Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Updates available!

My ACUME paper is available to read at Mark Grimsley's site. Many thanks to Mark for hosting the paper. I'd be very grateful for any feedback.

My fellow member of the Jay Winter Supervisee's Club, Jessica Meyer, is organising a conference on the representation of the First World War in Newcastle next year. The closing date is almost upon us (15th September). I promised a submission: time to put my thinking cap on again.

Upcoming - some thoughts on previous blogs/comments about 'military cultural memory', involving the useful concept of the military experience ratio.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Comparative Cultural History (2)

One topic of abiding interest to me has been how soldiers learn. Partly about how armies teach them, but much more what they learn informally, not least before they join the army, about what it is to be a soldier and what they should expect of war. This has particular importance for the writing of military history given the things I learned at Giessen about the importance of preformation of expectation in the shaping of experience (see ACUME (2) below).
One thing that forms soldiers' expectations and experience of war is what they know about previous conflicts. In some cases, of course, they may have participated in these earlier wars, but otherwise they may have learned about them through a mixture of family participation, popular culture and more formal education.
As an example of this mix of expectation and experience, consider British soldiers in the Second World War. Most had grown up in an atmosphere where the First World War was both celebrated and mourned. As children they learned that the trenches had been terrible - but also that heroism and self-sacrifice were still possible, and that the defining experience of masculinity was soldiering. When the Second World War came, most Britons did not avoid military service. They did seek, where they could, to join 'clean' arms (the navy, the air force, anything but the PBI). Those who did end up in terrestrial combat arms continued to make use of their forefathers' experiences as a sort of emotional talisman. There's plentiful evidence of Second World War infantrymen - often those who experienced what were, by any definition, awful wars - saying to themselves "This is bad, but it's not the worst. If my father could serve for three years in Flanders, then I can stick this. At least I'm not in that war."
Sam Hynes has some useful stuff on this in The Soldiers' Tale I think - primarily about Vietnam.
What about other wars? Using some of the comparators suggested below, what formed soldiers' cultural expectations? Lots has been written about the literary basis for First World War soldiers' world view. Much less about what they had learned from fathers/older brothers/uncles/their own involvement in the Boer War or the pre-war militia or TF. With the American Civil War, I recall that many of the men who held senior command had won their spurs in the Mexican War, but the forces engaged were small relative to the American population. What were the popular 'memories' of 1812 - or the Napoleonic Wars, given the mass of European immigration at the time?
Again, new comments always welcome: I'm finding the blogging inspirational to thought, as you can tell.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Comparative Cultural History

Right, away from the literature/history dichotomy that seems to have been dominating my writing here since it began, some actual WWI related thoughts. One of the problems of British history of the First World War - both that which examines the war itself and that which looks at its mythic aftermath - is that the war tends to viewed as unique.
Spurred on by the writings of John Terraine, British military historians have tried to place the Western Front in the context of other modern total wars, but often on a comparatively simple level. This usually takes the form of a statistical comparison of rates of recruitment, numbers of divisions and percentage losses. Useful to a degree (although a statistic is like a glove puppet - stick your hand far enough up its backside and it'll say anything) - but often decontextualised.
This is much more, however, than analysts of the British mythology/cultural memory have done. Although there have been attempts to compare British remembrance with that of other participants in the First World War - see the work of Stefan Goebel and Jenny Macleod - there hasn't so far as I know, been a proper comparison with other wars over the long term, in an effort to bring out the effects of anniversaries, generational change, cultural context and so on.

What might be our criteria for choosing other wars? Off the top of my head, some combination of:
1) scale and totality - level of popular involvement
2) media context - presence of myth-making and spreading structures
3) subsequent impact - how well have they been remembered?
4) ease of access to resources - including, for the moment, my lack of linguistic skills/background knowledge - although my French isn't too bad, my French history is rubbish.

On these grounds, I wondered about comparisons with:
The English Civil War (huge popular involvement, very different media context)
The Napoleonic Wars (in Britain relatively much less popular involvement (depending on how we rate militia service), different media context)
The Indian Mutiny (following a suggestion from Astrid Erll) (tiny popular involvement but huge impact at the time, start of the modern media age - photographs)
The American Civil War - the most obvious source of comparison, I think
The Boer War
Second World War - obvious and probably already being written.

