Temporary cessation of hostilities…

September 27, 2006

It’s with some regret that I’m going to announce that the Writing War seminar at QMUL will not be meeting this semester. Catherine Merridale and I had great plans for the coming year, and even the unsolicited offer of a paper (which shows we were getting somewhere). The sheer quantity of work which we both have to undertake this year, however, means that neither of us felt that we could adequately support the seminar with time. I found running the seminar very enjoyable and I very instructive, but also very stressful – definitely an important point on the Todman learning curve, but perhaps one where I don’t need to learn more at the minute. We will try to revitalise it either next semester or the next academic year, probably with a specific aim in terms of the production of papers. Thanks to all those who attended and supported: we will be in touch.


Performing the Somme

September 27, 2006

One of the most distinctive features about the most recent anniversary of the Somme is an increased emphasis on recreation. Previous posts have noted the media interest in the group of living historians helped by the National Army Museum who marched along the battlefront and attended commemorations, and the existence of a living ‘trench experience’ supported by English Heritage. This move seems to me to have resulted from three things: a growing concentration on ‘experiencing’ history, the attractiveness as a story/means of publicity  of ‘feeling’ the past, and a shift of the war into a category of historical events which we feel strongly about, but which are far enough away that they can be entertainment. It’s just been brought to my attention that the Imperial War Museum and the Old Vic are launching a project to allow local citizens to ‘bring the Somme to life’ in a series of performances at the IWM in mid-November. The project is supported by the National Lottery Fund. I only wish I lived in Lambeth so I could join. The press release reads:

Sunday 1 October
10am at the Old Vic stage door, Webber Street
The Old Vic Theatre, in partnership with the Imperial War
Museum, is inviting local residents to sign up for a role in
a brand new play commemorating the 90th anniversary of the
Battle of the Somme. Somme Theatre will see a community cast
exploring the realities of life on the front line and
presenting a nightly show from 15 to 19 November in the
Imperial War Museum's dramatic glass-roofed atrium.  The Old
Vic is looking for 85 volunteers to contribute to all
aspects of the project: both on and off stage. Lambeth and
Southwark residents willing to sign up for the war effort
should come to The  Old Vic (Stage Door) at 10am on Sunday 1
October for an informal audition. All ages welcome from 14
yrs upwards.  No experience is necessary just lots of

IHR 1815-1945 programme for forthcoming term

September 15, 2006

Institute of Historical Research

Seminar: British History, 1815-1945

Read the rest of this entry »

Bit of management and a CFP

September 11, 2006

Just updated the sidebar to include some more blogs which are now on my regular reading list – Civil Warriors, which I like as a fine example of group blogging and Alan Allport’s War Starts at Midnight, which seems likely to bring Alan’s expertise to bear on a wide variety of ‘Britain in the world wars’ material. I’ve also added Mark Grimsley’s excellent series of posts on academic blogging, which he categorises as ‘Letters to Leila’ – primarily so that I have a single easy place to which to point those who ask me why I do this.

In other news, just received the latest CFP from the International Society for First World War Studies: Read the rest of this entry »

Between memory and history

September 7, 2006

Currently reading my former supervisor Jay Winter’s book Remembering War: The Great War between Memory and History in the 20th Century (Yale UP, 2006). I’ve been asked to review it, which is obviously both a pleasure and a challenge. As very often with Jay – and I don’t think he’d mind me saying this – there are details on which we wouldn’t agree. But, again, as very often, I’m happy to overlook those not just because such disagreements are part of academic camaraderie, but because the eventual outcome is so exciting. For me, Jay’s greatest feature as a supervisor was his inspirational capacity – because of his self-evident enthusiasm for the subject and because he’d make me think about my topic in new ways. Both of these are evident in abundance in this book, which is not just an exploration of the memory and remembrance of war, but in some ways a call to arms. Two quick blasts:

(5-6) ‘History is a profession with rules about evidence, about publication, about peer review. Memory is a process distinct from history, though not isolated from it. All historians leave traces in their work of their own pasts, their own memories. And many laymen and women who engage in acts of remembrance read history and care about it. Sometimes they reshape their own memories to fit with history; at other times, they are certain that they have the story right, and historians who say otherwise – whatever the evidence they produce – are wrong. History and memory overlap, infuse each other, and create vigorous and occasionally fruitful incompatibilities. In this book I take the writing and teaching of history to be an act of collective remembrance, of a different order than other such acts, because of the rules which govern it. History is not simply memory with footnotes; and memory is not simply history without footnotes.’

(203) ‘The challenge is clear: at a time of stagnant or limited academic audiences, public audiences have never been larger. Part of the source of this interest is the memory boom itself… While the profession of history us under financial constraints in the universities, it has a clear avenue to expand. The audience is there, the public service is there. But the means to arrive at the destination challenges cherished assumptions of our profession: namely, that what we do is individual; and that the “authorial voice” is the core of our enterprise. But even if individualism is worshiped as the sine qua non of wisdom, there is still room to share our profession with another kind of colleague, the public historian, who speaks primarily to society at large, and does so as part of a group of scholars and other professionals working together.’

I’ll post up a draft of the full review when I write it.

Stop worrying and learn to love the bombe

September 7, 2006

A replica of one of the Turing Bombes, the machines which helped to decrypt German signals traffic during the Second World War, has gone on display at Bletchley Park. Aside from the (to be expected) bumf about this being one of the two most important machines in British history (the other being the Spitfire, apparently), the best bit of this report is the reminiscence of Ruth Bourne. Bourne was a junior Wren clerk who worked with the Bombes at Bletchley, and who, like almost all of her colleagues, kept their wartime activities secret from everyone until the 1970s.

…she finally felt at liberty thirty years after the end of the war to reveal to her family the part she had played in Hitler’s downfall. “I said to my husband, ‘I broke German codes during the war.’ He said ‘Really?’ and that was the end of the subject.”