Talking about Mary Beard…

So I have spent quite a lot of time this past weekend thinking about the controversy that has surrounded Mary Beard for the past couple of weeks.  For those who are unaware of it, Mary Beard is a professor of Classics at Cambridge and public intellectual.  A couple of weeks ago she appeared on Question Time, a current affairs programme in which a panel of politicians, journalists and others discuss questions posed by the audience.  Guests are often chosen for their potential conflict, although this being the BBC, said conflict rarely gets beyond eloquent (and not-so-eloquent) disagreement and polite put-downs.  The most controversial guest on the night in question was Nigel Farage, leader of UKIP, a political party that wants Britain to leave the European Union and generally dislikes what it sees as an influx of immigrants from Eastern Europe consequent to that membership.

I didn’t actually watch the programme (the frustration of yelling at the television on a regular basis is not worth whatever intellectual gain I might make from hearing opinions spoken that generally appear in other media anyway), but apparently a question was asked relating to the effects of immigration on Boston in Lincolnshire, to which Professor Beard responded quoting a report that viewed such impact as positive.  The debate that this provoked extended from the programme itself to many other media, including a large number of extremely rude tweets and e-mails directed at Professor Beard.  Many of these were, according to Professor Beard’s own account on her blog A Don’s Life, either withdrawn or led to more polite forms of debate, but significant forms of abuse remained, including the posts on a website, Don’t Get Me Started (which has since been closed).  As Professor Beard herself explains, this abuse was vicious and graphically sexual in nature, having little relation to the topic involved and everything to do with Professor Beard’s appearance and identity as a woman.

I followed the controversy via newspaper articles (which picked up the story fairly quickly) and through Twitter, where I follow Professor Beard.  In addition to a number of interesting contributions from other women in the public sphere who have been at the receiving end of such abuse, both from the relevant website and other quarters, there have been a number of retweets of some of the abusive comments addressed to the professor.  One of these was to the effect that she should grow some balls because she was in the public eye and therefore abuse was only to be expected when she voiced unpopular opinions.  The irony of the suggestion that Professor Beard acquire male genitalia in order to protect her from abuse directed at her primarily because, as a woman, she lacks said physical attributes struck me strongly enough that I posted a reply to that effect.  It was not a particularly witty tweet and, beyond a rather incoherent response from the original commenter to the effect that David Starkey and Simon Schama showed more dignity by not talking about being abused for their views, it sunk more or less without a trace.

What set me thinking, however, was the fact that, while it took me only a couple of minutes to compose my tweet, it took me a good 15-20 minutes to decide to actually post it in a public forum.  As I say, it wasn’t particularly clever or insightful, but nor was it abusive or even unkind.  It was simply a rather sarcastic contribution to an ongoing public discussion.  Yet I was worried about posting it and, I have realised, that that worry derives in part from the fact that I am a woman.

As a published author, I have received my share of green-pen correspondence.  Fortunately they have taken the old-fashioned form of letters signed by a named individual who even gave their address.  They were extremely personal about my intellectual capabilities, which was quite upsetting, but never strayed into more personal territory, beyond the suggestion (which I have heard a number of times now) that as a woman I cannot possibly understand what it was like to be a (male) soldier in wartime.  I was fortunate to receive strong support from my editor at the time and, while very upsetting, I never felt threatened.

What Professor Beard, and many other women who speak out in the public sphere of popular media, have suffered is of another order.  The abuse is explicitly sexual and often both implicitly and explicitly violent.  What is for me the most worrying aspect are the number of threats I have read about directed towards the families of these women, including their children.  Like the sexual threats and commentary, there appears to be no equivalent aimed at men who participate in public discussion.

Which means that, as the mother of young children, I am uncomfortably aware that publishing an opinion in public may not only put me at risk of the sort of sexual commentary and threat that no individual, whatever their opinion, should be subject to, but may also lay my children open to threats of violence through absolutely no fault of their own.  This terrifies me, as it should anyone who values democracy, discussion and freedom of speech.  At the same time, as an historian working in a field that is of considerable (and soon to be increasing) public interest, I want my voice to be heard, even if the stories I have to tell may not be the ones everyone wants to hear.  Although nowhere near as eminent as Professor Beard and the many other courageous women who carry on contributing to civilised discourse in face of irrelevant abuse, I need to find the courage to carry on speaking out in public, to refuse to be silenced.

So I am glad I posted that tweet, however silly and sarcastic.  And I will carry on putting forward my views in the hopes that some day the voices of reasonable argument will drown out the abuse and threats of those who would seek to silence us, women and men alike.