The idea would be to follow through the mythology of these wars in the century or so after they ended, examine how their myths developed and changed, and compare these processes to those which operated in Britain, 1918-2008ish.

Responses, anyone?

Friday, August 26, 2005

ACUME 2

What was a war historian to make of all this?

The atmosphere between the youngest generation of history and literary studies academics is much friendlier than it used to be. There is a lot for us to learn: particularly on reading texts and using cognitive psychology. The boundary between the disciplines here is sometimes pretty blurred.
That having been said, there are some areas in which our academic paradigms are still very different. Military history (as distinct from war history) does, I think, encourage a pragmatic, empiricist approach. The result is that I can bristle at an overly theoretical – or an overly metaphysical/metaphorical – approach. There does seem to be a tendency amongst literary scholars to say ‘the well established fact that…’ where ‘well established seems to mean ‘asserted by lots of other eminent literary theorists’ rather than ‘proven by use of evidence’. I suspect I’ll get some flak for saying that, but I think plenty of literary scholars would acknowledge these faults – just as I would acknowledge the numerous problems in my own discipline. One of them is an unwillingness to theorise – so perhaps this is swings and roundabouts.
There is also a more general issue which I think relates to the place of war in popular culture. In this field in particular there is a tendency to regard strongly held beliefs as historical facts. By its nature, modern war attracts strong beliefs and assumptions. ‘War is bad’, ‘Armies (and generals) are stupid’, ‘All war is traumatic’. Lay readers, literary scholars – and many military historians – often end up inflicting these beliefs on the past, imposing ahistoric judgments because of what they ‘know’ to be the truth.

I was surprised that I was the only speaker at the conference to consider audience reaction. I think that reception studies is an area that some literary scholars are interested in, so I’m surprised that nobody working on this area spoke. Even if excellent work being done on the creation of these texts, without studying the whole process we are hardly looking at ‘cultural memory’. Many of those working in the field of literature are telling us how the roads are made, but they don’t seem to be paying much attention to the atlas.

ACUME 1

(This posting, and the ones that follow, are brought to you by Lemsip and Sudafed. I have been struck down by a severe dose of ‘manflu’ which has left me coughing like a hag and cursing through sludge. So if I sound irascible, that’s probably the explanation).

Just back from the ACUME conference in Giessen. Excellent venue – a 19th century schloss which made me feel I needed a couple of duelling scars. Interesting selection of papers. Although the overall topic of the conference was cultural memory, most of those speaking were literary scholars. I was one of two historians out of about twenty participants.

This made me a bit apprehensive, but I have to say that for the most part I found it stimulating. It made me think about the study of literature and history in a way that should wrap up some of the points Esther and I have been bouncing back and forth on our two sites.

Papers that stood out for me:

Max Saunders on writing traumatic memory in both world wars: for a military historian, very interesting on the way that memoirs/autobiographical fiction have been written and the shifts that take place around the writing of traumatic experiences. Max used examples from Graves, Douglas, Ford Madox Ford and making reference to Freud. I was struck by the way authors write around these key experiences – circumnavigating them before writing them in detail (arguably The Great War and Modern Memory is a giant circumlocution of Fussell’s Second World War experience), and by the changes in syntax and imagery that accompany them. Most military historians would not, I think, interrogate a text so closely to derive meaning.

Astrid Erll offered a great summation of current thinking on the formation and rehearsal of memory. Astrid’s used research in cognitive psychology to suggest how important pre-formed expectations are in shaping experience and memory. Again, lots for historians to consider here about what ‘witnessing’ war actually means – what scripts are witnesses using. These were points bolstered – from a wider historical perspective, in a paper by Horst Carl.

Geert Bulens gave us a paper on modernist poetry and responses to the Great War that focussed on way these poets – from across the continent – envisioned ‘Europe’ in response to the war. A lot of the work I’ve looked at in terms of re-discovered poetry of the First World War has concentrated on more traditional poets – Geert’s paper had some wonderful examples of avant garde poetry from Belgium and Poland which I’d never seen before. I’ve mentioned elsewhere a possible European-funded project on the 100th anniversary of the war – I think Geert stands a great chance of securing such funding!

Andrea Birk’s paper on recent German literature dealt with a lot of the issues I’m interested in with regard to the First World War in relation to the Second. Particularly: how do you represent a ‘lost’ family experience, the impact of generational change on fictional representations and the growth of ‘family memory’ texts in recent years. Obviously the context and event being represented are different, but I think there are interesting comparisons to be drawn. I left with a list of German texts I need to read and compare.

