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.

How I got here

The weekly convulsion of my Twitter-feed in response to the Academics Anonymous column in The Guardian is becoming something of a ritual.  Last week’s, a former PhD candidate’s complaints about the British viva voice examination system for doctoral dissertations, happened to coincide for me with a dinner discussion of the path I took getting from my PhD to my current permanent position with external funding.  Based on that conversation, and the comments below the line of the Academics Anonymous article, I’ve decided it is time for me to come clean about how I got to where I am today.  It has taken me a long time to reach the point where I feel confident enought to discuss this in a post on here, but the time has come, so here goes.

Why is it so hard for me to talk completely openly about my academic journey?  Well, based on the opinions of some in the academic community (reflected in the below-the-line comments), for the following reasons I am a failure as an academic:

1) My MPhil and PhD were both self-funded.  The practical reasons for this was that my decision to apply to do both degrees came quite late in the annual application cycle.  My options for funding were further complicated by the fact that I was applying as an overseas (non-EU) candidate.  Yes, I could have taken time out, waited a year, reapplied for funding, but in the case of the PhD that would have involved considerable complications with regards to relocating and would probably have thrown me off my academic course.  As I was in the fortunate position to be able to self-fund, that is what I did, and ended up with a degree from a highly respected institution as a result.  However, in a landscape where many believe that too many weak PhDs are being produced, self-funding is often seen not as a practical choice (even if one that isn’t necessarily politically palatable to those who make it) but as a shorthand for a project too weak to compete for competitive funding.

2) To confirm those critics who would argue my research was too weak for a PhD, my thesis was referred following my viva.  There is quite a lot of confusion around the various terms relating to examination outcomes, so to clarify, the options for examiners at my university are a) unconditional approval (pass), b) conditional approval (requiring either minor OR major corrections), c) revision and resubmission of the thesis (referral), d) revision and resubmission OR the offer of a lesser degree (MLitt/MSc.), e) offer of a lesser degree without the option of revising and resubmitting, f) outright failure.  Roughly 10% of vivas at my institution result in option c, the option my examiners went for, which means that the candidate has longer to make the suggested revisions (6 months as opposed to 3).  While it can be emotionally tough, and certainly tougher than major corrections, it can provide the necessary time and space to absorb the ideas discussed in the viva, read any additional suggested literature, and produce work of the expected quality.  In my case, this time was invaluable in addressing the key theoretical weakenesses quite rightly identified by my examiners.  Using their suggestions I was able, in this time, to produce a thesis that did not require a second oral examination upon resubmission, although this in turn has left me with a strong sense of anti-climax around my degree, and a more than usually heightened sense of imposter syndrome.

3) I left academia for five years.  Nope, I couldn’t hack it.  After 2 years of temporary teaching jobs and about 300 failed applications, I decided to cut my losses and try something else.  I spent a year working in academic publishing before my personal circumstances changed, after which I did some freelance editing, finished my book and had a baby.  It was in this period that I realised that historical research and writing was what I loved, what I wanted to do with my life.  But I had left academia, hadn’t I?  I was a failed academic, with a weak degree that probably should never have been undertaken in the first place…

Except, that isn’t quite how things panned out.  When my son was 6 months old I was invited to lunch by Alison Fell and asked if I wanted to contribute to the Legacies of War project she was just starting to develop with colleagues at the University of Leeds.  My answer was yes, of course, but I had no professional links with the university.  With the support of Alison and the School of History, I was able to put together a successful Wellcome Trust Research Fellowship application, a job which in turn enabled me to put together my successful applications of the position of University Academic Fellowship in Legacies of War and for European Research Council funding.

So what did Alison, the University of Leeds and the Wellcome Trust see in me to make them take the risk of giving me the opportunity to get back into academia? I’m not entirely sure, but the following probably contributed.

1) I was REF-able.  My PhD may not have met the standard of being publishable on submission, but two chapters, almost entirely unrevised, formed the basis of half of my monograph, published four years after I was awarded my degree.  I  had also published two refereed journal articles (as well as several book chapters) based on the research undertaken for my doctorate, so publishers, journal editors and referees had, independently come to the conclusion that my research and writing were of sufficient standard to be published.  I had passed the criteria for examination by publication, if you like.

