The History Lab…

October 6, 2008

…is the Institute for Historical Research’s network for postgraduate historians. It runs a seminar, at which Rob Dale, a PhD student at QMUL who has the bad luck to have me appointed as his ‘mentor’ will be speaking at the end of this month. And it has a blog, which I’ve now added to the sidebar.


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.

Hell in a handcart

April 29, 2008

Is the ‘history boom’, like a toxic algal bloom, poisoning itself? Some possible evidence for the prosecution – the problems caused for a new biography of the Sun King’s mistress by its author’s belated discovery that Louis XIV’s ‘secret diaries’ were nothing of the kind, and Peter and Dan Snow’s Battle Theatre at ‘Who Do You Think You Are Live?’

Maybe these aren’t signs of the historio-pocalypse however. My colleague Jerry Brotton is right, in his comments on the ‘diary’ cock-up above, that there’s a lot of duff ‘history’ about at the moment, but I fear it has frequently been thus. There was an awful lot of dreadful popular history published about the First World War around the time of the 50th anniversaries in the 1960s. (Yes, shade of Alan Clark, I am pointing the finger at you). I think what angers and frustrates those of us who’d like to think we do ‘proper’ history is the way that some publishers’ choices seem both to underestimate the reader and to block the way to the really good work we know is being done

Read the rest of this entry »

Timewatch podcast

January 6, 2008

At the start of December, I took part in a podcast recorded to back up a BBC Timewatch programme about Omaha Beach on D-Day. The programme goes out this evening on the BBC, and the podcast is now up. I wasn’t asked to be involved because of any great subject expertise, I think, but rather because I’d worked before with the BBC and the Open University (who collaborate on the podcast and website), because they knew I’d probably do it, and, as it turned out, because I could discuss the mythology of the Second World War as well. Although I don’t think this was an influential factor, I also knew the historian who’d been principally involved, Dr Simon Trew, from my time teaching at Sandhurst.

I was, to begin with, rather apprehensive. I got some negative reactions the last time I stuck my head over the parapet of publicity to talk about victory in 1918, and a lot of people know a lot more about Omaha than I do. Timewatch has been the subject of some controversy recently, with accusations of it dumbing down – and even suggestions that it would be axed. And then the transcript and preview DVD arrived, and I learned that the script seemed to bounce from one topic to the next and that the programme would be presented by that well known historian of war, Richard Hammond. What, exactly, was I going to say about that, if I wasn’t going to ruin my chances of ever working with the BBC again? As it turned out, it wasn’t quite as I expected. Read the rest of this entry »

An archive of one’s own

January 3, 2008

In preparation for my sabbatical, I’ve been trying to reorganise my workspace at home. Mainly, that’s meant trying to find more space to put books, and realising just how much stuff I’ve kept over the years. Like most historians, I assume, I’m a bit of a pack-rat. In some ways, this is easily justifiable. It’s often hard to feel that any project has completely finished, and you never know when those resources might come in useful. But can this really explain not just why I’ve still got all the notes for my undergraduate special subject and dissertation, but why I still feel it absolutely impossible to throw them away? Read the rest of this entry »

Playing the past?

December 21, 2007

The Guardian reports on the Lincolnsfields Centre, a residential site where visiting schoolchildren learn what it was like to be evacuees during the Second World War by ‘experiencing’ it for themselves. They seem to get the whole war in a week, from evacuation to VE Day. I’m not quite sure how I feel about such experiential learning. At one level, the Centre is obviously run by good people, who want to make history accessible and (despite the tone of the report) to help those with Special Needs or who are socially disadvantaged. And I would be the last to complain at children being fascinated by history, particularly since the numbers of kids choosing history at GCSE level goes down year by year. Still, I get nervous at how people are being taught to think about the past.

The teacher quoted at the end of the Guardian report says: ‘It was everything we hoped for and more. The children haven’t stopped talking about it, and it gave them a fantastic insight into the war years. It enabled them to empathise with the children living through it.’ I can’t help thinking that ’empathise’ is the wrong word here, and that this makes more than a semantic difference. It helped the children ‘imagine’ what it might have been like to be an evacuee, but if they are taught that just by wearing some clothes that feel strange, going somewhere different and eating some odd food you get an insight into the mental world of the 1930s or 1940s, to really ’empathise’, then someone is making an error. It’s a very fine line to walk: I know from experience that you can get a better sense, for example, of how well the British Army’s personal equipment was designed in 1914 by trying it on and comparing it to the Boer War version. But do students get a better sense of how it felt to be a soldier by putting on a uniform for twenty minutes? Probably not: they get a sense of what it feels like to be a young person in the twenty-first century wearing some unfamiliar clothing.

Still, if the Lincolnsfields Centre had its petition online, I’d sign up, because unless we get children interested in history somehow, they’ll never get to a point where we can start to make them question what, and how, they’ve learned.

Update: In some ways, this relates to the issue of imaginative involvement, as discussed from a different perspective by George Simmers here and here.

I’m back!

December 18, 2007

It is very much to my embarassment that this is the first post in over three months. Yes, I am well aware that the web is full of blogs the principal content of which are posts lamenting ‘I really must write here more often…’, but allow me to explain. For me, the purpose of the blog has always been to encourage and improve work, not to create it. It’s a place to share ideas and spark creativity. Over the last few months, I’ve often found myself either doing the sort of administrative work that doesn’t need to be shared with anybody, or writing to deadlines in a way that precludes discussion. I’ve also been fortunate enough to spend some time abroad – including a trip to Australia, of which you can read an account here and here. And this alerted me to the fact that quite a few people read trenchfever. Strangely, far from encouraging me to write more, this blocked me for two reasons. First, I felt a responsibility to produce quality. Second, I became conscious as I went over deadlines that the blog is also a measure of my activity. What would those editors to whom I owed chapters think of my excuses if they could see perfectly well that I was producing the goods here?

Anyway, the chapters are finished, the term is done, and I’m about to start a year’s sabbatical in which I’m concentrating on my Second World War book. So the blog should resume its role as thoughtpad and discussion site.

There are a couple of things I want to talk about over the next few days, including publishers using the ‘net, my experience of doing a podcast for Timewatch and my plans for next year, but for now, some sites to share on the web.

My Queen Mary colleagues put their Borromei Bank research project on the web. It’s a remarkable medieval history resource – an entire set of banking records allowing the reconstruction of a trans-European economy – and exactly what the net was meant for. Here’s the explanation of why it matters so much. Here are the records themselves.

James Holland’s research site and blog detailing his work on the Second World War. An example of an independent historian using the web to create his own archive.

The Imperial War Museum’s brief online exhibition of its work recording memories of Greenham Common, which might be quite a useful resource for post 45 British history.