Taking stock

It is the last day the university is open before Christmas.  The heating is off in my office, as is the light in the hallway.  In fact, I think I am the only person left working on this floor.  So what better time to take a moment to look back and take stock of this incredibly hectic year.


I had hoped to be doing this from the perspective of a clear desk, with all major projects completed, at least until the new year. Sadly, this is not to be.  I am preparing to place the fifth draft of an article which still needs a conclusion, a few more supporting quotations and a couple of hours of formatting footnotes before I can send it to the editor in my bag to take home with me.  Alongside that are a 350-page book and 48-page grant application, both of which I need to (re)familiarize myself with in preparation for two interviews early in the new year.  Oh, and then there is the grant application I need to redraft with the goal of resubmitting in early February. This will be the sixth time I have submitted this project for consideration by a funding body or grant-awarding committee.

So there is quite a lot of work still to do over the next two weeks, between the turkey and the Christmas cake and the two excited small children for whom Christmas is nothing but magic, a fact that makes it hard, sometimes, to remember just how much I have achieved over the past year.  But for all the lack of a nice tidy ending, there are definite signs of progress, not least the lovely folder that tops my document list bearing the working title of the book I will be writing next year.  The joy of the folder lies not just in its existence, but also in the fact that it contains two documents, a draft proposal and a draft introduction.  Baby steps perhaps, but concrete evidence nonetheless that this book is actually happening.  In the past 12 months it has gone from a vague promise to myself and my funding body to a clear outline and argument with a story to tell and a point to make.

And there are other concrete achievements.  The article I have been working on for the last few weeks may be tantalizingly unfinished, but the one I was working on this time last year is not only completed but has also been accepted for publication next year, marking the culmination of a project that had its inception nearly three years ago.  Slightly more abstractly, the piles of marking and course documentation, waiting to be filed following the completion of exams and second marking next month, bear witness to the time I have committed to teaching this year, time which has not only boosted both my CV and my confidence in possibly my least favourite aspect of the academic discipline, but also laid the groundwork for my forthcoming application to the Higher Education Academy for professional validation.

And then there are the abstract developments, such as the discovery that, despite two television appearances and a number of radio interviews, I am probably not cut out to be a full scale media don or public intellectual.  As much as I have enjoyed my engagement with broadcast media, particularly my interactions with the BBC as a New Generation Thinkers finalist and a World War One at Home adviser, I suspect I will always prefer blogging, whether on here or for collaborative blogs, as a form of public engagement.  Which brings me to my greatest regret of the year, the fact I have not been able to commit more time to this blog.  Too many subjects have slipped away from me as I have struggled to manage my priorities and keep some semblance of a work-life balance; too many comments have been made too late and in too much of a hurry.  I make no rash promises for doing better next year, but absence has made the heart grow fonder in this case, making me realize how important the process of blogging has become to working through my ideas.  With a little luck and slightly better management, I hope to be able to properly blog the progress of my book next year, as it goes from draft outline to completed manuscript.

Next year will, of course, be different.  As a colleague and fellow First World War historian has pointed out to me, 2014 has been a particularly hectic one for those of us who study the subject.  There have been more opportunities for undertaking innovative research and engaging with interested audiences than any of us could possibly take complete advantage of. Highlights for me have included the wealth of interesting academic conferences to choose from, including the wonderful War: An Emotional History which continues to inspire me and shape my approach to my work; the opportunity to help put together and teach a Massive Open Online Course, not something I could ever have anticipated or which I altogether enjoyed but which taught me a great deal; and the opportunity to engage with a range of interesting and inspiring artistic projects that have, once again, raised questions of the roles of historic and artistic interpretation in the process of commemoration. Low points include some frustratingly bad television, pointless and clichéd debates which failed to make full use of the real depth of historical knowledge about the war, both nationally and transnationally, that exists in Britain today, and the mind-numbing boredom that overwhelms me every time I contemplate the pointless unending discussions of the Christmas Truce which appear to have overwhelmed all else in the past weeks.  I think the high points more than balance out the low; at the very least they give me hope that there will be interesting discussions to be had in the future as we continue the centenary commemorations.

So there we have it, quite a lot of good, a bit of bad, a smattering of seriously ugly.  A year in which, however slowly, progress has been made and one in which much more has been promised but not yet achieved.  I enter the final week of the old year with a sense of incompletion but also of hope, a hope which I will desperately cling to as I face 2015 from a point of deep uncertainty and insecurity.  At present my current contract is due to come to an end in May.  I do have a very real chance of securing more funding after that (the interviews and grant applications I mentioned), although after over a year of pursuing them I am reaching exhaustion point.  I have spent so much of this year saying that I should know, one way or the other what would be happening to me by the end of the year.  It is not to be.  It will not, in my case, all be over by Christmas.  But for all that, there is hope of a positive resolution, something that would mean both immense personal achievement for me and security for my family.  So I will leave you with that sense of hope, to temper the anticipation of the hard work that will be needed if I am to have any chance of accomplishing the desired outcome.

