the text to suggest, as Allen does, that Sir Impey is ‘blushing’ (or, indeed, ‘surprised’) in this scene, and ‘Wiggy’ is very clearly a reference not Wimsey himself, as Allen implies, but to Sir Wigmore Wrinching, the Attorney-General who is prosecuting the case against the Duke of Denver in opposition to Sir Impey.

Have His CarcaseSo no, I don’t think that even by innuendo can Wimsey’s relationships with Sir Impey or, indeed, any of the other male characters who are presented recurrently as his friends, be read as hinting at bisexual desire.  Which is not to say that Wimsey’s mas culinary and sexuality in the novels is unproblematic. Far from it. Throughout the novels he is characterised by others as sexually and morally dubious. Henry Weldon, in Have His Carcase, for instance, implies that Wimsey is ‘exploiting his mother for my private ends and probably sucking up to her for her money’, or, in other words, behaving in precisely the same way as the gigolo Paul Alexis (and later M. Antoine) behave towards her. [2]

Gaudy NightThe issue of Wimsey’s sexuality is, unsurprisingly, made most explicit in Gaudy Night, a novel whose overarching theme is the question of sex and relationships between the sexes.  It is Reggie Pomfret, an undergraduate infatuated with Harriet Vane, who demands:

‘Who … is this effeminate bounder?’

‘I have been accused of many things,’ said Wimsey, interested; ‘but the charge of effeminacy is new to me.’ [3]

Later, the criminal in the case, when confronted, accuses him of being a

rotten little white-face rat! It’s men like you that make women like this. You don’t know how to do anything but talk.  What do you know about life, with your title and your title and your money and your clothes and motor-cars. You’ve never done a hand’s turn of honest work. You can buy all the women you want. Wives and mothers may rot and die for all you care, while you chatter about duty and honor.’ [4]

On the one hand, both these accusations can be read as charges of (hetero)sexual impotence implied in the accusations of effeminacy and the inability to do anything but talk. But the anxieties which prompt the accusations are, on closer reading, of heterosexual jealousy and fear.  Reggie is outraged that Wimsey appears to be publicly wooing Harriet (and insulting him in the process).  The charge that he can buy all the women he wants is one of sexual profligacy and financial dominance, not of lack of interest in sex.

The sexual deviancy that is implied about Wimsey therefore is not homo or bisexuality but rather sexual exploitation – the man who views sex as transactionary in ways that are solely to his advantage.  These anxieties place Wimsey in a Victorian tradition of gigolos, seducers and flâneurs as much as in the Wilde-ean tradition of coded homosexuality.

Why does this distinction matter? Because the implicit accusations against Wimsey as a sexual character is a form of sexually threatening masculininty that, today, has relatively little social purchase.  Yet it is one that was dominant in late 19th and early 20th century popular and middlebrow fiction.  It is only by placing Sayers’s novels within this historic literary context that we can start unpicking multiple and complex levels on which her critique of sex and sexuality works.  Simply reading her novels through the prism of our contemporary understandings of homosexuality as the dominant form of non-normative (or at least non-hegemonic) male sexuality limits our understanding.

Which brings me to that question of interdisciplinarity.  Because sexuality is both historically contingent and historically unspoken, something beautifully demonstrated by Justin Bengray in his post on the Notches Blog, ‘The Case of the Sultry Mountie‘.  What Wimsey demonstrates is the way in which fiction can fill the silences around subjects like sexuality that exist in archives but he also provides insight into social and cultural norms that have slipped out of the contemporary reader’s view.  The first can be accessed and identified through the sort of close reading that the study of literature and methodologies of literary critics fosters.  The second draws on the perspective that derives from the contextualising processes of social and, above all, cultural history.

A call for close collaboration between these disciplines and methodologies will probably not come as any sort of shock to most of this blog’s readership, and most will I suspect be personally and professionally sympathetic to it.  When presenting at the GLGW conference in Oxford last week, I spoke of how I have used fiction to access women’s perspectives on war disability in the past, and was, in turn, asked the extent to which I intend to use such sources in my current project. (The answer is less than before simply because the archive I am working with promises to keep me more than busy enough over the next five years, but I would love other scholars to take up the analysis of wives of disabled ex-servicemen in fiction to develop my arguments and challenge my conclusions.)

