Possibly an angry post

Yesterday the Guardian published this letter.  I am currently at a conference about shell shock but, in between discussing post-traumatic cultures, I have been trying to work out why it has annoyed me so much.  The following are my conclusions; forgive me if they get a bit heated.

My main reason for annoyance lies, I think, in two aspects of the letter.  The first is the apparent belief that those engaged professionally with and in the arts (as the majority of the signatories are) have a particular authority to speak about the horror of war.  I may be wrong; it may be that these were just celebrity names associated with Stop the War, although this still begs the question of where they get their authority to speak so definitely about the war and its meaning for commemorative purposes.  Nonetheless, I cannot help feeling that some, such as Michael Morpurgo, are using their status as creators of cultural expression which use the war as subject matter to give themselves authority to pronounce on the ‘truth’ about the war, drawing on the tradition of the First World War cannon.  This tradition in British culture privileges particular narratives based on what is artistically valued, seeing the poetry in the pity as the overriding truth of the war.  Now, I have nothing against Wilfred Owen, other than his ubiquity, and much of his poetry is beautiful and moving, but his poetry is not the sole truth of the war, however artistically important it may be.  Equally, those engaged in the arts have no greater access to the truth of the war as a historical event to be commemorated than politicians, former generals or any other group with interest in said events.

The second infuriating aspect of the letter is the dichotomy it sets up between national commemoration and the promotion of international peace and understanding through a focus on its futility and devastation.  Such attempts to impose a contemporary political narrative on the commemorations feels like a betrayal of the men who fought.  (This, incidentally, applies equally to attempts to portray the war as a locus of contemporary national identity, which this letter accuses David Cameron of doing.)  There were certainly plenty of voices calling for international peace both at the start and in the wake of war.  Equally there were many who saw the war as a fight for national survival agains the threat of Prussian militarism.  And there were many who, in fighting for King and Country, were simply fighting to preserve the sanctity of the small part of that nation that they called home. Far more men enlisted in the belief that they were defending democracy, however limited that democracy might seem from a 21st century perspective, than we tend to given them credit for.  Many survived the war, just as many did not. Some were disillusioned by their experience; many incorporated it into their life stories and carried on, changed but not destroyed by war.  To deny any this is to deny those who gave voice to these sentiments, as a huge number did, the validity of their beliefs and does their memory a huge disservice.

As I say, I do not think that a commemoration of the war as a moment of great national unity is any more valid.  There was great resistance to war on many levels and from many people whose experiences of war have equal right to be commemorated.  So what do I want from the commemorations of the next four years?  For a start, a depoliticisation, an acknowledgement of the multiplicity of experience that was fundamental to total warfare, experience that ran the entire spectrum from absolutist conscientious objection to the rabble rousing of John Bull.  All form part of the history of the war that is to be commemorated; none should be ignored because it does not sit comfortably with our contemporary political narratives, be they national or global. Please let these commemorations be about the war as a whole, and all who were involved in it, not solely about those whose experiences support a contemporary sound bite.

Advertisements

Library time

So, another hiatus in posting here while I have done battle with my next conference paper, this one on representations of shell shock as immaturity across 20th century British popular culture.  It is the third paper I have written on the subject.  Every time I write the proposal for the paper I think what a brilliant idea it is; every time I actually sit down to write the paper itself I find myself doing vicious intellectual battle and wondering how I could think there was any mileage in the concept at all.  Still, I must be doing something right as both the previous tilts at this particular windmill have been published. And this is a conference paper, so I am going to leave it intentionally (honest, guv!) rough in the hope of getting useful feedback.  Given that the conference is being attended by what feels like all the world-class historians of shell shock available, this could be either a very good (or very, very bad) idea.  We will see. I am going to write the second draft next week.

This seemingly endless struggle has been interspersed with some work more directly related to what I am paid to do.  I spent a fabulous week in the Army Medical Services Museum (about which I intend to write a much longer blog shortly) and gave a paper to the Legacies of War seminar series. (Like the majority of those papers, it will be on-line soon here.)  This was another rough draft and the feedback was immensely useful so I am hopeful that, when I actually get around to rewriting and expanding the paper, there will be some hope of publishing it.

Library Shoot 58 (2)I also spent a really enjoyable Saturday morning in Special Collections, working with writers from Snowgoose.  Legacies of War is working with writers from the project to research a series of monologues based on the civilian experiences of the First World War in Leeds which will be performed on camera and available for festivals, as an educational tool and to view on-line.  The Saturday session I helped facilitate was an opportunity to introduce the writers, who were unfamiliar with working in historical archives, to the holdings of the Liddle Collection.  The Liddle catalogue is something of a mystery, even to professional historians with archival experience.  Add to that the complexities of copyright law and queries over the reproduction of images and the potential for intimidation is quite high.  So it was a complete joy to help this group quite literally get their hands on original documents and objects. Library Shoot 42 Library Shoot 24 (2)An hour in and everyone was engrossed in their research, a sight I found remarkably rewarding.  It was also a pleasure to be able to offer advice to someone whose research interest is likely to take her beyond Special Collections and into the city archives and other resources that I am not familiar with.  Helping someone to plot the map for a research journey is almost as exciting as plotting your own, I discover.

Library Shoot 53 (2)

My work for Research for Community Heritage has, to date, been somewhat confusing and occasionally unnerving but the interactions with the community research groups have, as this last experience exemplifies, been enormously rewarding in unexpected ways.  (On a similar note, some work I have done with Headingley LitFest has made me view Park Square in Leeds in an entirely new light.)  There are aspects of the project that make an unanswerable case for community engagement by the academy. More thought needs to be given about the ways in which such engagement integrates with other academic responsibilities, especially for early careers researchers, but the engagement itself offers enormous potential rewards for all involved.

(Photo credit: All photographs are by Laura Whitaker of www.definingbeauty.co.uk)