A Final Parade

Yes, I know it is over a week since the final episode of Parade’s End was broadcast.  I won’t go into the reasons why I haven’t had a chance to see it before this weekend, except to say that infant sleep patterns were definitely involved.  But I did, finally, watch it, so here are my concluding thoughts on programme.

Let me start by saying that I thought they did a pretty decent job of the trench scenes.  The scene in the dugout with the C.O. was particularly brilliant, capturing the surreality of the war that I think has tended to get lost in more recent representations of the war.  Since Blackadder Goes Forth the tendency has been to merge surreality and satire – the war is mad therefore we must mock it.  This was just pure surreality, without point or purpose, and all the more moving for it.

There was one major source of irritation for me, however, and that was the depiction of the stretcher bearers who appeared twice, once with an empty stretcher, once with an injured man on board.  In both instances the stretcher was carried by two men, one at each end, the typical image of stretcher bearers in the war, you might say.  Except it must be born in mind that First World War stretchers were immensely heavy objects made of wood and canvass, not the lighter metal ones that were used in later conflicts.  They were a struggle to carry empty; loaded with the dead weight of an injured man, usually wearing his heavy clothing and gear, they needed a minimum of four men (one at each corner) and in heavy going like Ypres in 1917 required six.  In fact, as George Swindell, an R.A.M.C. stretcher bearer, noted on several occasions in his memoirs, untrained bearers (those not in the R.A.M.C.) almost always carried six to a stretcher because they didn’t have the practice and training to do so more efficiently.  In the front line, stretchers would be carried by regimental bearers, infantry men told off for stretcher duty from front line to Regimental Aid Post (RAP), rather than R.A.M.C. bearers who generally carried men from the RAP to the Casualty Clearing Station (CCS).  So in Parade’s End there should have been at least two and most probably four additional bearers for that loaded stretcher for authenticity.  Now that directors seem to be more willing to show the trenches as angled rather than straight, I am starting a new campaign to get them to employ the appropriate number of bearers in their films!

Despite the bearer problem there were brilliant moments in this episode. The scene describing Tietjens, McKechnie and Perowne going up to the line was a masterclass in succinct and spot-on dramatic adaptation, and Roger Allam’s face at the very end, when Sylvia propositions General Campion was perfection.  Allam has been a revelation throughout, and this moment was beautifully done.

I did, however, have some broader reservations.  I’m not sure the final scene worked.  It was too slow and the music too sentimental to capture the sheer joy and relief that book evokes.  There is a tendency to forget  that, behind the lines, the reactions of many, particularly the young, to the Armistice were euphoric, even bacchanalian in some instances. (Dan Todman has an excellent discussion of this, and its cultural impact, in The Great War: Myth and Memory (Hambledon & London: 2005)). Ford captures the immense sense of release beautifully in the final pages of A Man Could Stand Up -. Stoppard and White, I think, lost some of that by sexing the scene up and slowing it down.

I am also in two minds over the wisdom of the decision of simply eliminating The Last Post from the adaptation.  Given Ford’s own later reservations about the novel, and the immense difficulties that I imagine would be involved in adapting the most difficult of the four novels, it probably does make sense.  But I was genuinely sad to say goodbye to Christopher and Valentine at this point in their story.  It did feel a little incomplete.

So, in the end, an excellent adaptation beautifully acted but with some problems inherent to any dramatic adaptation of a superb set of novels.  Now I just have to make the time to reread the books…

A musical interlude

My mother has just sent me this:

She thought I would be interested as I am a mild Ricardian, having been introduced to Josephine Tey’s The  Daughter of Time, as read  by Derek Jacobi, when I was about 14.  To be honest, Jacobi’s voice was, and still is, the primary appeal, but I do enjoy the book and I still find myself excited about the idea of history as a detective story, an investigation and uncovering of the ‘truth’.

What interested me most about the clip, however, was the fact that it is a Horrible Histories production.  Now, my two are still too young to watch the television show, although I have read some of the Horrible History books and several interviews with Terry Deary, who is depressingly rude about historians and history teachers.  But I was recently discussing the television programme with a friend whose older children apparently love it, and she herself finds it witty and amusing, so I was interested to see something of what I have been missing.

I have to admit that this clip does not allay any of my concerns about the programme as a teaching tool.  Yes, it does point out that Thomas More and Shakespeare (who based his play on More’s history) are biased sources.  But significantly it completely fails to present any sort of evidence, in however an amusing form, as to why the story we think we know about Richard is wrong.  Instead, it just asserts that he is not all the things that history has portrayed him as.