Yet it is worth, once again, reiterating the importance of such interdisciplinarity. There are still enough historians who sniff at literature as unrepresentative source material and literary scholars who shrug off the complexities of historical context as unimportant to make this a case that still needs to be made.  Most unnerving of all is the backlash against cultural history which continues to rear its head.  At this week’s Social History Society Conference Rohan Mcwilliam apparently called for cultural history to be dropped from the title of the journal Social and Cultural History. I wasn’t actually present when this was said (which I will discuss further in my post on doing history across space), so am unclear how serious this suggestion was, but such comments reinforce the need for those of us who work across disciplinary boundaries to continue to make the case for why it is so vital to our understanding of ourselves, our culture and our history.

[1] The Hon. Freddy Arbuthnot makes a third in end-of-novel drunkenness, another male friend of Wimsey’s who recurs in the novels far more often than Biggs.  Like Parker, his sexuality is rigidly respectable.  Any suspicion thrown over it by his decision to marry Rachel Levy, the daughter of the Jewish victim of Whose Body? is counteracted both by the self-interested logic of the financially-minded Freddy in marrying the daughter of a City magnate and by the devotion of the bride’s parent’s own inter-religious marriage.

[2] Dorothy L. Sayers, Have His Carcase, New English Library Edition, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1974, 156.  First published London: Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1932.

[3] Dorothy L. Sayers, Gaudy Night, Perennial Library Edition, New York: Harper & Row, 1986, 385. First published London: Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1936.

[4] Sayers, Gaudy Night, 445.

The time has come, the Walrus said

to talk of many things

‘Tis the season. I have been conferencing, attending a workshop and a conference in the past fortnight which have both forced me to think very, very hard indeed. The two could not have been more different, but both have been hugely productive for a variety of reasons. What follows is my attempt to articulate what I have and am learning from both experiences.

Of shoes and ships and sealing wax

Passions of War, Ghent, 20th June

The first gathering was not, officially, a conference, but rather a workshop, one of a series of three being organised by the Passions of War, an AHRC-funded network exploring ‘the influence of war on constructions of gender and sexual practices, and how these constructions and practices have, in turn, conditioned the ways in which wars are waged, mediated, felt and understood’. We were a small group, no more than 20 in total, and formal proceedings were limited to a single day’s presentation and discussion. The event, the theme of which was ‘Identities’ took place in a single room at the Dr. Guislain museum, with all participants engaging with all the papers and joining in with vigorous and wide-ranging discussion.

And when I say wide-ranging, I mean wide-ranging. My own paper, which kicked things off, was an examination of why we need to explore the masculine identities of non-commissioned medical service personnel in the First World War, as well as those of wounded men and doctors. It formed part of a panel in which other papers explored nationhood, motherhood and death in war poetry (Marysa Demoor) and nostalgic conceptions of the Second World War in contemporary social and political discourse (Victoria Basham). A presentation on the now-closed War and Trauma exhibition was followed by an afternoon panel focusing on gender and citizenship in 18th-century conflicts, with papers from Marian Füssell, Stefan Dudink, and Simon Bainbridge. The day closed with a public lecture from James Wharton, including readings from his autobiography, Out in the Army.

On the surface, this range of papers might not seem to have all that much in common, other than the very broad theme of gender and war. They covered huge swathes of time, geography, media and disciplinary approach. Yet together they worked as jumping off points for intense and involving discussion. At the centre of the day’s debates, for me at any rate, was the question of the languages we use to talk about conflict, how that language is gendered and how it can and should be historicized. How does ‘shell shock’ translate into Dutch, and what are we saying if we don’t translate it? What does the changing meaning of ‘nostalgia’, from a nineteenth-century illness to a twentieth-century political tool tell us about the place of war in society? How do we analyse discourses and the literature of the past in ways which are both intellectually and historically rigorous, which speak to both the reality of past experience and the debates of today? The small group set-up of the workshop allowed these discussions to flourish, with ideas and connections developing in interesting and exciting ways across disciplinary, national and periodic divides.