Merry Christmas. And a hopeful, healthy, happy New Year to you all.

An apology

For any regular readers of this blog (yes, I mean you, Mum), I apologise for the lack of posts over the last couple of months.  November was wildly busy; December has so far been spent catching up with all the things I neglected to do in November; and now, with only one working day left before Christmas, I am getting seriously demob happy, which means reading is taking precedence over writing as a way of getting anything done.

If anyone is eagerly anticipating more random First World War thoughts, please be assured I am working on a response to David Mitchell’s column about poppies and I am also fighting a battle with some new ideas about gender, subjectivity and cultural history that are emerging from that reading that I mentioned.  If I ever manage to work out an even mildly coherent intervention on the subject, that too will be on here.

In the meantime, I leave you with an early Christmas present, gleaned from yesterday’s edition of Radio 4’s ‘A Cause for Caroling’, on the origins of the celebration of Nine Lessons and Carols.  I had not previously realised that King’s College, Cambridge service, probably the most famous version due to its international broadcast by the BBC, was first held on Christmas Eve 1918 at the instigation of Eric Milner-White, Dean of King’s College and a former army chaplain who had seen service in the First World War.  As part of the service that he adapted, from an earlier one created by Edward White Benson when he was Bishop of Truro, Milner-White wrote a new bidding prayer that was described in ‘A Cause for Caroling’ as ‘the last war poem’.  It was with the words of that prayer that yesterday’s programme ended:

‘let us remember before God all those who rejoice with us, but upon another shore, and in a greater light, that multitude which no man can number, whose hope was in the Word made flesh, and with whom in the Lord Jesus we are for ever one.’

Merry Christmas.

Breaking the Silence

First of all, apologies for the lack of posts in recent weeks. I have a couple of looming deadlines (one of which I am avoiding by typing this) which have occupied my time during work hours, while the joys of Christmas, combined with a badly-timed decision to decorate the living room have occupied all the rest of the time that hasn’t been filled by the children.

I do want to write in a bit more detail about Fiona Reid’s Broken Men, previously mentioned, but it will require more time than current commitments allow for (although the living room decoration is now more or less completed), so here instead is the latest development from the Legacies of War seminar series, which are now available on-line.  They are all very different perspectives on civil-military relations during the war, and all worth a look.  Here is the first one, Krisztina Robert talking about the Women’s Corps:


Happy Thanksgiving

As some of my readers may be aware (yes, I do mean you, Mum), despite my Anglophilic tendencies and the facts that I hold a UK passport, have lived in England for the past 13 years, and have one of the oddest transatlantic accents to occur since Lloyd Grossman first opened his mouth, I was, in fact, born and raised in the United States.  Which appears to mean that this time every year I am hit with an unexpected bout of nostalgia and, for the second time in two years, found myself driving around the Leeds ring road on the verge of tears while listening to the particular brand of female singer-songwriter country/folk music that I favour.

There is no particular reason why this music, which I listen to quite often when I am driving, should spark deep emotion every third week in November, nor why my particular nostalgia should find its focus in my final year as an undergraduate.  Quite why the memory of cheap warm beer and long nights writing my dissertation should have such power is beyond me.  But clearly the potency of cheap music and a subconscious recollection of national ritual combine in me to stir deep emotions at this time of year.

Interestingly, nostalgia was once classified as a mental illness, related to melancholia and, during the early years of the First World War, occasionally identified as one manifestation of shell shock.  The symptoms were heightened emotionalism and a longing for home, neither of which one can imagine being uncommon among soldiers drawn largely from the civilian population and plunged into the chaos of trench warfare.  Yet clearly many men who did not suffer a diagnosable or disabling illness felt deeply nostalgic about the homes they had left behind, a fact reflected in the many and varied descriptions of Christmases in the trenches.

Of course my experiences of homesickness and nostalgia for my youth are in no way comparable to the experiences of men at war.  But for me they serve as a reminder that, while the past may indeed be another country, it’s residents are human beings and the power of their emotions is all to recognisable.  And also that today, safe and healthy, and able to say the same about my friends and family, I have a great deal to be thankful for.

Happy Thanksgiving, one and all.