2) I had strong networks.  I never really fully left academia, even in the period I stopped actively pursuing a straightforwardly academic career.  I organised conferences, edited essay collections, reviewed books, acted as membership secretary for a scholarly society.  People knew may name, were willing to write references for me, launch and review my books, endorse my work.  In other words, I had the endorsement of ‘the academic judgement of the scholarly community as a whole’, as called for as an alternative form of examination by the anonymous academic.

3) I had good ideas which I was able to put forward as coherent, fundable projects (although I currently fear that I have overpromised on my current project, a by -now familiar phase of any new undertaking).  These ideas, both for Wellcome and for the ERC, arose directly from my PhD.  They are questions I was not able to answer within the scope of that project but which now, with greater experience and knowledge of the field, I can tackle.

So what is the point of this confession other than to finally make a clean breast of my academic failures, to show some of the frantic paddling that has gone on under the surface to travel this far?  Primarily, I think, to note that the PhD, while a necessary qualification for an academic career, is not the be-all and end-all of making a success of that career.  Being a successful academic requires skills that can be reflected in a PhD, but which can also be developed over the course of and after gaining the degree. The examination of our credentials does not end on the far side of the viva door but carries on throughout our careers, undertaken by funders, publishers, colleagues, students and, increasingly, the government and the public (but that is a discussion for another post).  The prospect is a daunting one, whatever stage of a career you are at, but it is also one that, at least for those of us who started our careers with a sense of failure, also offers immense opportunity.

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.

The senses of history

History is textural (as opposed to textual), something I was reminded of while reading a recent blog post from the always articulate and evocative Matt Houlbrook. It reminded me of another post, this one by Will Pooley, which similarly thinks about history in terms of the tactile. The interactions of history become as much about touch as intellectual comprehension.

This post, then, forms my own contribution to this mini-genre of historical thought, inspired by the coincidence that, on the same train journey where I read Matt’s blog, I also read the recent seminar paper that Edmund King gave at the Senate House on ‘British Manuscript Cultures of the First World War’. I wasn’t able to attend the seminar, but the wonders of modern technology (well, a combination of Twitter and email) meant that I was able to read the text the following day.

Among a variety of fascinating sources quoted, one stood out in relation to this question of the textures of history, from a letter from 2nd Lt. Sanders Lewis to his fiancee:

‘So my letters smell like a tobacco store. I am glad … I have been able to give you at last some real taste of the sort of place we live in. Here out of the line the officers’ mess is one wood huts heated by two stoves. There is a long table … and on it candles flicker a shadowy light over the hut at night. A few men are writing letters at one end, two parties are playing bridge at the other … and everywhere med are smoking so that with the shadows flicked on the walls by the candle flames, and the slow columns of pipe and cigarette smoke hanging over our heads, everyone looks dim at ten yards interval.’ [1]

In this quotation, Lewis evokes three of the five senses – smell, sight and touch – to try to describe his experiences to Margaret. As King notes, ‘Describing the material contexts of writing becomes a way of bridging the sensory and temporal divides between writer and recipient.

Lewis was by no means alone in doing this, nor were the senses of hearing and taste to be forgotten. Descriptions of sound were a deeply significant element of men’s letters home in their attempts to describe their experiences to their families. [2] Taste was similarly central to the emotional power of the food parcel from home, as discussed by Rachel Duffett. [3] The senses, all five of them, then, were vitally important to the ways in which the First World War was communicated as an experience at the time.

But what struck me is that, if such evocation of sensory experience acts as a bridge between writer and recipient, it also has the power to act as a bridge between the writer and other readers, in this case the historian who has accessed the letter through an archive. As with the original reader, the descriptions in men’s letters have the potential to show us what we have not experienced ourselves, to share with us a world we do not know.

At the same time, while verbal descriptions remain potentially powerful, other sensory aspects of these manuscripts and objects have been lost. 100 years on, I doubt the smell of tobacco still clings to Lewis’s manuscript. Metaphorical evocations also start to fail. Does the comparison of a bombardment to coal being tipped down a cellar have any meaning for the historian who has never heard either? What does plum and apple jam or Machonocie stew taste like?

