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.