While the formal procedures were enlivening, however, for me the most exciting discussions were those that happened between and around the formal sessions. It was, for instance, an honour and a pleasure to meet Holly Furneaux, whose forthcoming book on the masculinity of Victorian soldiers looks set to shape my own work in important ways. Indeed, on the back of the workshop she has sent me a copy of her chapter on Crimean stretcher bearers which I have been having a lovely time reading and engaging with this past week. Then there was the discussion I had with James Wharton at dinner (and much later into the evening than was probably sensible) about what motivates young men to enlist, how the memory and commemoration of a divisive conflict affects those who served in it, and the practical implications of the government’s current policy on military reserves. These are all issues that have arisen in my historical research; to explore their importance in a contemporary context was illuminating. And, in the end, as I traveled home on a very early Eurostar train from Brussels the following morning, the ideas that had been stimulated over the course of the day coalesced into a moment of inspiration about the argument my book is making and why it is significant. I had gone to Ghent with a paper that attempted to articulate the main argument of my introduction; I came home with the seeds of a conclusion.

Of cabbages and kings

Modern British Studies, Birmingham, 1st-3rd July

The second conference (and this one was a conference) was the Modern British Conference, held in Birmingham this last week. Organisationally, this could not have been more different from Ghent – 280 delegates, three days, 6 keynotes, four parallel panels each session – and my own contribution reflected this difference, being on the project to come rather than on my work at present. The sheer size of the conference meant that my own path through the various ways in which the rethinking of modern British studies is being addressed by contemporary scholarship was particular to me and my interests. It was, quite simply, impossible to attend all the panels that I would have liked to attend, at least not without learning the neglected art of being in two places at once.

The panels I did attend were excellent. Most were flat-out entertaining, many were innovative, all were thought-provoking. Standouts were those on ‘Interrogating British Boundaries’, which pushed me to think again about how I will approach the ‘Overseas’ section of the PIN 26 archive, ‘Money, Belief and Politics in Modern Britain’, where Sarah Roddy’s work in particular was highly suggestive about my methodological practice and the wonderful ‘Humour and Comedy in Modern British Studies’, where not only did Lucy Deplap’s exploration of anti-suffrage humour suggest an angle on hospital journals that I now plan to pursue further, but Peter Bailey gave a demonstration of conference paper presentation as performance that was as powerful as it was funny. I have never experienced a conference panel as joyful – this one, for all its potentially uncomfortable subject matter, was.

I was sad to miss panels on regional histories and creative histories, and it sounds as if panels on the 1970s, subcultures, and ‘The Future History of Race’ were all extraordinary experiences for those who did attend. However, I was able to get a flavour of all through Twitter, this being the most Twitter-active conference I have ever attended. Indeed, this was the first conference I have ever attended where live tweeting made sense, one where the sheer quantity (and quality) of online participation facilitated participation and discussion rather than distracting from it. The extent of online engagement, in addition to the normal face-to-face interaction of a large conference, was, however, more than usually exhausting. As intellectually exciting as it was, I’m not sure that level of critical engagement over three days is entirely healthy or productive. Given the many calls for self-care made throughout the conference, this may be a facet of conferencing that needs revisiting on a regular basis both by individuals and ‘twitterstorians’ collectively.

Of course, not all aspects were equally impressive, and I did come away with a number of reservations. The first of these was about an uncomfortable tendency to try to periodize Modern British Studies as a historic undertaking. James Vernon gave the most overt example of this in his keynote address, where he sought to define the field generationally, starting with the ‘generation of 1945’. I found this sort of grouping of scholarly endeavour, which also found expression in the focus on established scholars as opposed to PhD and early career scholars mildly alienating. As someone who has not had the opportunity to define myself as part of a generation, indeed has only just moved from the precariousness of a temporary contract to the security of a permanent position, I certainly don’t feel ‘established’, although I do feel the responsibility to support the intellectual endeavours of those in less secure positions within the academy. I was not clear where I and people like me fit into to this mapping of the professional field. And if we are going to talk about self-care and support within the profession, we do need to discuss issues that arise at different points in the life-cycle, not least the caring responsibilities that impact on the time and energy of so many mid-career scholars, a subject that, as far as I was aware, was simply never mentioned.