Attempts have been made to recreate historic materials which evoke the senses. Rowntree’s experiments with an original 1914 recipe for chocolate had mixed results, while museuological experiments with evoking the sensory nature of the trenches have attracted as much criticism as praise. [4] More successfully, my colleague Iona McCleery’s You Are What You Ate project has been recreating historic recipes as part of a long-term educational project introducing the history of food to audiences throughout West Yorkshire. Films such as The Battle of the Somme allow us to see, if not the battle itself, then the view offered to British civilians of that battle in 1916. Early recordings bring the voices and music of the war years back to life. But as historians we can only access these senses critically and from a distance. Ingredients change with farming practices, the medium deteriorates, introducing visual and aural flaws, the scent of tobacco clinging to a piece of paper fades over time, the paper itself crumbles at the reader’s touch.

History is a sensory discipline and one that is becoming more so as material histories and histories of the body increase their reach and impact. The weight of a wood and canvass stretcher loaded with three sodden blankets and the dead weight of a wounded man is vitally important to my understanding of my historical subjects, even if I have never tried to lift one myself. But, as with all disciplinary developments, this one throws up its own complications and contradictions, giving the practice as much texture and richness as the as the sources themselves. I don’t think historians would have it any other way.

[1]Saunders Lewis to Margaret Gilcriest, 6th February, 1917, quoted in Edmund King, ‘British Manuscript Cultures of the First World War’, paper given to the Paper, Pen and Ink 2: Manuscript Cultures in the Age of Print Research Seminar, London, 18th May, 2015.

[2] Jessica Meyer, Men of War: Masculinity and the First World War in Britain, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009, 30-31.

[3] Rachel Duffett, The Stomach for Fighting: Food and the Soldiers of the Great War, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2012, 199-205.

[4] Richard Espley, ‘”How much of an ‘experience’ do way the public to receive?”: Trench reconstructions and popular images of the Great War’ in Jessica Meyer (ed), British Popular Culture and the First World War, Leiden: Brill, 2008, 325-349.

A few last thoughts on the ‘tunnel’; or a love letter to my colleagues

I quite badly want to start writing about writing my book, my next big project now that I have landed a job. (And yes, it is official, my letter of employment was signed and delivered to HR two days ago.)

But before I do, there are, I discover, a couple more things to say about my experiences over the past month and, in particular, about the experience of academic rejection.  Because while I do now have a permanent job, of all the certainties I have in life, none is more certain than that I will again experience academic rejection of the sort I experienced when my Wellcome application was turned down.  It may (and indeed probably will) take the form of a rejected article or book proposal.  It may (and again probably will) take the form of a rejected grant application.  Because while a permanent job in academia may seem like a holy grail from the far side of temporary contracts, the reality of the academic marketplace today means that in-and-of itself such a position does not bring complete security.  Tenure-track is not tenure and any academic job, even a tenured one, brings with it expectations that you will bring in research funding.  This expectation may not be as onerous as some recent terrible examples, most dreadfully the case of Stefan Grimm, but it is nonetheless there, stated plainly in the terms of my probation, that at the end of three years I will have secured significant funding and by the end of five years have a ‘sustained record’ of grant funding.  I know I will be supported, and on the evidence to date, the likelihood is that I will meet this probationary requirement, but the funding landscape in this age of austerity is pretty bleak, so the experience of rejection of carefully crafted, passionately believed-in applications is also likely.

Of course, I won’t be faced with the elemental fear that accompanied my last rejection in the sense that I will have, at least for five years, a job even if I don’t have research funding.  But how much consolation does that offer in the face of rejection of a project, an idea that you have poured your heart and soul into?  Academic projects can be deeply personal, especially ones which require immense effort and time to put together (as almost all do).  And the ways in which projects are examined and critiqued as part of the evaluation process, generally with rigorous knowledge and attention to detail, can make subsequent rejection feel even more overwhelming.  No surprise then that not only have I experienced rejection as a flattening process, but I have also seen colleagues with secure jobs shattered, at least temporarily, by the experience of being turned down by a funding council or a grant-making body.  It is simply part of academic life, learning to deal with that sort of rejection. Again and again and again.

How do we cope?  Because we do have to learn coping strategies if this cycle is not to destroy our mental health.  And not all of us do terribly well, as the extensive literature on mental health in academia illustrates.  Most of the rest of us find personal strategies – temporary retreat to a dark room, exercise, a bottle of gin, compartmentalizing, a sympathetic non-academic spouse or partner.  In the case of my Wellcome application, I was force to compartmentalize due to the timescales I faced, but running probably helped keep me sane.

