Spinning the Somme

May 26, 2006

On 1st July (resonant date), I'm doing a lecture at the IWM as part of the Museum's 'First World War Remembered' Day. This has grown out of study days for students which I've been running with the Head of Research and Information, Nigel Steel. The day involves curators and historians talking about artefacts and describing how they're put together to create history – academic, public and popular. On that note, it's interesting to note how the Museum's publicity department has chosen to describe the subject in its website entry on the day:

    When the First World War began in August 1914 many believed it      would be over by Christmas, but the power of modern weapons quickly turned it into a bitter struggle. For more than four years soldiers on both sides fought a series of infamous battles at Ypres, Verdun, Gallipoli and the Somme. Millions of lives were lost and little appeared to be gained. The First World War represented a turning point in history and its impact can still be felt on communities across the world today.

Those who know me and my work will know that this is not exactly the description of the war I would go for. I realise that it's necessary to engage and interest a non-specialist audience, but I can't help but see this as a kind of 'default setting', piling a set of cliches one on top of another. 

But it highlights an area which I've been interested in for some time. I've always wanted to be a historian whose work reached a popular audience. If you want to do that, you need to get the punters in, and you probably need to accept that you'll come up against cliche and lack of thought – so the issue is how do you react to that? Do you throw a massive hissy fit and throw your toys out of the pram? Or do you go for a sort of entryism, in which you try to sneak in the uncertainties and ambiguities of history and try to help the audience think critically about their received beliefs? If you do the latter, have you in fact sold your soul – because your ability to get that information across will probably be limited by format, time and audience? Where do you draw the line?  

In my book and in an article recently written for BBC History online (but not yet up), I've tried to suggest that First World War historians probably shouldn't get too frustrated with the fact that myths about the war are too entrenched for us to shift. Better that people use those myths, care about the war, remember those who fought, and – in a minority of cases – try to find out more – than that the war is completely forgotten.  

(And let's leave aside for the moment the fact that in the Museum's email newsletter I'm described as well known Queen Mary historian Dr Dan Thompson. Obviously not that well known…)  


Radio Star

May 24, 2006

Whilst searching for images of the 1935 Jubilee, I came across TV and Radio Bits' display of Radio Times covers from the 1920s through to the present day. The ones in the link window are from the late 1930s. Fascinating images, but also a rich social and cultural history resource. Look, for example, at how the BBC was representing its ability to transmit outside broadcasts in 1937. And if you're the sort of person who'd like to download every Radio 1 jingle from the 1980s, they're there somewhere on the same site too. 


May 19, 2006

Some history, as well as teaching stuff, soon I promise. Meanwhile, two page handout used in initial planning meeting with History Research Dissertation students over next couple of weeks.

History Research Dissertation 2006-7.

Things to do between now and the end of the summer Read the rest of this entry »

Sports academy

May 13, 2006

Jacques Anquetil, legendary French cyclist of the 1950s and 1960s, powering his way to victory. Famously, at the bottom of climbs, Anquetil would take his water bottle off his bike and tuck it into the back of his cycling jersey. It didn't, of course, mean that he had to carry any less up the mountain, but he knew that it was important to tell himself that he was 'lightening' his bike so that it was easier to climb.

To ensure optimum performance in sport, athletes use their minds as well as their bodies. Thinking about how you think is a key part of winning. Might some of this work with students in the classroom as well? Read the rest of this entry »


May 13, 2006

(salute to Ralph Luker at Cliopatria)

It is fun to play around with Google Trends, although what it might actually tell us is another matter. The results for 'Douglas Haig', for example, might make you wonder why the people of Buenos Aires were so much more interested than those in the UK. But that would be because you don't remember me writing on this blog about the Club Atletico Douglas Haig, founded by an expat in 1918 to commemorate his former commander, and still languishing somewhere down the Argentine league.  

'It's a well known fact that generals always fight the last war': comment to me in a recent Historical Association meeting about this same chap Haig, which made me so apoplectic that I didn't answer it properly. With suitable esprit d'escalier, I've come up with a range of answers, most of them starting with the formulation 'Well known fact = unconsidered untruth'. I'm out of time at the minute, but I'm keen to write about this in more detail when I've got my breath back.  

Does what it says on the tin

May 11, 2006

In a thoroughly laggardly fashion, just added George Simmers' Great War Fiction blog to the 'Mentioned in Dispatches' section. George is doing a PhD at Oxford Brookes on – um – Great War Fiction. He's recently posted a lot of stuff – including some great images, some useful links, and an interesting question about 'pre-war' as a descriptor of personal behaviour that I can't even begin to answer. In fact 'pre-warness' – the conceptualisation of the pre 1914 world in the 1920s and 1930s – would be worth a PhD in itself. 

Anyway, now this is happening my workrate has plummeted. And I have an unbelievable quantity of marking… But I have a couple of posts in mind – one about war technology and Britain in the 1920s/30s, and one about using sports psychology with students. Got to put up something to make sure I make it into Brett's History Carnival. Following a conversation about copyright and archiving online last week, I was also interested to read Sharon Howard's post on this topic. Showing off your body on your blog might or might not get you that academic job, but making your papers easily accessible might help more. But if I'm going to do both, I better head down to the gym for a few more reps. 

New dissertations

May 8, 2006

This is the time of year when QMUL second years who want to write a Historical Research Dissertation (a 15,000 word piece of original research) in their final year have to arrange supervisors and titles. Gratifyingly, I've had lots of students who want to study with me: so many that I've had to put some of them onto my colleagues. I don't think this is me, actually, but rather the subjects I teach – they're popular with students and lend themselves to archival research in London. I think it's important at this stage to get students thinking about narrowing down their topic as much as possible – these pieces are always much better if a case study is used to test a more general historical thesis. I also – quite unashamedly and with full acknowledgement – use the opportunity to benefit my own research, either because it forces me to find out about archives and topics with which I'm unfamiliar or because students research topics I'd love to look at it I had the time.

Last year's disertations are just in and include:

'The Great War Learning Curve: A Study of Divisional Improvement within the BEF' (a study of 36th Ulster Division at the Somme and Messines)

'Did service in the Women's Land Army during the Second World War revolutionise women's social consciousness?' and

'Britain's Youngest Line of Defence: To what extent were children in Essex indoctrinated by the Boy Scout and Girl Guide movements during the First World War?'

Next year's topics include:

The role of women's voluntary service movements in the organisation of evacuee reception in Hertfordshire, 1939-1940

How was Irish service in the British armed forces during the Second World War commemorated?

The integration and organisation of French, Dutch and Belgian refugees in Britain during the Second World War.

Combat motivation in 2nd Battalion Middlesex Regiment, 1939-1945

Before they leave for the summer, I assign students secondary reading and a list of primary sources to locate and explore (although they don't have to look at every document immediately). When they return in August, they have to submit a report on progress which contributes 10% to their final mark.

It can be a new and challenging experience, so I thought that this year I'd blog parts of it, so that future students can follow the process through.