The second issue to disturb me was the rather startling absence of gender as a category of explicit historical analysis, particularly in the keynote speeches. Where gender was specifically discussed, in Geoff Eley’s public lecture, it was, shockingly, in a way in which women were viewed as the only gendered sex, thereby completely ignoring quarter of a century’s work to make men visible as gendered historical subjects. The story of gender and the political aftermath of the First World War, for instance, is far more than one of maternalist discourse v. fear of the flapper, not least because the ‘Lost Generation’ was, for most politicians in Britain, exclusively male.

Is this a piece of special pleading on the part of a gender historian? Well possibly. There is, of course, only so much that can be said in a thirty-five minute paper and the subjects addressed by Seth Koven, Stephen Brooke, Deborah Cohen and Catherine Hall were all wonderfully rich and complex in ways that defied simplification or easy summation. But given the focus on specific families in Koven and Cohen’s papers, and the discussion of domestic violence in Brooke’s, a more explicit acknowledgement that the power structures being uncovered and analysed have a gendered element would have made clear what was only in the end implicit, that gender histories continue to have relevance at least as significant as those of race. If the point that the history of modern Britain is the history of imperialism could be made as clearly and emphatically as it was over the course of three days, then I only wish there had been the space to make the parallel point that it is also the history of gendered relations of power.

Despite these reservations, in the end it was Catherine Hall’s keynote, of all the panels and plenaries over the three days, that spoke most deeply to me. At once a razor-sharp analysis of a rich, deeply problematic source with powerful implications for our understanding of both the past and the present, and a rallying cry to the profession to use our passion to demonstrate the undoubted relevance of the work we do, it left me energised and even inspired. I left Birmingham knowing that the practice of history is hard, should be hard, but however hard it is, it is also fun and undoubtedly worth doing.

And why the sea is boiling hot/ And whether pigs have wings

So, two very different events in two very different venues at which I attempted to grapple with two very different facets of my work as I understand it at the moment. Yet there were also themes that connected them. The invisibility of men as gendered historical actors, for instance, formed the basis of a question raised in Ghent, reinforcing my sense that historians of gender, and masculinity in particular, still have work to do in making our political and theoretical project clear and accepted. More positively, the relevance of the study of the past to questions of social, cultural and political import in the present was made crystal clear at both events. Every panel I attended in Birmingham contained at least one paper that addressed a contemporary debate or concern, illuminating the connection between past and present as clearly as my post-workshop discussion with James. Oh, and both were wonderful social events, where the pleasures of reunion with old friends was only matched by that of forging new friendships.

There is still much that I absorbed both in Belgium and the Midlands that I have yet to fully process. But in sum, if Ghent provided me with inspiration, Birmingham was a source of exhilaration. The remainder of the summer, then, will have to provide the perspiration that will, I hope, result in, if not a work of genius, then at least a good book.

Remembering Robert Fentiman

I started this month with two frantic weeks of research, paper presentation and working at the Great Yorkshire Show.  By the time the last event, a two-day conference on the emotional history of war at the British Academy, came around, I was exhausted, sick of train travel and worried that my children no longer knew who I was.  I seriously considered giving it a miss; I wasn’t giving a paper and wasn’t sure how emotional history might be significant for my work on RAMC servicemen.

However, I had booked a hotel room and paid for my train ticket, so I packed my bag and headed back to London.  And boy am I glad I went!  Not only was it a conference attended by many of the most notable historians of the cultural history of war (walking into the room where coffee was served felt a bit like seeing large parts of my PhD bibliography made flesh), but it forced me to rethink the nature of my work as a form of emotional history.  In fact, the ideas about emotional labour and the archiving of emotion that I took away from those two days have made me completely rethink the structure of the book proposal I am in the process of writing.