However, in the end, it was not my own resources, or even the looming deadlines, that kept me from despair but the immediate support of my colleagues.  From a sympathetic coffee and slice of cake to an advice session with my mentor, from the quick ‘Are you alright?’ in the corridor as I struggled to keep my emotions in check to allowing me (when I was ready) to dissect at length what had gone wrong with the application, work friends and colleagues provided the time, space and emotional energy which kept me going.

If the negative side of academia is the intensity, pressure and scrutiny of the grant application process, then this collegiality is the flip side of the coin, one of the things that, where it exists, makes academia an extraordinary and desirable place to work.  In myriad ways it allowed me to feel that I and my ideas were valued above and beyond the financial value of the grant itself.  And yes, it made the eventual success in gaining a fellowship all the sweeter in two ways.  In the first place, knowing that I will be working with such supportive colleagues in such a supportive atmosphere is both a joy and a confirmation that this is the right job for me. And in the second place, I now have the opportunity to contribute to that collegiate atmosphere myself, to pay back the support I have received by supporting those around me. So I start my new role with my own small probationary requirement for myself – that I do all in my power to support those who were so supportive of me.

On being a woman and a war historian

This one has been a long time coming. I began writing it back in March, in response to the BBC’s multi-platform debate over Niall Ferguson’s The Pity of War. I had been invited to take part, rather late in the day, but was unable to go as I had to prepare for my son’s fifth birthday party the following day. But, in between icing a castle cake and preparing knightly party bags, I tried to follow the Twitter discussion. I didn’t manage to engage with all, or indeed a great amount of it, but one thread of commentary did catch my attention. Someone commented on the lack of women on the television panel, starting a discussion which led eventually to the comment that, even if women had been invited to participate in the discussion, they would have been asked to speak about ‘women’s issues’.

This discussion got me thinking about the question of the place of female historians of the First World War in the public commemorations of the war. Because, despite efforts to the contrary (and yes, I have been invited to take place in broadcasts because the producers were looking for a female voice), the impression has certainly been given that female expertise is either to be ignored or to confined to seemingly appropriate ‘women’s’ topics. The most egregious example of this was the throw-away comment made by Kate Adie while publicizing her television programme on women’s roles in the war about the lack of female historians of the war other than Barbara Tuchman. But it was also reflected in the panel assembled for a debate chaired by Nicky Campbell where the only two women were Bonnie Greer (not a historian but clearly brought in to give a non-European and ethnic minority perspective) and Professor Maggie Andrews, brought in to speak about women and the home front.

Kate Adie was, of course, wrong, deeply and profoundly wrong. There are a huge number of superb female historians in Britain and across the world, within the academy and without, researching, writing and teaching about the First World War. Indeed, such is the breadth and depth of expertise that I was able to put together an entire day-and-a-half-long workshop on a relatively niche subject last year with only one male speaker. But Professor Andrews’ presence on The Big Question panel, while it helps to demonstrate the inaccuracy of Adie’s comment, is also misleasding. Yes, women work on nurses (such as Alison Fell, Christine Hallett) and the home front (Karen Hunt, Susan Grayzel). But the leading naval historian of the war of my generation is a woman (Laura Rowe) and there are women working on the memory of the war in Australia (Jenny Macleod), the international history of the war (Heather Jones, Elizabeth Greenhalgh, Margaret Macmillan) and operational history (Aimee Fox-Godden), to name just a very small selection. Outside of the academy, women such as Kate Vigurs and Jo Hook are working as battlefield tour guides, introducing a new generation to the landscape and material culture of the war as effectively as any of their male counterparts.

And what of my own field? Gender history is notoriously female-dominated, unsurprisingly perhaps given its intellectual and political origins in women’s history. It might seem the archetypal ‘women’s’ subject. Yet key theorists and practitioners in the history of masculinity, particularly in relation to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have often been men. In terms of the first world war, Michael Roper’s work remains a hugely important reference point for my own. Similarly, in social history, Catriona Pennell and Adrian Gregory have both written excellent and important books on British society during the war. The gender of the scholar is beside the point and limiting our reading of a particular approach to one set of voices can only serve to diminish debate and, ultimately understanding.

