The Past is Personal

IMG_4813‘What do you think?’

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

Here lie Helena and Lehmann Glückstein.

Matriarch and patriarch of the family,

who founded the catering firm J. Lyons

and the tobacco retailer Salmon & Gluckstein

Whose legacy was:

Find a safe place. Love your family and friends.

Give back to society. Savour the good things.

Tell your story.

Pass it on.

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

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

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

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

And what do I think of the book?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Doing History in Public Again

IMG_4460I was on television last night. If you follow me on Twitter, then you will probably have seen this already. Given that I was speaking to Daniel Radcliffe for Who Do You Think You Are?, both I and my department were quite keen to publicise this event.  Since the broadcast, there has been quite a lot more interest, and some very interesting discussions about historical research for factual television, letters from women to soldiers during the First World War, and the significance of the Commonwealth War Graves cemetery at Dud Corner. In other words, this bit of academic public engagement, me bringing my historical expertise to bear on a popular subject in a very public forum, went as well as I could have hoped when my meeting with Dan was filmed back in May.

What has made this experience slightly ironic, however, is the coincidence of the publication of an article in The Economist late last week. Entitled The study of history is in decline in Britain’, it argues that historians (by which the author, ‘Bagehot’, means academic historians) ‘increasingly devote themselves to subjects other than great matters of state: the history of the marginal rather than the powerful, the poor rather than the rich, everyday life rather than Parliament. These fashions were a valuable corrective to an old-school history that focused almost exclusively on the deeds of white men, particularly politicians. But they have gone too far. … What were once lively new ideas have degenerated into tired orthodoxies, while vital areas of the past, such as constitutional and military affairs, are all but ignored.’ While some historians, the author graciously acknowledges, do ‘demonstrate a genius for bringing their subject alive’, they are, he claims, either not in academic posts or ‘face brickbats and backbiting from their fellow professionals’. Military history, according to the author, is catered for entirely by non-academic historians. Academics he (an educated guess at the gender of the author) argues ‘need to escape from their intellectual caves and start paying more attention to big subjects such as the history of politics, power and nation-states.’

Now, I make no claims to having a genius for bringing my subject to life but, like all my colleagues doing our best to work with the current impact agenda, I am fully aware of the dangers of ‘learning more and more about less and less, producing narrow PhDs and turning them into monographs and academic articles, in the hamster-wheel pursuit of tenure and promotion.’ I don’t want to speak only to other historians, which is precisely why I jumped at the chance to appear on a nationally broadcast, BAFTA-winning programme which, for the first time in its history, was touching on a subject about which I had written a book.  I hope and believe that my enthusiasm for the subject and the relevance of the type of document I was exploring with Dan came across, even if there wasn’t time or space for our discussion of the references to the Easter Uprising that occur in one letter, or the contemporary political significance of separation allowances as a form of proto-welfare benefit. Similarly, I hope and believe that the public lectures I gave on the ranks and work of RAMC throughout the First World War centenary and the variety of resources I helped produce for schools on the medical history of the war helped to both nurture public interest in history as a subject and inform debate over the relevance of the past to the social challenges of the present.

The problem isn’t that academic historians don’t do public history. We do, in far more ways than publishing books or appearing on television, as I have noted previously. Nor is it that we ignore war, politics or power structures by focusing on ‘marginal’ subjects. Social and cultural histories simply provide another way of looking at war, politics, economics, diplomacy. Indeed, the interrogation power structures are their very fabric, not their antithesis. I would strongly recommend Dr Daniel Todman’s (QMUL) acclaimed two-volume social history of the Second World War to Bagehot’s attention to see what I mean.

Rather, the problem is that public history is a different discipline from academic history. Doing both well is possible for a single individual, but it is hard and time-consuming, especially when added to the other expectations of teaching, administration, pastoral care and grant capture that are expected of academics today.  I am becoming increasingly aware of just how different and difficult a discipline it is as I work to turn my academic research into a ‘trade’ book for wider public consumption (although even in its academic form it is free of charge to download, and I have been honoured to have it recommended as a useful resource for GCSE teacing). Even if I succeed in doing so, I doubt that the ultimate product will have anything like the breadth of impact that 5 minutes of speaking with the man who played Harry Potter about some of the work I did for my PhD and turned into an academic monograph has had. But that isn’t going to stop me trying because I am historian, even if one who happens to work in an academic job. And I believe from my experience in engaging with the public that people are interested in listening to these stories of those on the margins, including those on the margins in wartime, and hearing what they have to say about the world they lived in and how it shaped the world in which we live in today, even if Bagehot does not.