Having spent far too long commenting on undergraduate essays (and even the occasional professional monograph) about the problem of asserting rather than proving statements about the past, this worries me.  History as a discipline rests on the skill of marshalling sources to prove an argument.  Those sources may be suspect or biased.  They may appear mutually contradictory, particularly when they are personal narratives.  They are often problematic, which is why historians can carry on arguing about the same thing (Was Richard a good king or a monster? Was the First World War a futile waste of a generation or a principled defence of democracy?) generation after generation, as new evidence is uncovered or a new perspective is put forward.  Used properly historical evidence can change minds.  I have read very good arguments as to why Richard probably was a usurper who killed his nephews, based on evidence of his other actions prior their disappearance, which have moderated my earlier belief in his absolute innocence.  But if evidence does not form part of the discussion then what you get isn’t so much historical debate as something more like this:

This isn’t history so much as children squabbling in the playground.

So, I will continue to approach Horrible Histories with a certain amount of circumspection and make sure that when my children are old enough to watch it that we discuss how we know what we think we know about the past, as well as what that past actually may have been.

Parade’s End Again

Well, Downton Abbey is back on our screens. No, I haven’t watched the opening episode yet. My daughter has taken to waking up at 5:45 in the morning so I am currently retiring no later than 10 pm in self-defence. (You will probably start to notice a pattern in the interface between my home life and work revolving around the theme of sleep. Ah, the joys of motherhood!) Anyway, a review of the new season will have to wait until tomorrow at the earliest. In the meantime, I thought I would write a bit more about why I think Parade’s End is such a superb representation of the First World War.

After a great deal of thought, my primary conclusion is that the drama has had the good sense to stay out of the trenches for so long. Other than the glimpse at the end of the second episode (and arguably the brief scene in the slightly too quiet Casualty Clearing Station), all the action has been set firmly behind the lines, whether in England or Rouen. This is not to say that the war hasn’t been evident, but it has been beautifully subtle – the presence of a lorry of soldiers in the background, uniforms mingling with civilian dress, the female railway porter. Yes, the clichés are there – the clueless civilians for whom horses matter more than the lives of men, the general in his chateau behind the lines (although all the men are behind the lines as well at this point), the dangers of bombardment (with air raids substituting for artillery) – but shown in such a way as to demonstrate why they have become clichés. The myth of the war has its basis in reality. By allowing the mythic elements of the war narrative to emerge organically as the background to the story, rather than bludgeoning us over the head with them, this dramatization of a work of fiction demonstrates the complexity of the historical truth that First World War historians have been uncovering for a while now. Yes, there is a strong sense of disenchantment with the pettifogging rules and obsessions of the military with cleanliness (a theme that is very familiar from the numerous letters and memoirs that have formed the bulk of my research to date). And there is horror and pity and fear, particularly in evidence in the death of Oh Nine Morgan, but such emotions are only part of Christopher’s story. There is no disillusionment, at least not disillusionment with why he is fighting. Groby and Michael and above all Valentine, even the formal propriety of his marriage are still implicitly worth fighting for. And if they are not it is because they have already been undermined by social hypocrisy that predates the war, not simply because of his experience of warfare.

Much of this, of course, is inherent to the narrative. In my Everyman copy of the tetralogy the entire time in the trenches takes up 110 pages out of a total of 906. The focus of the novels is on the sense of continuity that Christopher embodies and the stresses that modern life place on his seventeenth-century rectitude. It is in choosing to remain loyal to this theme rather than attempting to shoe-horn the books into a more familiar understanding of what makes a First World War novel that this production is such a triumph.

All of which made me think of the BBC’s other big First World War adaptation this year. Birdsong, Sebastian Faulk’s 1993 novel about the war, was adapted by Abi Morgan and broadcast in January to a good deal of acclaim. As with any television adaptation, some aspects of the book had to be sacrificed to the time scale, here two hour-and-a-half long episodes. Morgan removed an entire subplot concerning a young woman researching her family history, an editorial decision that worked well in creating narrative coherence. However, she also chose to seriously underplay another subplot concerning the relationship between the sapper Jack Firebrace and his son, John, who dies of diphtheria during the course of the novel. It does get a brief mention but has nowhere near the emotional impact that it has in the novel where it beautifully illustrates the continuing relationship between home and fighting fronts that was so powerful a motivation for men to fight and continue fighting. Instead, the television play’s narrative chooses to focus on the disjunction between a golden idyll of passion in prewar France and the mud, blood and horror of the trenches in the same geographic area six years later. The war is a space solely of horror and disillusion and the only motive for fighting is the sense that the protagonist has nothing left to live for. This is the more traditional view of the war dramatized by many modern war novels, yet as a narrative it is much less powerful than that of Parade’s End. So while I enjoyed Birdsong (and thought that Joseph Mawle was excellent as Firebrace), it had nothing like the effect on me that Parade’s End is having. Whether that will continue to be true next week, when Tietjens actually enters the trenches, remains to be seen.