Elena Lamberti's paper on the Spanish Civil War immediately preceded mine and (miraculously) dovetailed quite well with it. Elena had some excellent points to make about the development of a universal visual language of war in the 20th century - that we all have a set of shared images of 'war'. There is a technological-chronological explanation for this - the coincidence of information and print technology with a period when mass wars were being fought. Elena pointed towards the Spanish Civil War as the moment when a war which attracted international concern coincided with the growth of magazines which relied on pictures to tell their stories - most obviously Henry Luce's Life. I need to think a bit more about the implications of this 'globalisation of war-imagery' for my own work on the 'memory' of the First World War in the 1960s.

Diederik Oostdijk gave a paper on the US WW2 poet James Dickey. Dickey wrote about the war at various stages in his later life. He was also, it turns out, an inveterate fantastist and fabulist about his experiences (and the writer and screenwriter of Deliverance). In terms of witnessing history, Dickey’s changing story – depending on personal and national context, medium and other texts (including Rambo) – was a very informative case study. Again, some interesting comparisons to be made with WWI authors.

Monday, August 22, 2005

War and Literature

'A poet’s object is not to tell what actually happened but what could and would happen either probably or inevitably. The difference between a historian and a poet is not that one writes in prose and the other in verse – indeed the writings of Herodotus could be put into verse and yet would still be a kind of history. … The real difference is this, that one tells what happened and the other what might happen. For this reason poetry is something more scientific and serious than history, because poetry tends to give general truths while history gives particular facts.'
(
Aristotle, The Poetics, trans W. Hamilton Fyfe, (London, 1955), 35 [9, 1451b]. My thanks to Professor Alex Danchev for first pointing me towards this quotation.)

To continue with the post below, and to touch on an issue that Esther MacCallum Stewart is discussing elsewhere, how should historians react to popular historical fiction? Should we just say 'Well, what do you expect?' and dismiss it? Should we try to work with it? These books aren't going to go away, and they have formed a route into interest in the war for many readers. Some of them might even go on to buy our books.

The question I finished my paper at Oxford with was whether it would be possible to have a book about the First World War which was inaccurate at the level of historical detail, but which offered concepts of which historians could approve? For me, Pat Barker's Regeneration trilogy is an interesting example. At the level of historical detail, it is packed full of anachronisms. Its take on Edwardian male sexuality, the development of military psychiatry, the writing of poetry and the relationship between Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen are all just plain wrong (ironically, these seem to anger literary historians more than they annoy me). At the level of concepts, however, a reader could leave these books with the following ideas: 1) the First World War wasn't just about the war poets, 2) some First World War soldiers believed that they were fighting a just war, 3) total wars create a range of social and cultural tensions, 4) some elements of the military experience might be enjoyable to some men. These could represent a significant shift of the reader's opinion from the normal mud, blood, donkeys cliches. In contrast, I think you could argue that Sebastian Faulks' Birdsong is more historically accurate, but far more likely to reinforce its readers' existing prejudices. Which, as historians, should we prefer?

Interviewed after she won the Booker Prize, Barker commented: ‘What people don’t like to be told, I think, is that there are dictatorships so abominable that in the end you have to fight. People aren’t comfortable with that – they’d rather think about innocent young men being slaughtered at the behest of stupid generals.’ That could be Brian Bond talking, or Gary Sheffield. Or me.
(A. Quinn, ‘What Sassoon could never resolve’, Daily Telegraph, 2 September 1995, A4.)

