Literary history

November 27, 2006

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.


Regrets, I’ve had a few…

November 27, 2006

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.

Becoming a historian

November 25, 2006

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.

Better tidy up…

November 25, 2006

…The folks from Cliopatria are coming round…..

The persistence of the First World War

November 20, 2006

Just read Simon Garfield’s edited collection of Mass Observation diarists’ reaction to the first year of the Second World War. Unsurprisingly, lots of Britons had their minds turned back to their own earlier experiences of war. And the physical effects of the war were, if not universally in evidence, then still very much present for those who had fought. Here’s ‘Pam Ashford’, an unmarried secretary at a large Glasgow shipping company with vaguely right wing views, writing about her Soroptimist club’s visit to a hospital for disabled veterans on 19 February 1940:

    ‘Today, the Soroptimist Club entertained a party from Erskine Hospital. This is a hospital for men wounded in the last war. I sat down beside a patient who turned out to be a most delightful man. His arm was in a large sling. The second man at the table was a very perky, amusing individual, who had a wound in the leg. The third man was a pitiable creature. His arms were shaking all the time, and he did not join in the conversation at all.

It was 1.10 when proceedings started, with community singing (‘Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag’ and ‘Tipperary’). The thing I noticed most on entering the room was the men’s age, and nearly all of them grey or greying. I have not seen wounded soldiers since the last war, and they were mostly young fellows then. Somehow I expected to see young fellows again today. Seldom has the passage of time been brought home so forcibly to me as today.

Conversation began with two topics – how much better the songs in the last war were, and how well the men at Erksine were fed. I asked how many men there were in the hospital, and he reckoned about 180, on the medical ward, the surgical ward, the ‘Ralston Boys’ (paralysed men from the old Ralston Hospital), and the boarders. Men are going back. They have been all right for 20 years, and then their wound opens up again.’

(S. Garfield, ed, We Are At War: The Diaries of Five Ordinary People in Extraordinary Times (London, Ebury, 2006), 173)

It’s an extraordinarily powerful image – as a new war heats up, so the wounds of a previous generation break open – but then scar tissue is fragile and vulnerable.



November 17, 2006

Just back from a week in Canada, attending a workshop at the University of Calgary on the Popularisation of War Memory, and then hiding in the mountains trying to write and enjoying the snow.

A varied collection of points that interested me:

1) Remembrance Day in Canada was a different experience. As an outsider, I was struck both by the depth of Canadian concern about their recent losses in Afghanistan and the communal expectation of poppy wearing and remembrance. Different poppies as well – cloth ones which disintegrate more easily, and which have never had ‘Haig Fund’ on their central circle. I think I should spend 11 November in other countries more often.

2) Except that, of course, I missed the chance to comment on Jon Snow’s refusal to wear a poppy.

3) It was a cleverly set up workshop, with a range of disciplines including sociologists and media studies as well as historians. Fortunately, the representatives of those disciplines could get on with each other and benefit from other perspectives – although my suggestion that we should all be forced to send our papers for comment to someone from a different discipline before they were published was shot down pretty quick. I realised that I’ve fallen behind on my knowledge of ‘memory studies’ – a couple of important books have come out in the last couple of years that I’ve not kept up with: this is the impetus to try to keep my toe in that water. I’ve often been uncomfortable with the fact that so much of this subject area is based around studies of ‘memory’ in connection with the Holocaust – or rather, I’ve been uncomfortable about applying the lessons which are derived to other events.

4) Got to meet Bruce Scates, the author of the wonderful Return to Gallipoli, which you should all read now. Bruce made me feel a bit uncomfortable about my very sceptical stance towards many of those who participate in remembrance activities today. Specifically, I think that I might too easily have mocked those who invest emotionally in the horror and poets version of the war, or who create elaborate imagined emotional connections to long dead ancestors. I spend a lot of time trying to rescue people like Douglas Haig and Neville Chamberlain from the enormous condescension of history – so it’s rather ill becoming, perhaps, to be too condescending to others.

But this might also be a matter of technique – Bruce, for example, makes use of surveys and personal conversations with modern pilgrims to the battlefields, whereas I’ve always tried to keep my subjects at arm’s length – not least because of the bond of trust that you build up with an individual through personal contact, which almost enforces respect upon you. And being critical and being honest about one’s reactions are also part of being a historian. Not sure if I’m going to change how I view the legions of people crying over Birdsong as a result of our conversations, but I am at least going to think about it.

5) Returned to some really good and completely unexpected news.

The ‘War on Terror’ is not now, nor has it ever been, the equivalent of the Second World War

November 1, 2006

John Reid, in entirely coincidental and apolitical comparison, invokes inventors of Second World War to encourage technological solutions to terrorism.