George Blake’s The Shipbuilders

September 25, 2009

I picked this book up pretty much at random a couple of months ago, because its title and subject looked interesting – it’s a 1935 novel set on 1930s Clydeside, based around the relationship between Danny Shields, a riveter, and Leslie Pagan, the son of the shipyard owner. To be honest, I was struck by it because I wanted a well-written source on shipbuilding, but it turns out that it touches on older interests of mine as well. Shields was Pagan’s batman when they were both infantrymen during the First World War, and their emotional link as a result is a central facet of the book. It seems to draw on some of Blake’s own experiences: according to the DNB, he was wounded on Gallipoli (before becoming a journalist, and then a director of Faber and Faber after the war). Regimental reunions – formal and informal – crop up repeatedly. Blake apparently believed that he’d ‘failed with his proletarians’ (DNB again), and there is something a bit patronising in the depiction of Danny, but the meditations on the connections between old soldiers are heartfelt – and complex. Here’s Blake on a formal reunion dinner, ‘fantastically mixed as to type, disposition and social standing’:

The King, the Country, the Regiment… None of these symbols furnished an explanation. Few men ever fought for an idea. Old Colonel Gall over there, rolling in the fat, false profits of stockbroking, would be absurdly generous to any individual case that might appeal to him and could yet classify the unemployed as ‘shirkers’ and work and vote against them. Tall Fred Tierney, to whom he was speaking, professed Revolutionary Socialism and would, according to his utterances, hang all stockbrokers from the lamp posts. Yet here they were, and scores of pairs like them, melted into a harmony by a sentiment. But of what? Of hard experience shared, of common congratulation on escape, of esteem for fundamental worth? There was no answer. Significant, perhaps, that they all talked, and loudly, of ‘the Old Mob’. There was the symbol, possibly. Strange, however, that the spirit did not prevail in the conduct of their lives and affairs in industrial civilisation! Could it be that the warmth of the reunion was an illusion? Perhaps it was the expression of a fundamental reality,. Perhaps it was nothing at all.

(G. Blake, The Shipbuilders (Edinburgh, 1993 (first published 1935), 259.

Leslie is put off by the toasts and speeches at dinner, but there is a moment when everyone can revel in their (drunken) camaraderie, before they become quarrelsome and the party eventually breaks up. It’s a fascinating portrait – well worth a look for anyone with an interest in the remembrance of the First World War.


11 November links

November 11, 2008

First, biggest and best: go and explore The First World War Digital Poetry Archive and The Great War Archive, both based at the University of Oxford. Go even if you don’t care about the First World War, just to revel in the high quality of the thought that has gone into creating such a wonderful resource. Go to have a look at the more than 6500 artefacts submitted by members of the public which are all now freely accessible and searchable. This is the thing that has made me happiest this week.

Evidence that a sub’s choice of headline can make an article significantly worse (if this were a student essay, you’d be writing ‘do not introduce new ideas into the conclusion when you haven’t examined them in the main body of the thesis’). But good to see Adrian Gregory’s new book getting mentioned.

Evidence that Mary Warnock is a philosopher, rather than a historian. And that the sort of people who comment on newspaper columns online don’t really understand that the purpose of history is discussion, not abuse and wild assertion (on every side). But from an academic standpoint, what a great case study of the way that ideas about the Great War are used passionately to support different worldviews.

Interesting to note the symbolism that surrounded the last veterans of the First World War laying their wreaths at the Cenotaph, aided as they were by younger, heroic veterans in uniform. And perhaps sad that in trying to honour their comrades, they should be co-opted quite so heavily into an official discourse.

And lastly, I get excited about First World War memorials: but not this excited.

Oxford DNB and National Archives podcasts

November 10, 2008

One of the things that should make one more optimistic about the future of the public history of the First World War is the large number of high quality primary and secondary sources being made available on the web. For example, here is a nicely presented collection of lives from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography covering different aspects of the war. And here are podcasts from the National Archives, with readings from interesting files (I rather like the archivist’s emphasis that actually, finding such good material is pretty rare – they obviously want to lower expectations before they get swamped with people demanding the same level of information on their relatives).


November 8, 2008

For the First World War historian, the approach of 11 November in a year ending ‘8 is always slightly tinged with an empathy for grouse on the 7 August or turkeys in the run up to Christmas. ‘Maybe this time round it will be okay… hold on, what’s that chap in the tweed with the gun doing?’ How will the war be remembered this time round, and will the remarkable boom in First World War studies (inside and outside the academy) have registered on the popular consciousness? Read the rest of this entry »

Strachan on ‘A Part of History’

November 6, 2008

Hew Strachan reviews the essays in A Part of History (Continuum, 2008), a book to which I contributed a chapter on remembrance, for the TLS. Hew’s criticisms of the book, and his demands for less insularity, are justified (quite glad I don’t get a mention, although I’d like to think that one of the principal points of what I wrote was that the British have remembered the war in insular terms, which is his case as well).

What I think he underestimates is the role of publishers and the media in feeding this insularity – the public demand is not perceived to be for texts that place the war in global or historical context.

Another distinguishing feature of A Part of History was a fierce attack on me by Julian Putkowski, based on selective and out of context quotation from this blog (which he identifies as my ‘personal website’). I found this quite distressing at the time – and it has certainly made me more reticent in posting, which may be no bad thing – but ultimately I was glad that the book could find space for such a range of opinion. It also highlighted for me the degree to which a gap exists in understanding about what blogging is within the historical community, and the ease with which one’s words, once posted up, can be cut and pasted into other people’s work, which probably leaves you more likely to be quoted, however angrily.

First World War Studies – Call for Papers

November 6, 2008

Call for Papers
‘Other Combatants, Other Fronts: Competing Histories of the First World War’
The 5th Conference of the International Society for First World War Studies
The Imperial War Museum
London, UK
10th to 12th September 2009

We would like to call your attention to the Fifth Conference of the International Society for First World War Studies, which will take place in association with the Imperial War Museum and War Studies, King’s College, London in September 2009. Since 2001, the International Society for First World War Studies has held successful conferences in Lyon, Oxford, Dublin and Washington DC.
Read the rest of this entry »

90 Years of Remembrance

October 3, 2008

Beginning a push that has something of the last drive to victory about it, the BBC are gearing up for a multi-platform burst of remembrance this year. The website, run out of the ‘Religion’ section, interestingly enough, is promising a whole ‘campaign’:

With the aim of personalising the act of remembrance and bringing World War One vividly alive in the present, it will encourage individuals and families to look into the stories of their relatives that lived in the First World War through a variety of activities [shouldn’t there be a comma back there somewhere? I mean, I’m not surprised they lived through a variety of activities, I’m just not sure that’s what they mean]. From Oct 22nd:

  • Find out more about the events of the Great War on the website through the WW1 timeline and footage
  • Discover your WW1 family and local history through links to an array of family history sites
  • Post WW1 artefacts, photographs and memories about those who served to the online wall of remembrance
  • Browse the many WW1 stories already online including those of some familiar faces
  • View listings of all related programming on BBC television and radio throughout November with sneak previews available
  • Attend free remembrance events across the country on the weekend of the 8th and 9th of November
  • Sign up to BBC Remembrance’s texting service to receive the story of a local soldier who served in WW1

Although it’s only really supposed to get going on 22 October, some people have already added their thoughts.

Perhaps the most interesting feature at the moment is the archive of recordings from remembrance ceremonies at different points over the last sixty years.

Or you could watch Michael Palin tell you that a million Britons died in the First World War. The Australians, New Zealanders and Canadians are going to love being called British, I tell you.

More on the remembrance of the 90th anniversary of the war as it develops.