So dividing facets of the history of the war into men’s and women’s history is a pointless exercise. Both men and women are writing excellent history on all aspects of the war, both those seen as traditionally male spheres and those more often associated with female scholars. Yet the tendency to thinking in this dichotomous way remains. The assumption is that gender brings a particular perspective to understandings of the history of war in particular. All historians bring their own personal history to their research and practice, reflected in the stories of why they became historians in the first place – because they were fascinated by the grandparents’ stories of the past, because they visited a castle and were fascinated by what they saw. What is interesting is the number of stories of male historians which relate to childhood practices of gender construction, more specifically playing war games, of which this blog is only the most recent example in relation to the First World War. Graham Dawson and Dan Todman, for instance, have both written about how their boyhood experiences of the pleasure culture of war shaped their interest and approach to the subject.

Interestingly, I have yet to come across a female historian who has made the same connection to their own upbringing. Certainly, growing up in the United States in the 1980s, in a culture dominated as much by GI Joe as by Barbie, I don’t recall engaging in war games and if I did it wasn’t a spur to my interest in the history of the war. At risk of buying in to gender essentialism, does this matter? Am I less able to fully engage in the history of war because I did not engage with a particular form of gendered acculturation as a child due to being of the other sex? On the surface, the answer to these questions is obviously ‘no’, but I was once told by a former soldier that I couldn’t write about the history of masculinity in war because I wasn’t male and I had never been in the military. While the first point has the merit of being accurate (I am not male), the second seems besides the point. Most male scholars of the First World War today have not been in the military, yet they may be judged as experts in their subject. On the flip side, there also seems to be a powerful cultural assumption that (some) women will have a particular relationship to the history of war through their role as mothers of sons, as illustrated in Lisa Jardine’s recent ‘A Point of View’ essay on BBC Radio 4, a position which sidelines women who aren’t either mothers or who are mothers of daughters (I can think of several examples of both who are very fine historians of the First World War.)

So what does it mean to be a woman and a war historian? The honest answer is I don’t really know. Perhaps I can bring a dispassion to the subject unavailable to scholars whose approach is shaped, however subliminally, by their memories of playing soldiers as children. Or maybe I bring the emotional heft of imagining how I would feel if it were my small son who might one day have to fight. What I do know is that these perspective complement those of colleagues who can imagine that they, or their younger selves, might have been called on to face the guns due to their sex, or who can analyse with greater dispassion the impact that large numbers of grieving mothers might have on society.

As I say, we all bring our own histories, including our subjective constructions of gender, to our historical practice. Which is why it is important not only that we note and acknowledge that women have written and are writing the history of the First World War, but also that we don’t categorise their writing simply as a category of ‘other’. How I embed this in my own practice as a woman writing the history of the First World War is something I am still working on and probably will be for the rest of my professional life. As I say, this post has been a long time in coming.

Calm down, dear, it’s only a drama!

We are now three weeks into the six-week run of The Crimson Field, BBC 1’s Sunday night drama set in a First World War ‘field hospital’ ‘somewhere in France’.  The quotation marks around ‘field hospital’ may give some indication as to my opinion of the programme.  It is one of a number of small inaccuracies that, like lice in a uniform, have been driving me (and a number of other historians of British medical care in the First World War) a bit nuts.

In fact, ‘field hospital’ was a term used very little after the Boer War.  I have come across a Territorial medical unit which used the term in relation to the hospital where they trained recruits before they were sent overseas as a field hospital, but the hospitals along the lines of communication were, by 1916, when The Crimson Field is ostensibly set, known as either Casualty Clearing Stations (what would formerly have been referred to as field hospitals) or Stationary or Base Hospitals (of which this appears to be one).

Is this sort of criticism too nit-picky?  Certainly, one of the reactions on Twitter to this type of comment (which I have been making a fair amount of over the past three weeks) has been ‘It isn’t a history lesson, it’s a drama!’ with the implication that criticizing the historical accuracy of the depiction is both unfair and detracts from others’ pleasure in watching.  Essentially, this reaction is a version of ‘If you have nothing nice to say, don’t say it.’

At one level, this is fair enough.  The Crimson Field is a drama rather than a history lesson, and I don’t have any problem with cosy Sunday evening historical dramas.  I actually have a soft spot (as well as remarkably high tolerance for a historian) for such dramas, having recently enjoyed The Musketeers and Call the Midwife, and even, once I had properly suspended disbelief, still relish a good episode of Downton Abbey.  But the BBC itself is creating a block to the sort of suspension of disbelief that I have achieved with Downton by attempting to locate The Crimson Field within its own narrative of historical commemoration.  The programme is part of the ‘World War One’ season and there are regular tweets and links to related factual content on the BBC’s website.  In other words, the BBC is presenting this as both drama and history, even though they are getting quite a lot of that history wrong.