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.

The Many and the Few

In the run up to today’s centenary Armistice commemorations, falling this year on Remembrance Sunday, pretty much every form of British media has been publishing and broadcasting material relating to the war and its aftermath. Many of these have focused on individual experiences of the Armistice and the war more broadly, often drawing on the archives of the Imperial War Museums. Others have focused on the conduct of the final campaigns of the conflict and the politics of remembrance.

One article which caught my attention, however, was the cover story of The Times’ Weekend section on Saturday, 3rd November, ‘The day I found my great-grandfather’s war diaries’.* In it Leonie Roderick narrates her great-grandfather, Trevor Roderick’s, war as an officer’s batman in the Army Service Corps using the text of the diary he kept from 1916. For Roderick, the ‘Slightly frayed little diaries, each measuring 3-5 in … provided a fascinating insight into something that had been kept secret for nearly 100 years’. I, however, was powerfully struck not by their uniqueness but by their familiarity.  After nearly two decades of research which has involved reading hundreds of similar diaries, preserved in archives primarily in Leeds and London rather than left in a family attic, there was much to recognise in these excerpts. The particular experiences may have varied to some extent, but the matter-of-fact tone, the choice of types of incident to be recorded (airplane sightings are always noteworthy and descriptions of physical health and meals common), the run-on sentences linked with plus signs, are all absolutely characteristic not just of one man but of a much wider category of servicemen who kept diaries during the war.

Trevor Roderick was a unique individual and his diary a unique document. For his great-granddaughter, their familial relationship undoubtedly both enhances this sense of uniqueness and piques her interest (as not a professional historian) in her grandfather’s experience. This has, in many ways, been the basis for much of the media coverage of the centenary. Indeed, in 2014, the BBC made explicit its focus on the personal, familial stories of individuals in its centenary programme, most notable in the use of descendants of those who lived through the war as talking heads on Jeremy Paxman’s Britain’s Great War, rather than historians. While the aim may have been to personalise a conflict which has now moved almost entirely out of living memory, one result has been to atomise our understanding of the lived experience of war and its aftermath. Every document unseen by descendants becomes a hidden one, every experience unique. The synthesis which forms the basis of so much social and cultural analysis of the war, the bigger picture of war’s impact, becomes almost too big in this approach, and we risk no longer being able to see the wood for the trees.

This effect can be seen in some recent discussions about who is remembered in our centenary commemoration of the Armistice. The nearly century-long focus on the dead and the bereaved who mourned them in British commemorative practice has, in many ways been, since its inception about personal histories. The powerful cultural traditions of naming the dead, the gravestones at Commonwealth War Graves cemeteries, now individually depicted on social media, usually in close up to show the individual epitaph, the focus on stories of mothers campaigning for the return of their sons’ bodies in the aftermath of war, all serve to give a name and identity to the dead and missing even as they locate them within the generality of wartime death. The power behind the Unknown Warrior was that he could be anybody’s son, enabling each individual grieving a loss to give him a name and a remembered face.

Yet the majority of those who served with the British armed forces during the First World War survived, 88% to be precise, including Trevor Roderick.  While his great-granddaughter notes this fact (not least because if he had not, her grandfather would not have been born) her reading of his diaries focusses on the war, with the post-war entries on work, family and marriage consigned to a single summative paragraph. For the men who died, their story does, of course, end with the war. But by focussing on a single individual who survived in this way, it is impossible to locate Roderick in the wider experience of the millions of men like him who returned to civil society, or the impact that their experiences of war had on interwar society.