(I do realise that I got a little ahead of myself in my last post in saying that this past week’s episode dramatises A Man Could Stand Up -. It was, of course the second half of No More Parades, which means we are going to get very little, or a highly truncated version, of Last Post, which is a pity. As I say, there are always sacrifices to be made in adapting for television.)

Do I dare?

I don’t normally watch Who Do You Think You Are? unless I have a particular interest in the person investigating their past (so Nigella Lawson, Jeremy Irons, Patrick Stewart and not many more).  But tomorrow night’s show features Hugh Dennis (the Dennis of Punt and Dennis and one of the creators of Radio 4’s The Now Show, a weekly favourite in our household.)  According to the previews, he will exploring the First World War experience of his grandfathers, one a former miner who was commissioned, the other a survivor of an attack that decimated his battalion.  A clip of the programme can be found here.

Normally I would be very interested in watching this, but at least one preview I have read quotes Dennis as saying ‘It was just a sort of muddy, bloody, horrifying mess.  I’m glad now understand the landscape.  I have a better feeling for what it was like and how awful it was.  I now understand entirely why neither of my grandfathers wanted to talk about the war.  It was unremitting in its awfulness.’  This is as clear a description of ‘mud, blood and futility’ view of the war as you could hope to find.  As someone who has spent most of her career arguing that this view of the war is a very limited one and that most men who fought had a more complex and nuanced view of their experiences, just reading this is enough to send my blood pressure up.  At the same time, one quotation from one preview is probably not enough evidence to go on (although I do also have the evidence of popular British television’s previous form in its portrayal of war experience).

So the question is, do I watch the programme and risk annoying my husband by shouting at the television by doing so?  Or do I give it a miss for the sake of domestic harmony and potentially fail to challenge my own prejudices about programmes about the war? What to do?

Parade’s End

OK, hands up, who is loving Parade’s End on the BBC?  Yes, that would be me, and not only because of the presence of not just the amazing Benedict Cumberbatch but, for two glorious episodes, Rufus Sewell as well.  All the acting is excellent, especially Cumberbatch (as I knew he would be from the moment the casting was announced) and the luminous Adelaide Clemens as Valentine. The visuals are also superb, especially the use of Vorticist fracturing and mirroring to portray movement and multiple perspectives. But what I am really loving is how brilliantly the production is evoking all the emotions I felt when reading the books – fury at the hypocrisy of society, the humour of the golf course scene, the huge affection that Tietjens and Valentine engender, despite him being, on the surface, an extremely irritating individual, the pity and horror of Tietjen’s father’s suicide.  I haven’t read the books in years, not since I wrote my undergraduate thesis on them, but it is testament to the power of both the original source and the adaptation that I am feeling such vivid sensations of recognition with every episode.

At the moment, my only quibble, and it has the potential to be quite a serious one, is with the characterization of Rebecca Hall’s Sylvia Tietjens.  I initially thought that it didn’t work because of the need to focus so much on Sylvia’s back story in the first half hour of the first episode, a section not lifted directly from the book’s fractured narrative.  To me this was the weakest part of the production so far, although the introduction of Tietjen’s love for Michael was beautifully done.  Reading an interview with the director, Susanna White, however, I have discovered that she has chosen deliberately to portray Sylvia as more vulnerable and sympathetic than in the book, a decision that I am not sure works.  In the books, Sylvia is a first class bitch with no redeeming features and is recognized as such.  Any inconsistencies in attitudes and behaviours can be attributed to her personality.  By making her more sympathetic, White and Hall have also made Sylvia harder to understand and have undermined her ability to power the narrative.  When set alongside the fabulously hypocritical and vicious Edith Duchemin (now MacMasters), she fades as a character, which makes it that much harder to understand the hold she has over both Tietjens and the rest of her male attendants.  Next week, however, we have A Man Could Stand Up – where her relationship with Tietjens takes precedence over his with Valentine, so maybe my doubts will be laid to rest.  I do hope so, because there are so many reasons why this is the best dramatization of British society in the First World I have ever seen, which I will be discussing in a future post.