Which brings me to the other reason I have problems with the ‘It’s drama, not history’ criticism.  Because a great deal of my criticism actually is of the programme as a drama.  Having started out quite well, introducing several strong female characters with the potential to develop into interesting individuals opening up new perspectives on the popular understanding of the First World War, the dramatic arc has all too rapidly declined into a series of mythic clichés enacted by stock figures who simply represent modern ideas rather than having any real personality, historic or otherwise.  As Amanda Vickery has pointed out, the plot predominantly involves the imposition of 21st-century ideas and concerns on characters placed rather than fully located in 1916. It is unsurprising, therefore, that the drama feels clichéd and inauthentic as it tries to crowbar issues of class, race and sexuality into story lines that use endless accusations of cowardice as a shorthand for reactions to the horrors of war or attempts to deal with the complicated question of Irish politics in part of one sixty-minute episode.  In other words, The Crimson Field is not only poor history, but also not very good drama, by whatever standards you judge it.

So why do I keep watching?  Why not give it up as a bad job and let those who are enjoying the drama enjoy it in peace?  Two reasons, one superficial, one (I hope) rather less so.  The superficial reason is that, whatever the quality of the drama, the casting is, on the whole, very good.  It is not simply that I would watch Hermione Norris and Suranne Jones in pretty much anything they appeared in, however terrible, but also that they are good enough to bring depth to their parts.  Norris, in particular, has created a believably restrained and awe-inspiring matron, thankfully setting off the bizarre characterization of the hospital CO as a weak and deeply un-awe-inspiring figure.  I will probably keep watching to the end for her alone.

There is, however, a more important reason for why I will keep watching and, for that matter, keep tweeting as I do so.  It might be described as the ‘teachable moment’ excuse, to use a truly abominable American phrase.  Because I am trying to do is not merely criticize for the sake of finding fault, but to explain, insofar as 140 characters lets me, what my research has taught me about the historic reality of medical care in the First World War.  I can not only complain about the representation of a shell shock sufferer in the first episode, but also point out that he would most likely have been treated in isolation for the sake of general morale. Nor is the process only one way.  So far, questions I have had or points I have made have led to interesting discussions of how laundry was done at Base hospitals and the date at which female radiographers began working overseas.  I have thus learned something indirectly from the programme as well as, I hope, giving a little more historic depth to the understanding of a few viewers.

There is also an element of ‘Know thy enemy’ to this.  Yes, I despaired when the one fully-formed orderly character was revealed to be gay in the most historically unlikely of circumstances.  But this particular bit of trite 21st-century plot does provide an opportunity to explain that, while the masculinity of medical orderlies might be (and often was) impugned, it was, as far as I have been able to uncover, never in terms of suspect or criminal sexuality, but rather in terms of age and physical health.  Homosexuality as a pathology affecting war service was an accusation more commonly (although still not very often) leveled at men who failed to enlist or were diagnosed with shell shock, another symptom of an inherent physical and moral insufficiency which signified male degeneracy.  Exploring these distinctions in masculinity is a key element of my research project; finding and exploiting the opportunities to disseminate my research and analysis more widely, in whatever unlikely form, is thus part of my professional remit.  In other words, I watch and critique because it is my job.

This is, of course, fundamentally the same defense for using Blackadder as a teaching tool about the history of the First World War.  The drama or comedy is the starting point, not the destination, and they probably have  more to tell us about the social and cultural context in which they have been created than about the historic realities of the period that they represent.  Using them in this way is not always comfortable.  For historians it means tackling popular historical misconceptions head on and sitting through the itchy discomfort of historically inaccurate dramas to find out what, exactly, has been portrayed and how.  For non-historians who wish to engage, it can mean having assumptions and beliefs punctured and deflated. At the very least, it means being forced out of a comfortable Sunday night of suspended disbelief.  Not everyone wants to spend their Sunday evening leisure engaging critically with what they are watching, and that of course is their prerogative. No one has to either watch and critique or read critical commentary if they choose not to. But I have to admit to enjoy bringing my practice of critical analysis to The Crimson Field of a Sunday, so I will carry on. And maybe in doing so I can also make a not very good drama at least a slightly better history lesson.