The problem is, in part, how we talk about these men, whose sheer numbers make their experiences of post-war life hugely varied. Many, but not all, were impaired, mentally or physically or both, by the traumatic injuries they received during the war. Many, but not all, managed to reintegrate into civil society. Some were politically radicalised, others returned gladly to quiet domesticity. Some suffered domestic breakdown, others married and had children and grandchildren. Some wrote (and rewrote) their war experience, talked about it openly, displayed their wounds and their medals for all to see; others refused recognition, discarded military titles, refused to speak of about the war, at least not to those left alive to remember. No single person’s story can exemplify this range, but there is still a desire to generalise about the category of ‘First World War veteran’, to try to make one man – be he Trevor Roderick or Harry Patch – speak for all.

The same problem, of course, affects our commemoration of the dead. As we focus on the individual, it often becomes hard to comprehend the mass. In turn, as in the case of Wilfred Owen, symbolic individuals become increasingly significant in how we frame the experience of that mass. How much weight of commemoration and emotion can one man’s memory bear? The impulse is understandable. As Josephine Tey wrote in The Daughter of Time (1951), ‘The sorrows of humanity are no one’s sorrows, as newspaper readers long ago found out. A frisson of horror may go down one’s spine at wholesale destruction but one’s heart stays unmoved A thousand people drowned in floods in China are news: a solitary child drowned in a pond is tragedy.’  But there is still more willingness to view the dead of the First World War as a whole, and a large one,  to locate Owen’s voice as one of the many in a way that still doesn’t happen with the men who survived. Enumerating the dead as many as well as one has a political purpose, underpinning the narrative of war as wasteful and futile. Doing the same for those who survived undermines this dominant narrative in ways that still make us uncomfortable. Yet the job of the historian, at least those of us who study the social and cultural history of the war, is to bridge that gap, to give the individual lives context beyond that of their families’ love and desire for better understanding of their individual experience. It is important for us to point out that not only was Trevor Roderick was unique individual who lived a unique war and his diaries are thus unique records, he was also part of a larger story about how war was experienced and what happened after. There were millions more Trevor Rodericks who may or may not have kept diaries, who may or may not have had great-granddaughters who became journalists and wrote about them in the national press but they too had a voice and a place in history, of which that of Trevor Roderick is a familiar part, not an exceptional exemplar.

88% of those who served in the British armed forces – over 4 million men – survived the First World War. We cannot name them all, any more than we can name all the more than 700,000 dead. Today on social media many people have named the specific men and women of this war and other wars who they remembered today. But as we each remember the few whose names have meaning for us as individuals (George Swindell, Ward Muir, David Randle McMaster), let us also remember that they each were one of many.

*With apologies for the pay wall.

All I have is a voice

So I am coming to the end of another summer of writing, the third focused primarily on the book. With little bit of luck, this will be the last, as I now have an at least somewhat definite deadline for submission of the full manuscript, although next summer is likely to be occupied with editing and incorporating reader comments.  Sadly, while I have emerged from the previous two summers energized and enthused by successes in completing chapters, I end this summer with far more mixed feelings, having spent a significant portion writing what I can only describe as the wrong chapter. That is, I got an idea of what I was supposed to be writing into my head, struggled to draft about 15,000 words, went back and reread what I had actually proposed and discovered it was something different – more complex and less linear, but potentially far more useful in the overall scheme of the book.  There are bits that can be salvaged from the previous version, and the rest will form the basis of a lecture I hope to be giving next spring. In the meantime, I have nearly finished drafting the correct version, a process I have found far easier and quicker than the original. This version is far more comfortable because I am writing in a way that suits me, not trying to take on the voice of a different type of historian and applying it to my research.

I have been thinking a lot about this question of the writer’s ‘voice’ this summer, in part because my period of focused writing has been bookended by events which have (or will) asked me to push myself out of my comfort zone as a writer.  The first was the final event in the Passions of War workshops which I have been attending for the past 2 years (for details of previous workshops, see posts here and here). In addition to hearing updates from participants on the research they had presented on at previous events, participants engaged in a guided fiction writing session, aimed at helping us free up the writing process and gives us skills and strategies for our academic writing practice.  The second is a story-telling workshop that I will be attending as part of the War Through Other Stuff workshop, being held at Leeds City Museum on 30th September.