War and literature

One of the aspects of the First World War in Britain that I find particularly interesting is the intersection between 'literature' and 'history'. We can perhaps have a semantic debate later about what exactly the boundaries of those two terms are. The particular relevance for my work lies in the way that modern Britons form their ideas about the war as historical event - what it was like and what it was meant - from literary sources - either the poetry they are taught in schools or the modern popular fiction which uses the war as a setting.
Earlier this summer I took part in a colloquium on 'Periscope and Telescope' at Wolfson College Oxford. The aim was to bring together 'literary' and 'military' historians to discuss 'conflicting views of the Great War'. I was slightly surprised to find myself the junior representative of the military historians. This put me in some excellent company, but left me rather open to the preconceptions most academics seem to hold about the study of military history (and since I wasn't wearing my regimental blazer, had a goatee rather than a moustache, and seldom sit up straight, this could have been confusing).
In a session set up as a debate, I was asked to speak against the motion that 'Historians need creative imagination as much as imaginative writers need historical information'. Facetiously, I opposed it on the grounds that it was insufficiently strong: historians need far more creative imagination (whether in devising a methodology, analysing incomplete information, or writing without committing the crime of 'psychological anachronism') than do imaginative writers. Indeed, if you look at the field of recent First World War fiction, it's apparent that a lot of writers use only the bare minimum of historical research, and seldom look to assess their sources (even on the simplest primary/secondary basis) in the way that a historian would do. The whole point, of course, is that it's creative writing - if historical fact doesn't fit what you want, you're allowed to bend it. Let's steer clear, for the moment, of how much some historians do exactly the same thing.
The problem for many historians of the war is that readers tend to accept these works of historical fiction as accurate pieces of reconstruction. This suspension of disbelief is probably true of all historical fiction, but is particularly the case for a war in which many Britons still feel bound up by myths of family involvement. Like many of my colleagues, I have had otherwise perfectly reasonable and intelligent people tell me that books like Birdsong or Regeneration told them the 'truth' about the First World War. This frustrates historians for three reasons: 1) we see the errors, plagiarism and anachronisms, 2) we can't understand why readers get confused between fact and fiction, 3) some of these books sell in quantities we could only dream about and reach audiences we never will.

Veterans (2)


Positive representations of the war experience flourished in the 1920s and 1930s, often alongside more negative representations. This HMV catalogue for 1930 contained an advertisement for 'The Darker Side of War' - a record of a gory radio play about the destruction of a German communication post called 'Brigade Exchange' (starring a very young John Gielgud, btw) - and 'The Lighter Side of War' - 'Cockney humour in the trenches', which was illustrated on the front cover.

Veterans


When we look at how the First World War was 'remembered' in the 1960s, we need to remember that a) there were still a lot of veterans alive (c. 2m in 1961, by one estimate) and b) that although they might look old, many were still active. They retained a wide variety of different views about their war service - and rehearsed them sufficiently strongly to avoid being immediately overwhelmed by new 'anti-war' texts like Oh What a Lovely War. Here, British veterans play football after the 50th anniversary commemoration at Thiepval, on the Somme, July 1966 (thus combining the myth of chasing a football over the top, and the notorious 'two world wars and one world cup' chant!).
I would really like to use this photo in my book. I found it through the Liddle Archives at the University of Leeds, but they have no details as to its provenance (it looks like it was cut from a newspaper). If you have any clue where it came from, please let me know.

Giessen Conference Paper

The problem, as noted below, of working up papers online is that the finished product can be a bit long to post on something which is meant to be immediately engaging and easy to read. The long-term answer to this, I suspect, is to move to a more complex combination of host/software that gives one a bit more flexibility. For the moment, Mark Grimsley has kindly offered to put the finished version on his site, so you can go and read it there. As soon as I have made sure we have enough students for next year, I'll organise getting it up.

Friday, August 19, 2005

On Blogging (3)

Esther also commented that I'd put a list of what I'd like to write about as my first post: which she feared I might find rather restrictive. Hopefully this doesn't breach some rule of blogging etiquette-
'in some ways that might restrict 'random' entries if you feel they always have to have a level of gravitas to them in terms of content. I tend to blog relatively randomly, so length of entry is usually small and there is room to be flippant. But there are some contentious ideas on your site which I think are more on the epic scale...'
Well, ta very much. I try always to maintain an air of gravitas, obviously, although sometimes my tongue gets stuck in my cheek. And I am struggling about how to put longer papers online whilst avoiding the problems of MEGO (My Eyes Glaze Over) or TLDR (Too Long, Didn't Read).
Putting a list down was a way to save my sanity as much as anything - making sure that I would eventually get round to topics without keeping a massive list in my head.