Very well then, I contradict myself…

Last Friday, I went to the final showcase for the Legacies of War Leeds Stories of the Great War project.  I haven’t had a huge amount to do with this project, so it was both a surprise and a delight of an event, with results (many of them ongoing) of six exciting community projects on display.  Of the six, two stood out, the year 11 students from Roundhay School who produced two films, one silent, one a pastiche news bulletin, inspired by the history of Belgian refugees in Leeds, and Urban Sprawl theatre company, Leeds’ sole homeless theatre company, who came up with a touching, funny, vulgar music hall riff on the theme of enlistment.  All the projects were moving, informed and passionate, but these two groups stood out for their creativity and humour that, in the case of Urban Sprawl, was true enough to the spirit of the times they evoked that it had me referencing Frederick Manning’s Her Privates We.

Which brings me to another First World War event from last week, this one a launch rather than a culmination.  14-18 NOW, which launched officially on 27th March, is an Arts Council and Heritage Lottery Fund funded series of events, hosted by the Imperial War Museum and taking place around the country.  Projects range from a Royal de Luxe production telling the story of the Accrington Pals using giant puppets in the streets of Liverpool to 1914 told day-by-day through cartoons.

The reactions have been almost as varied as the proposed artistic outputs.  The first response on Twitter was, in general, a rather patronising, ‘These people need to learn some “real” history.’  The mainstream media tended to pick up on the project to paint warships using First World War-era ‘Dazzle’ camouflage techniques, sparking this bizarre but somehow predictable response from the Guardian.  By the weekend there were some more detailed, considered response emerging on blogs, most notably those of George Simmers and Jonathan Boff. More recently, Gary Sheffield has pitched in with this interesting discussion of why the idea of turning off lights to mark the start of the war is historically uninformed.

By rights, I should be in complete agreement with these posts, and to some extent I am, having done my fair share of fulminating about luvvies voicing ill-informed opinions about how the war should be commemorated.  I agree that Stephen Fry’s letter to an unknown soldier, as well as several of the projects on 14-18 NOW, are deeply clichéd.  And yet overall I find myself intrigued and excited by the majority of ideas on display, and particularly by the Letter to Unknown Soldier soldier project.

Part of this is due to a huge personal affection for the Charles Jagger memorial sculpture honouring the dead of the Great Western Railway on platform 1 of Paddington Station, the Unknown Soldier of the title.  Reading his letter from home, he forms the cover of my monograph on writing wartime masculinity, in stunning a photograph by my brother, photographer Sebastian Meyer. Men of War coverAnything that makes people more aware of this particular statue is liable to get my attention and my approbation.

But I also keep coming back to those amazingly creative responses to the history of the war on display last week.  The Letter to the Unknown Soldier invites similar creativity from participants.  I doubt it will come from well-known artistic or creative figures, given the evidence so far available.  But I love the idea of a busy commuter, looking for the first time at that beautiful, powerful face, being inspired to engage with the history of the First World War enough to write their own letter, an act of commemoration speaking not only to Jagger’s vision but also that of Eliot and Auden.  Or maybe it will be a local homeless person who, like the clients of Urban Sprawl, locates a sense of identity and community in this imagined figure of the past.  Yes, these will be the projection of 21st-century ideas, concerns, aspirations on to an image almost a century old.  But in looking to the wider public, there is the potential for an artistic engagement with history beyond the clichés that, so often, have dominated Britain’s commemorations. It is an artistic response, certainly, but given the richness and complexity of artistic responses across the past century, responses which have led to their own branch of academic study, this too will be ‘real’ history.

At the heart of my unease at the response to 14-18 NOW, however, is, I realise after a week of thinking about it, actually very similar to the annoyance I felt at the luvvies’ letter (see above).  I resent, deeply, being told how to commemorate the First World War, whether it is by artists or historians.  Both groups have important contributions to make to the way in which the war is remembered.  At their best, the disciplines can combine in extraordinary and unexpected ways that enlighten the past anew, as was perfectly demonstrated at the Tetley last Friday night. As a historian, not only do I think that there is potential for the continuation of artistic commemorations that have been part of British culture since the war years in the 14-18 NOW project, but I hope that, given the opportunity to contribute through active engagement rather than holding aloof or, in the worst cases, simply sneering, my discipline may enable these artistic events to have real resonance throughout the centenary.  On which note, I am off to write my own letter to the unknown soldier of platform 1.