Taking stock

It is the last day the university is open before Christmas.  The heating is off in my office, as is the light in the hallway.  In fact, I think I am the only person left working on this floor.  So what better time to take a moment to look back and take stock of this incredibly hectic year.

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I had hoped to be doing this from the perspective of a clear desk, with all major projects completed, at least until the new year. Sadly, this is not to be.  I am preparing to place the fifth draft of an article which still needs a conclusion, a few more supporting quotations and a couple of hours of formatting footnotes before I can send it to the editor in my bag to take home with me.  Alongside that are a 350-page book and 48-page grant application, both of which I need to (re)familiarize myself with in preparation for two interviews early in the new year.  Oh, and then there is the grant application I need to redraft with the goal of resubmitting in early February. This will be the sixth time I have submitted this project for consideration by a funding body or grant-awarding committee.

So there is quite a lot of work still to do over the next two weeks, between the turkey and the Christmas cake and the two excited small children for whom Christmas is nothing but magic, a fact that makes it hard, sometimes, to remember just how much I have achieved over the past year.  But for all the lack of a nice tidy ending, there are definite signs of progress, not least the lovely folder that tops my document list bearing the working title of the book I will be writing next year.  The joy of the folder lies not just in its existence, but also in the fact that it contains two documents, a draft proposal and a draft introduction.  Baby steps perhaps, but concrete evidence nonetheless that this book is actually happening.  In the past 12 months it has gone from a vague promise to myself and my funding body to a clear outline and argument with a story to tell and a point to make.

And there are other concrete achievements.  The article I have been working on for the last few weeks may be tantalizingly unfinished, but the one I was working on this time last year is not only completed but has also been accepted for publication next year, marking the culmination of a project that had its inception nearly three years ago.  Slightly more abstractly, the piles of marking and course documentation, waiting to be filed following the completion of exams and second marking next month, bear witness to the time I have committed to teaching this year, time which has not only boosted both my CV and my confidence in possibly my least favourite aspect of the academic discipline, but also laid the groundwork for my forthcoming application to the Higher Education Academy for professional validation.

And then there are the abstract developments, such as the discovery that, despite two television appearances and a number of radio interviews, I am probably not cut out to be a full scale media don or public intellectual.  As much as I have enjoyed my engagement with broadcast media, particularly my interactions with the BBC as a New Generation Thinkers finalist and a World War One at Home adviser, I suspect I will always prefer blogging, whether on here or for collaborative blogs, as a form of public engagement.  Which brings me to my greatest regret of the year, the fact I have not been able to commit more time to this blog.  Too many subjects have slipped away from me as I have struggled to manage my priorities and keep some semblance of a work-life balance; too many comments have been made too late and in too much of a hurry.  I make no rash promises for doing better next year, but absence has made the heart grow fonder in this case, making me realize how important the process of blogging has become to working through my ideas.  With a little luck and slightly better management, I hope to be able to properly blog the progress of my book next year, as it goes from draft outline to completed manuscript.

Next year will, of course, be different.  As a colleague and fellow First World War historian has pointed out to me, 2014 has been a particularly hectic one for those of us who study the subject.  There have been more opportunities for undertaking innovative research and engaging with interested audiences than any of us could possibly take complete advantage of. Highlights for me have included the wealth of interesting academic conferences to choose from, including the wonderful War: An Emotional History which continues to inspire me and shape my approach to my work; the opportunity to help put together and teach a Massive Open Online Course, not something I could ever have anticipated or which I altogether enjoyed but which taught me a great deal; and the opportunity to engage with a range of interesting and inspiring artistic projects that have, once again, raised questions of the roles of historic and artistic interpretation in the process of commemoration. Low points include some frustratingly bad television, pointless and clichéd debates which failed to make full use of the real depth of historical knowledge about the war, both nationally and transnationally, that exists in Britain today, and the mind-numbing boredom that overwhelms me every time I contemplate the pointless unending discussions of the Christmas Truce which appear to have overwhelmed all else in the past weeks.  I think the high points more than balance out the low; at the very least they give me hope that there will be interesting discussions to be had in the future as we continue the centenary commemorations.

