What’s in a Name?

Cover of The New York Times, 24th May, 2020

I was in Cambridge on 11th September, 2001, but I went home to New York City for the Christmas holiday that year. My memory of that holiday is dominated two experiences: first seeing the city skyline without the domination of the Twin Towers as the cab drove me from JFK to Manhattan, and sitting for days at a time on the sofa in my father’s tiny apartment on 79th and Broadway reading the obituaries of those who died in the New York Times. Every day the paper included several pages of these, brief biographies, some accompanied by photographs, of the cross-section of New Yorkers and Americans who had lost their lives so inexplicably and suddenly. I found my old babysitter and a girl I had studied history of art there; I was introduced to firemen and cleaners, bankers and parents, real people with real lives cut brutally short.

On Sunday, the New York Times again placed a list of the dead at the heart of its publication, this time a list of those who lost their lives to Covid-19 as the number of pandemic fatalities in the US neared 100,000, over 30 times the number who died on 9/11. This time there was no space for pictures, even the short life stories of the 9/11 obituaries. Instead the front page lists names, ages, place of residence and, for most, a brief phrase describing something which made that person unique. These descriptions range from the banal through the humorous to the startling. They capture working lives, domesticities, private passions. They help to illustrate the claim of the sub-heading that these ‘were not simply names on a list. They were us.’

In all, the front page, and the continuation on page 12, lists 1,000 names, 1% of the marked death toll. It is, for me, as for so many others, profoundly moving in its personalisation of the loss that this pandemic is causing, not just in the US but across the world. But does it, as my cousin, who specialises in the visualisation of enormous numbers, asked, really convey the scale of this loss? Remembering these people as individuals is important, he implied, but in doing we lose a sense of the enormity of what 100,000 deaths really looks like.

The tension that my cousin is flagging here is one that has shaped commemorative practice for over a century, at least in the Anglophone world. While epidemic and pandemic illness have shaped society through extensive and profound loss of life for centuries, the First World War (and the ‘flu pandemic which followed it) brought this tension into focus as concentrated mass death occurred for the first time in a world of the nation state and global communication. Each death in and of itself was a personal tragedy and a loss to a community, but it was also, in the case of the deaths in war service, a death in the service of the state and thus required a more public marking. In Britain, this came in the form of casualty lists, published initially daily in the press, and later, as the numbers grew, weekly. Visually, these lists bear a startling resemblance to the New York Times cover, although they include none of the personalising details, only name, rank and unit of service.

It was after the war, however, that the process of naming the dead as a way of remembering them as individuals rather than as part of a mass truly came into its own in Britain. The decision not to repatriate the dead meant that traditional forms of naming on gravestones were precluded for all who died overseas. The loss of bodies meant that, for many, even a corner of a foreign field was an impossibility. Instead the names themselves became the markers and the memorials, both at home and overseas. It is impossible to travel around Britain without encountering a memorial listing the names of the dead – churches and churchyards, in schools and universities, on railway station concourses and street corners. The pattern is repeated in memorials overseas, most notably Lutyen’s monumental arches at Thiepval, with their overwhelming list of the 73,000 names of the missing of the Somme.

Panel of names, Thiepval Memorial, Thiepval

And yet Thiepval remains one of the most profoundly moving memorials to British war losses, inspiration for at least two generations of historians and cultural critics. The invocation of names, with their assertion of an individuality, and individual loss, mirrored in the gravestones of the Commonwealth War Cemeteries across the world, aids our perception of the scale of loss, rather than distracting from it. Smaller local war memorials can have a similar effect, particularly once one is aware of their prevalence. The relentlessness of encounter wherever one travels in Britain serves to bring home the sheer number of dead as profoundly as any weekly gazette of casualties or daily listing of obituaries. The dead are many, but they are not numbers. They are names – of soldiers, students, workers, congregation members, parents, children, siblings. This, then, is the power that the mass listing of names has in commemorative practice, to bridge the gap between the unknown individual and the incomprehensible scale of loss. Names make not just the dead but the meaning of their deaths as one of many known to us. They never were just names on a list, then or now. They were, they are us.

Blackshaw Head War Memorial

Thiepval seems, one way, to illustrate the problem of naming as a way of commemorating the enormity of mass death through naming. The scale of the memorial is such that it is impossible to see some of the names in its highest reaches from the ground. The names of the dead on my local village war memorial may mean little to me as an incomer of three years’ standing, but I can still read each and acknowledge them as individuals in a way that the sheer scale of Thiepval precludes. Unlike Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial, which most notably took on the tradition of naming as commemorative practice in the US, those visiting Thiepval cannot touch the names, as those visiting Washington often do. Sensory connection, whether of eye or fingertip, seem to be denied. The visitor to Thiepval risks being overwhelmed by the size, the number, the enormity of so many names who cannot be comprehended as individuals.

A (belated) report from the wilds of Borsetshire

A recent post on Twitter asked if we are starting to witness the demise of the personal academic blog, at least in the field of history. Reasons put forward for the decline in the number of posts being written were pressures on time, developments in the research cycle (implicitly related to the increased imminence of the Research Excellence Framework) and variations in the teaching cycle, as posited by George Gosling.  Concern was also expressed that blogging was coming to be viewed as a requirement of postgraduate and early careers scholars, rather than more established ones.

