Ian McEwan rejects claims that he ‘copied’ bits of Atonement. I seem to remember that this is not a new story, but it’s an interesting comparison to Sebastian Faulks’ use of Alexander Barrie’s (published) The War Underground as source material for Birdsong – a use which seems to have been unacknowledged publicly until the most recent edition of the novel.
Originally written for cross posting to Cliopatria, except that their system doesn’t seem to have been updated to let me in yet, so just here for the moment….
For any history blogger, Cliopatria is both a byword and an example. It was an honour, therefore, to be asked to join the Cliopatrians – a bit like going to see a band and then having them ask you to join them for a set. Scary too, of course, since the number and range of readers are so much greater than I’d normally get on this blog.
Fortunately, Tony Blair decided to provide me with suitable material, with an official expression of regret for Britain’s part in the slave trade. Here, my colleague Tristram Hunt argues that this is an appropriate gesture. It is a necessary precursor to a celebration of Britain’s abolition of slavery – but it is a sad measure of this Government that, just as with the less logically coherent pardon being prepared for those executed in the First World War, one’s immediate response is to question what bad news is being hidden.
The growing field of specialist online exhibitions set up by museums and galleries would repay some study. The particular advantages of a permanent exhibit which can incorporate a range of material are well demonstrated by this exhibition of Second World War images from Britain’s National Archives. The selection of pictures commissioned by the Ministry of Information to celebrate Victoria Cross winners has some interesting implications for the ways the Home Front visualised combat. Best exhibit – this illustration of Sergeant J. Hannah winning the VC for putting out a fire in his aircraft, complete with account and images of the unfortunate carrier pigeons roasted by the heat. Available elsewhere on the same site – public information films, treasures of the archives and Nelson and Trafalgar.
In the last couple of days I’ve had a lot of meetings with undergraduates, second and third years, who are undertaking independent research projects. Some of them are on my Second World War course, and just starting out on new research. The level of enthusiasm and excitement from some of them – at what is pretty much the first time they’ve been set loose in the archives – is astonishing and life affirming. It really served to remind me what got me doing this in the first place.
Some of the third years are undertaking Historical Research Dissertations with me. They’re nearly half way through, and they’re encountering lots of the problems that all academic historians will recognise, no matter what the period – gaps in the sources, the weight of primary or secondary material (or its absence), making mistakes in the archives or running foul of bureaucracy. One of them has met a problem distinct to those who seek to work in the modern period – a newspaper request for information resulted in an abusive response (probably from someone with no actual personal connection in any case). As I talked to them about these issues, I again felt inspired. In these frustrations and errors and their overcoming lies the genesis of the true historian – much more than the spoon fed essay machine or the quickwit exam passer. At a point in time when I am desperate to get back into an archive, any archive, their passionate responses gave me hope. So I kept reminding them that their research scars signify their entry into the historical community, shared with them a few of my own, and wondered at the progress they have made in just a few months. Time to stop living the research life vicariously and return to it in actuality.