On blogging (2)

To continue that point about warblogging - one of the other suggested criteria is that a blog is 'pro-war'. I think I might at a stretch be described as 'pro-military' in the sense that I believe we need an army (and even a navy and, on particularly bad days, an air force) and that since we have to have one, it ought to be the best - not least intellectually - we can manage. I've taught and socialised with a few soldiers, and I've found some of them hugely impressive people.
With regard to the First World War, I think that I am now bracketted - whether I want to be or not - in the ranks of the 'revisionist' military historians . Simplistically, that means that I believe, on the basis of research and argument, that faced with a hugely difficult situation, the British army of the First World War didn't do too bad a job.
Whether that's what I'm actually interested in arguing about is another matter. How armies (indeed countries) respond to the demands - military, technological, cultural, social, political - of total war is much more interesting to me than the personality-bashing/defence which has dominated British military history of that war for so long.
At some point I want to write about my own definitions of self and subject here - but not the day after clearing!

On blogging

First reactions have started to come in to the blog - varying from 'What is a 'blog'?' (Distinguished Military Historian who can remain anonymous till he figures out how to post here), to really encouraging and helpful points from Esther and Mark, both mentioned below.

Esther raises a point on her site :
Is this a warblog? I think not: I've always taken these to be the product of serving soldiers engaged in a war (police action/peacekeeping mission, whatever). And although I say elsewhere that the 'death of the First World War is greatly exaggerated', it's hardly an ongoing conflict (although the last person to explain to me how Birdsong was 'history' might feel differently).

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

The Future of the First World War

It's now two months since we held The Future of the First World War colloquium, and if it's not too late, I thought I would finally fulfil my promise on the day to blog up the results.
The only problem there may be is that I was so psyched up with the desperate desire to make the whole thing run smoothly that I may have forgotten to switch to 'receive' mode. So when I've bashed this into some decent shape, I will send it round to the other participants and ask for their comments.

Format:
A day of discussion between 'interested practictioners' of the First World War - mainly academic historians at various levels, but including some workers in other cultural fields: museums, archives, television and film. Four 25 minute papers (more or less) each followed by discussion, then a round table. Many thanks to QMUL, who gave me the opportunity to host the whole thing, provided excellent food and the pleasant (if eventually rather hot) setting. Thanks also to all who came.

Thoughts:
For me,six things stood out
1) the death of the First World War has been greatly exaggerated. Although I realised that the last twenty or so years had seen extensive developments in the field, I think I needed reminding of just how much very high quality research is going on. As John Horne's paper revealed, much of this has been driven by the boom in the cultural history of the war and is being carried out on a trans-European basis. The result is really to open up the full variety of this huge war to academic eyes - although we might wonder what parts of this will make it into the public sphere. For some idea of the range of topics being explored, have a look at the programme for the upcoming conference in Dublin here.
2) the blurring of boundaries. One of the aspects of this boom in First World War studies that makes me feel most positive is that - although it is often carried out under banners like 'cultural', 'military', 'literary' history - it has become far more standard for students to reach over the boundaries that formerly existed between these disciplines. I don't think that this is by any means a complete process - it is still far from likely that someone studying the literature of the war would see an extensive knowledge of its military history as a prerequisite - but it is a start. Certainly I got the impression that these various groups are much more likely to talk to each other than in a previous generation - perhaps one positive effect of postmodernism.
3) there's still a lot of work to be done. It's a big subject area with room for everybody, and in lots of cases what we're seeing now is still the first mining of the archives, rather than revisionism. I thought that I'd spotted the chance for a grand cross-European project on 1918, but I rather suspect, from his comments, that David Stevenson might have beaten us to it. David would, of course, be the man to pull off what would otherwise be a collaborative project, impossible for any one historian, on his own.
4) the impact of historical fashion and popular cultural concerns on academic study. David's paper on international history and the First World War pointed out that this was the field that had obsessed the historical profession in the aftermath of the war (how had the catastrophe happened?) The result was that a large quantity of documents were published relatively swiftly, a lot of academic work went in, but that now the field is comparatively quiet. This historical mine has, if not been worked out, then at least had its seams so thoroughly explored that further work doesn't tempt new scholars. This is at best a half-formed thought, but I think there's something quite interesting to be done on the ebb and flow of academic interest in a subject area, and the lengths of time and contexts in which different fields of study retain relevance (academic fashion being, I realise, something of a contradiction in terms).
5) Is any of this actually getting out there?
One of the key questions I wanted to ask was whether all these academic developments were having any impact on the public discourse. Here, I think, there's an interesting point of definition. Is it possible for an interested lay reader/viewer to discover the cutting edge of First World War research - absolutely. I suspect that this is going to get easier as time goes on: not only will recent research be more widely disseminated, but my feeling is that the market effect of the web has been generally positive - the most frequently linked sites, on my own anecdotal experience - are those offering a complex and rich version of the war of which historians can approve.
On the other hand, have all these interesting developments made it into popular and successful TV series (still, I think, the basic mark of whether they are reaching a wide audience)? No, but, as Steve Badsey pointed out in an excellent paper, not necessarily because all TV producers are ignorant commercially obsessed fools. As well as the host of structural issues around turning 'good' academic history into 'good' TV, the influence of funding bodies and so on, historians have also to shoulder some responsibility. We are either too easily dismissive of 'public history' or too easily seduced by its wiles. Few of us are trained in its methods - and those few tend to have gained their training by hard-fought and ill-paid experience. We not only have to recognise the limitations of the various media we want to use, but to think about how we can exploit the advantages they do offer. Quite how to do that is perhaps another matter.
6) What is going to happen around the 100th anniversaries?
The colloquium arose out of faintly remembered debates with Jay Winter about what would happen around the 2014-18. Would the war still be remembered? Would it be slipping over the edge into history rather than memory? Could we see comparisons with other wars/anniversaries. I don't have a definite answer yet, but the colloquium led me to have the following thoughts:
a) following on from something Steve said, the date to look out for is probably 2017, since that will be the anniversary the American media may want to mark. They've got the cash to put on a big production.
b) if historians want to influence the European-wide commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the war, we need to get our act together now: working with public bodies like museums to put together funding bids. That probably means exploring - even deciding - what the war can mean in the 21st century.
c) one key factor in the remembrance of the war in this country has been the family connection. I continue to believe that the scale of involvement and a modern interest in the heritaged past has made the total wars of the 20th century different from their predecessors. My strong suspicion, however, is that by 2014-2018 we will have passed so far from the original event that those familial links will be severely tested. The children and grandchildren of those who fought will have passed away - the potential will be for the emotional connection to have been lost.
d) in Britain and elsewhere, what is taught in schools really matters. This is what lays the groundwork for future fascination and underpins mythology. What do we think is going to happen to the place of the First World War in the History curriculum in our different countries - and to its place in English Lit, in the UK at least?