Both of these events form part of a wider trend towards ‘creative histories’ which has been developing over the past few years.  This is the move towards exploring the variety of ways in which ‘educators, researchers, writers, artists, students, practitioners, and curators [bring] the past to life, [make] history compelling, and [have] fun’, to quote the call for papers from the summer’s Creative Histories conference.  The idea that the doing of history involves more than solely academic analysis or traditional exhibitions (a subject which has been raised in my own field in relation to the newly renovated National Army Museum, more of which in a moment) is undoubtedly to be welcomed.  But my experiences this summer have left me thinking that we need to make the case for more traditional analytic, even formal, histories as well.

One of the things that the fiction writing workshop reminded me was how uncomfortable the writing of fiction can be.  I say that as someone who started out as a writer of fiction (and weak adolescent poetry). For three summers during my school days, I attended that most American of institutions, an writing camp.  For two weeks each summer I took classes on poetry, short fiction, screen plays, learning how to create characters, set scenes, develop plot.  I wrote some very bad fiction, most of it thankfully long destroyed, but at the time I was quite convinced that I would, one day, be a writer of fiction.  I even thought that I might be able to make a living out of it.

What being asked to write fiction again reminded me was how constrained I have always felt by the process of scene and character creation. Far from inhabiting my imagined worlds and people, I have always needed to get it right – to be historically, or socially accurate, to get the slang correct, the details of the setting just so.  Developing a good story (or even a believable character) fell foul of this obsession with detail, a fear of the criticism that it was unauthentic, wrong.  I couldn’t, writing fiction, find that most elusive of qualities, my own writer’s voice.

I did eventually find it, however, in my final year of my undergraduate degree in the rather unexpected form of the dissertation, or long-form academic essay.  Since then I have honed and developed it, through two post-graduate theses, journal articles, book reviews and one (nearly two) complete monographs.  While there have been moments of doubt about the process (am I just stringing interesting/relevant quotations together/this is entirely and blindingly obvious/x, y and z have all said exactly this before), I have developed (and hopefully will continue to do so), my own style, my own perspective, my own contribution to understanding, my own ‘voice’.

As part of the process of learning the rules and limitations of the form I work in, I have also learned how to bend and subvert them, how far I can push the boundaries while maintaining my own authenticity, how this can be used to make my work engaging to a variety of audiences.  I am learning how to adapt my voice to different forms – discursive/reflexive essays (probably the form I aspire most to succeed in – Joan Didion has been a hero since school days), public lectures, academic seminars, scholarly monographs, someday, I hope, trade histories. This summer I have sought to push the boundaries of my own form in a peer-reviewed journal article that adapts reflexive practices and a book chapter for a collection that will be marketed to the Christmas trade as something of a novelty volume.  But within these experiments I try to remain true to the voice that I have come to through my academic writing and training, a voice shaped by analysis, historiographic considerations, and a belief in the value of proper citation and acknowledgement of intellectual debts (even if that does take the form of the despised footnote).

That locating and nurturing an individual voice is a significant part of the historian’s craft even in the most traditional forms of academic writing has been brought home to me by two museum events that I contributed to, the late opening of the Science Museum in July as part of their current Wounded exhibition, and the Masculinity Late event at the National Army Museum last night, part of their current season exploring gender and the military.  For both, I was asked to provide some sort of interactive session for museum visitors, although I had initially been asked to give a talk at the National Army Museum (the change was to make the event over all work more smoothly).  For both, I did the same thing, taking an article (one published, one currently under review) and deconstructing it into a series of quotations and images which I stuck to a wall and asked participants to respond to with their own thoughts.  Essentially, I took myself, my analysis, my voice out of the presentation of my work and then presented it to a non-specialist, if culturally engaged audience.

I came away from each event with very different feelings about the process.  The Science Museum experience was, for want of a better word, depressing.  While I had many interesting conversations, and felt my audience was engaged with the material presented, I was left wondering what the point of my labour was in the process.  Many of the responses I got were conditioned by dominant narratives around shell shock, which I found difficult to challenge in this format.  What then was the point of my research? It wouldn’t reach a wide audience in the format it was published in (a respected but slightly niche academic journal), but, in removing my voice from the format in presenting it to a wider audience, my ability to shape that narrative had dissipated. My voice was important; it needed to be there in some form.