I still have a huge amount of work to do sorting out how my work is located in the history of emotions, but I’ve been thinking about one idea in particular over the past couple of weeks.  During the round table session which closed the conference, one point was made three times, in three different ways, namely how do we, as historians, research and write about emotions that make us feel uncomfortable.  The conference was divided into sessions on love, fear and grief.  None of these are comfortable emotions, of course, and the evoke strong reactions in us as historians and in those who read what we write.  But there are other emotions felt by participants in war that we didn’t discuss directly, skirting around or mentioning only in relation to other emotions: anger, joy, relief, pride, shame.  These are emotions that don’t necessarily fit into the narratives we want to tell ourselves about war.  They highlight the power of war not only to traumatise, creating victims of its participants, but also to brutalise, even dehumanise, the perpetrators of violence.  But they are as important a part of the historical narratives of war as an emotional experience as those easier, possibly more acceptable emotions.

Which brings me to Robert Fentiman.  Robert Fentiman is one of the central characters in Dorothy L. Sayers’s 1928 novel, The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club. Like his brother, George, another key character, Robert served in the war.  Unlike George, who was gassed and suffers from shell shock throughout the novel, Robert, is described as ‘frightfully hearty – a regular army type.’ [1]  Indeed, he chooses to remain in the army after the war.  Throughout the novel, the differences between himself and his brother are emphasised.  Where George has a fit of hysterics upon the discovery of his grandfather’s corpse, Robert [spoiler alert], laughs with humour when recalling using the two-minute silence to hide the body in order to commit fraud. Neither is a particularly attractive character.  George is depicted as bullying his wife while Robert is described as ‘thick-skinned; the regular unimaginative Briton. I believe Robert would cheerfully go through another five years of war and think it all a very good rag. … I remember Robert, at that ghastly hole at Carency, where the whole ground was rotten with corpses–ugh!–potting those swollen great rats for a penny a time, and laughing at them. Rats. Alive and putrid with what they’d been feeding on. Oh, yes, Robert was thought a damn good soldier.’ [2]

Neither George nor Robert is particularly emblematic of how we like to construct our image of veterans of the First World War today.  As I have argued before, our culture wants to smooth out the image of shell-shock sufferer, to remove the violence and ugliness in order to create the image of a victim we can pity without qualms.  But, even in this bowdlerized form, the shell-shock sufferer retains an important place in our cultural memory, indeed an increasingly important place as the definition of shell shock expands to encompass an increasing number of men.  By comparison, we seem to have little cultural memory of the Robert Fentimans of the war, the men who went through it phlegmatically, found an acceptable niche for themselves in post-war society, and displayed little or no sentiment about publically commemorating the dead, however much they privately honoured their comrades.

Some might argue that such men did not exist, that even if they did appear to display resilience in public, the psychic wounds that war inflicted on them were repressed, to echo down the generations and that, to this extent, all men who had been under a rolling barrage, as Robert Graves and Alan Hodge asserted in 1940, suffered from shell shock. [3] Yet Graves and Hodge go on to assert that what they called shell shock was a temporary condition. The resilient, even thick-skinned war veteran was certainly a common enough cultural figure for Sayers to place him in direct, antithetical comparison to the equally emblematic shell-shock sufferer in a popular novel that sold well in the interwar years.  George and Robert Fentiman are two sides of the same coin, and would almost certainly have been recognised as such at the time, yet today we only remember one of them.

As I say, it is not easy to write about men like Robert Fentiman.  They aren’t particularly likable or sympathetic.  They do not fit into our definitions of heroes.  But these men too fought the war; they too must form part of our history.  The challenge that War: An Emotional History set me was how to write about these men whose emotions I struggle to recognise and respond to in a way that is honest and does them the honour they deserve.  I will be grappling with this over the next couple of months.  If you would like to hear how I get on, I will be giving a lecture on The Fentiman Brothers at War: Shell Shock, Emotional Resilience and the Cultural Memory of the First World War at the Freud Museum in London on 2nd October. Do join me.

[1] Dorothy L. Sayers, The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, New English Library Paperback edition (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2003), 14.

[2] Sayers, 99-100.

[3] Robert Graves and Alan Hodge, The Lond Week-End: A Social History of Great Britain 1918-1939 (New Yorkk: W.W. Norton and Company, 1940), 16.