Enough - I want to get this online and get some responses.

Outcomes
Catherine Merridale and I are going to run a 'War and Memory' seminar series on Wednesday afternoons/evenings next year. I'll be posting more on this as I discuss it with Cathy and set up the details, but I'd appreciate it if those who expressed an interest in a First World War seminar series could get in touch. Can we link these - or at least cross-publicise?
Anybody interested in putting together funding applications for a trans-national, trans-disciplinary project on 1918? Let's brainstorm.

Regrets, rethinks and apologies.
First, I wish I'd pulled my finger out and got on with this blogging lark earlier. I really hope that someone's going to get back to me on this, but it was far too long between the conference and setting this up. Next time I run anything like this, I'll set up a blog thread on it beforehand. I will endeavour to report back on the other conferences I go to this summer - I've actually enjoyed having the opportunity to reflect.
Second, it was only as the conference was ongoing that I realised that I had organised a predominantly male set of speakers and commentators. You can take the fact that I hadn't thought about it either as evidence of my 'gender-blind' approach or as a case-study in unconscious prejudice (either mine or the academy's) as you will. I could have got a set of speakers of equal eminence whilst maintaining a male-female balance (although it would have been harder work, just in terms of my network of people I could ask favours from). Should I have been thinking in those terms? Comments on that much appreciated.
Third, I was disappointed not to get more people from outside the academy. Some of that was happenstance - it was a particularly difficult weeken for some of those I'd expected to come. Some of it may be to do with reputation/gatekeeping: again, thoughts on how to surmount those problems please.
Fourth, I obviousy wished we could have dealt with more subject areas - but time and space were limited. Comments on really glaring omissions will be taken with a smile.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