By contrast, last night’s event at the NAM left me feeling far more energised and enthusiastic.  This may have been due to the fact that the audience was smaller, allowing me more opportunities to explain my perspective in some detail. It may have been due to the fact that the work presented hasn’t yet been published, leaving me more open to having my understanding shaped by the audience responses (there were also more of these in the form of post-it notes stuck to the wall by participants than there had been at the Science Museum, a reflection of the event being held in a more intimate space within the museum, allowing participants to feel safer in voicing their opinions, I think.) But I had also organised the display in ways that allowed me to demonstrate my ideas, my argument.  It was subtle, but it felt as if my voice was able to come through more clearly.

What last night demonstrated for me is that is possible for more traditional forms of history to be adapted to communicate with diverse audiences in ways that are both creative and yet recognise the authenticity of the original form.  This is the power of respecting one’s own authorial voice. Which may mean that, as fun and adventurous as writing fiction can be, it doesn’t need to be the approach taken by everyone. I will bear this in mind as I prepare to engage with storytelling at the end of the month.

Women, Gender and Sexuality visit Women, Work and War.

A guest post from Laura Boyd, a second-year PhD student in the School of Languages, Cultures and Societies at the University of Leeds. Laura is researching the work of non-combatant male medical caregivers in Britain and France during the First World War, and is a postgraduate member of the Women, Gender and Sexuality Research Cluster.

On 8 March 2017, the Women, Gender and Sexuality Research Cluster at the University of Leeds had the fantastic opportunity of a guided tour of the Women, Work and War exhibition at Armley Mills, followed by coffee and a chat. We were a mixed group of academic staff and postgraduates, from MA to Ph.D level in the Faculty of Arts. Guiding us was Lucy Moore, the Project Curator for First World War and member of the Legacies of War Project.

The visit began with the guided tour. The exhibition was wonderfully curated, and gave a real insight into the lives of the women working in and around Leeds during the Great War. These women came from all around Leeds and indeed much further, and took over the jobs in factories that were left by men who had gone off to war. Though it started in Armley, the factory expanded to the Barnbow site and employed large numbers of women.

Not only did it portray the ‘general’ or ‘bigger picture’ of the lives of these women who worked at Armley and Barnbow in the munitions factories, but was interspersed with personal stories. Lucy showed us around the different exhibits, including munitions and clothing, and shared other anecdotal tales that were not on display, taken from the writings of the ‘Canary Girls’ themselves. The exhibition featured personal accounts of the 1916 Barnbow explosion, which really brought home just how dangerous this behind-the-lines war work was. We even had the chance to have a sneak-peek at an original medal press that is currently awaiting restoration!

We then sat down for coffee and a chat with Lucy, and we began by asking about her own career progression into becoming a curator. Her answer? Refreshingly honest! And by that I mean that it wasn’t a straightforward, linear progression, as these things rarely are. A few of the postgraduates in attendance were interested in hearing about how to get into her line of work and Lucy gave us some great tips on how to get started.

This led to a discussion of the academic buzzwords ‘impact’, and ‘partnerships’ between academics and the community. Though these words tend to scare people like me, it was actually a really insightful and interesting discussion. Both Dr. Jessica Meyer and Lucy Moore are part of the Legacies of War Project here at Leeds, which they were delighted to talk about. Lucy was open about how the academic world has helped create interest around exhibitions such as Women, Work and War. Not only through organising trips such as ours, but by spreading the word among colleagues and at other academic events such as conferences and seminar series. She also said that she is happy to have connections to which (and whom) she can turn for information and help. Jessica was also keen on this point, telling us how the museum had also helped greatly in terms of ‘impact’, by helping the academic world bridge the gap between us and the public, leading to some fruitful and fascinating interactions. She also noted that often independent researchers involved in projects such as this come with knowledge and sources often unknown to academics!

So, to sum up, it was invaluable. Academic-community partnerships can help to get the public interested in what we do, and in turn can, through these partnerships make our research available to all. I would wholeheartedly suggest that if you have not yet been to the exhibition – GO! It will be well worth it, I promise.