I didn’t respond, all too aware that it has been months since I posted anything here, and even more since I directly posted anything related directly to either of my research projects.  This is due to all of the above reasons. I am teaching this term, not much but a new module that requires a certain amount of additional preparation and organisation.  I have committed myself to a large number of speaking engagements and forthcoming publications, as well as helping to organise two conferences.  On top of my research commitments and administrative obligations, this leaves me little time for writing the remaining chapters of the book, let alone reflections for the blog. And then there is the question of what I write about.  While I agree that blogging should not be the sole responsibility of PGRs and ECRs, I am becoming increasingly aware that it is easier to blog about searching for a job than it is about applying for promotion.  Similarly, blogging about ideas at the start of a project enabled me to work through key themes in ways that now seem to have less utility as I actively incorporate them into the book. If I am going to write about these ideas, I need to do it as part of my manuscript, not as a shorter reflection.

Which doesn’t mean that I don’t have things to write about (beyond my despair at the current political situation).  There are stories emerging from the new research project, although as this has its own blog now, I tend to reserve them for that forum.  And the number of speaking engagements I have undertaken means I am regularly coming into contact with the work and ideas of others which is giving me much food for thought and which is worthy of putting on record.

Which brings me to the Academic Archers conference, possibly one of the oddest but also  among the most interesting academic experiences I have had since I spent two days up to my ankles in mud talking about medical care on the Somme last summer.  This was the second annual conference organised to bring together academic analysis subjects based on or inspired by Radio 4’s long-running rural soap opera and the immensely knowlegable ‘Research Associates’, the long-term listeners whose knowledge of the world of Ambridge and Borsetshire is unrivalled in terms of breadth and depth.  Papers presented range from sociological analyses of familial relationships among prominent family groups, and the wider social implications of the resulting (matriarchal) power structures through an examination of the programme as an exemplar of rural theology to a discussion of the social standing of male characters and the relationship to perceived penis size (a phrase I never thought I would type on this blog or, indeed, anywhere else).

Arguably this was all tongue-in-cheek good fun, something not to be taken very seriously but to be played predominantly for laughs.  Certainly the most popular papers, such as the ones picked up by the press looking at negative aspects of competing in village flower and produce shows, and the ‘Ambridge Paradox’, or why all the characters don’t suffer from type 2 diabetes, involved much laughter along with the learning.  But there was very serious scholarship being undertaken here as well.  The session focussing specifically on the Rob and Helen story line of domestic violence and coercive control was sobering not only in terms of the subject matter, but also in relation to the information conveyed, whether on the forensic analysis of blood spatter patterns or the cost per day of food for women in prison.  Additionally, my understanding of my own work has been enhanced by a number of papers.  I have come away with a long list of recent sociological texts on masculinity, disability and violence taken from Katherine Runswick-Cole and Becky Wood’s paper on the use of the stoma bag in representing Rob’s disability and Jennifer Brown’s keynot on using Rob to understand the antecendents of domestic violence perpetration. Amber Medland’s concept of culinary coercion, while derived from the domestic context of Rob’s control of Helen, has opened up questions for me about the regulation of food in the institutional setting of the military hospital.  And I am looking forward to learning a lot more about masculinity in post-Second World War literature, particularly as it relates to birdwatching, in the on-going work of Joanna Dobson.

As for my own paper, I’m not sure I got the balance between humour and scholarship quite right.  ‘Erudite’ was one description of it, and I can only apologise to the tweeter whose brain apparently hurt when I finished speaking.  But the opportunity to explore how this particular artefact of British popular culture has memorialised the First World War – and to use the title ‘Some Corner of a Foreign Field/That is Forever Ambridge’ – was too good an opportunity to miss.  Among other things, it provided me with the opportunity to design an academicMeyer Poster poster in collaboration with some very excited and supportive colleagues. [1] I will, I hope, be publishing an extended version of the paper in the forthcoming edited collection (the one from last year’s conference is a beautiful object, available to buy from Amazon).  Writing it up will enable me to engage more fully with debates around imagined communities and invented traditions than I have done since I was a post-graduate, a useful exercise that will enhance my other academic endeavours.

And, in a sign of just how stimulating and welcoming the conference was, I’m already considering the topic of next year’s proposal. Leading the field is a plan to recreate the Ambridge War Memorial using the information from English Heritage uncovered by Laurie MacLeod, one of the attending RAs.  I’m even thinking about putting together an application to the Heritage Lottery Fund, if any of the Academic Archers community would like to form a group to work on this.  And I know there are several other First World War historians, many more eminent than I, who might be persuaded to trace the progress of the Borsetshire Regiment on the Western Front, analyse the minor poetry of Lt. Rupert Pargeter, explore the records of the Borsetshire Military Appeals Tribunal or discuss the impact of the use of women and prisoners of war in agricultural labour on wartime Ambridge.  I hope they will consider putting in a proposal when the call goes out.  The experience, both intellectual and social, will be well worth it.


[1] My thanks to Sara Barker, Tess Hornsby-Smith and Sabina Peck for their encouragement and insight.