ACUME Conference in Giessen, 24-25 August

I've been asked to give a paper at this conference, on 'Writing and Visualising War: To Bear Witness as a Complex Act' on 25 August. ACUME is a European wide research and teaching network examining 'cultural memory' using an interdisciplinary approach. I have a few problems with using the word 'memory' to discuss the combination of personal recollection and cultural constructs that seems to be summed up by 'cultural memory', but given the complexities of translation, perhaps its the best/most easily understood term. Certainly it's a huge privilege and opportunity to be given the chance to discuss my work with a very wide range of European scholars.
I have been told that I have 20 minutes to discuss some of my work, with particular emphasis on the tension between bearing witness and the dynamics of the mode of representation - what I think I would call the structural influence. How much does the fact that you're producing a TV documentary series affect the eventual output, in addition to whatever your own individual viewpoint is.
Obviously a 20 minute paper is one of the most difficult things to pull off successfully - engaging and informing the audience without being superficial - and since I note that each 3 paper session has been given 3 hours of time, I might end up with 25. On the other hand, this is all useful discipline and training in tight writing and thinking.
It does mean, however, that I will have to choose a single example to talk about. I am going to choose either my work on the 1964 BBC TV series The Great War or on the 1963 'musical entertainment' Oh What a Lovely War. Both, it seems to me, display precisely the sort of tensions that I take this conference to be examining. On The Great War, the eventual form of the series was shaped as much by the severe pressures of time under which the production team operated as by their historical understanding and their hopes of producing a new sort of television history. Oh What a Lovely War reshaped the First World War twice - first as Joan Littlewood and her cast adapted Charles Chilton's original script to inform a radical 1960s audience about the perils of nuclear war, then a second time as Theatre Workshop met the commercial demand for a more nostalgic singalong (some of which came from veterans of the war themselves). The whole thing was reshaped again when it was made into a film in 1968. When the National Theatre revived Oh What a Lovely War in 1998 (for the first time, nationally, although it had been a rep and am dram favourite in the intervening years) it was reshaped again - since the audience viewed it in terms of nostalgia for the 1960s. Arguably, Chilton's original radio script The Long Long Trail was itself a re-working of the songs of the war. That makes - what - five reshapings? Plenty to fit ACUME's 'fils rouges' of manipulation, spectacularisation and sellability.
Ah - first evidence of the success of the blogging approach. The process of writing all of that down seems to have clarified my ideas and settled that decision for me. Oh What a Lovely War it is. I'll put up the paper as I write it. Should be helped by the fact that the new proofs of the book will be here tomorrow, so there'll be good reason to go through all this again.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Points of departure.

This is by way of dipping a toe into the world of blogging. Light years behind the development curve, I realise, but recently three different factors have inspired me to start using a blog as an intellectual diary, a web-collecting ground and an opportunity for self-promotion.
First, I recently organised a colloquium at Queen Mary, University of London, on The Future of the First World War. Historians from a variety of backgrounds came together to discuss where the academic study and popular representation of the war would go over the run up to the 100th anniversaries - 2014-2018. It was a great day and incredibly stimulating, and the impact of the web was a significant topic of debate. But I was so caught up in running the day and presenting my own paper that I felt that I needed an opportunity to reflect on it at leisure. More than one of the participants suggested I blog the day.
Second, I've recently been spending a lot of time on two excellent academic blogs, both related to my field of study. Esther MacCallum-Stewart's Break of Day in the Trenches site is a great examples of how to bring together the huge quantity of WWI material together for personal and academic benefit. Mark Grimsley's Blog Them Out of the Stone Age blows me away with the complexity and variety of its thought. Mark is making remarkable efforts to move the topic on. In particular, Mark's thread on why Custer would have been blogging if he were alive today has convinced me that this is the way forward.
Third, I'm increasingly using web-based learning with my students, and it seemed useful to have a site where I could create and test-drive some of the material I'd use on them.
With all that in mind I thought that I'd start at the easy end of the blog market and see what I came up with. The aim is to create somewhere to discuss ongoing projects and try out new ideas. Let's see where that takes us. I'm very eager for any suggestions about how to improve the site and my work.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Ongoing projects

Things I want to write about here in the coming weeks:

  • The Future of the First World War - outcomes and perspectives
  • Why have I started calling myself a war historian, rather than a military historian?
  • Why 'trench fever'?
  • Project papers for my NAFGTY online study group:
- Six Key Ideas About the First World War
- Using literature as a historical source
- The war books boom
- Why don't we remember 1918?
  • Remembering the First World War in Britain and New Zealand in the 1980s
  • Memorial language
  • Conference reports - Giessen and Dublin
  • Helping students improve their writing
  • Study day at the IWM
  • War and Memory seminar/workshop series

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