So there we have it, quite a lot of good, a bit of bad, a smattering of seriously ugly.  A year in which, however slowly, progress has been made and one in which much more has been promised but not yet achieved.  I enter the final week of the old year with a sense of incompletion but also of hope, a hope which I will desperately cling to as I face 2015 from a point of deep uncertainty and insecurity.  At present my current contract is due to come to an end in May.  I do have a very real chance of securing more funding after that (the interviews and grant applications I mentioned), although after over a year of pursuing them I am reaching exhaustion point.  I have spent so much of this year saying that I should know, one way or the other what would be happening to me by the end of the year.  It is not to be.  It will not, in my case, all be over by Christmas.  But for all that, there is hope of a positive resolution, something that would mean both immense personal achievement for me and security for my family.  So I will leave you with that sense of hope, to temper the anticipation of the hard work that will be needed if I am to have any chance of accomplishing the desired outcome.

Merry Christmas. And a hopeful, healthy, happy New Year to you all.

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We need to talk about Arthur Shelby

Firstly, an apology.  This is not going to be a very seasonal or festive post, although hopefully there will be one of those next week.  Rather, this is something that, as is becoming increasingly common, I have been meaning to write for a long time, but have struggled to fit in with everything else going on.  Essentially, the teaching term opened up its maw in October and swallowed up anything that might conceivably have been blogging time.  But now my last bit of marking is completed (at least until the new year exams) and I have cleared my desk of all admin and (bar editing an article on the American Field Service Ambulance) I am free to consider series 2 of Peaky Blinders, the commemoration of the First World War and the problem of male violence.

These last two topics are something that, unsurprisingly perhaps, have been preoccupying me quite a bit this year.  The question of commemoration has haunted pretty much everything I have done or written in relation to work for at least 12 months, although there have been times when it has felt as if it has occupied every waking moment for a lot longer. (War fatigue hit with full force on 12th November in my case, although I think I am starting to get my second wind.)  The issue of male violence as a legacy of the First World, by contrast, has been a more intermittent concern.  It isn’t directly related to my current research (although it is likely to be an important issue for the project I have been hawking around to numerous potential funders for over a year now) but it has been popping up in all sorts of interesting places, including the British Academy’s War: An Emotional History Conference, my lecture at the Freud Museum in October and, finally, in Peaky Blinders, where Arthur Selby loses control in the boxing ring and beats a man to death.

As I posted on Twitter at the time, when I write about the ugliness of shell shock, that is, at least in part, what I mean.  Because the narrative of the programme clearly links Arthur’s violent outbursts to his emotional reaction to his war experience.  This is an interesting shift from series 1, in which Arthur’s violence was portrayed as more psychopathic, violence for the love of violence rather than as a form of emotional release.  An even more interesting shift is that it is Tommy, the man who suffered throughout series 1 from nightmares relating to his days as a tunneller on the Western Front, who voices the view that Arthur needs to get over whatever lingering trauma he may be suffering because the war is over and done with.  This particularly piece of characterisation sadly didn’t ring true for me.  Surely, of all people, Tommy should know that the war is never truely over for some men.  One definition of war trauma is that it condemns those who suffer from it to relive their experiences as the present rather than, as healthy psyches are capable of doing, render it into livable, if unhappy, memory.   By putting the ‘all in the past’ stance on war trauma into Tommy’s mouth, the drama, so much of which does emotional justice to the era it represents (even if it does so most successfully through anachronism), descends momentarily into the realm of cosy cliché, taking on the middlebrow narrative that war trauma can, ultimately be cured through the love of (possibly) good woman.

That being said, Peaky Blinders remains, from a historical viewpoint, a far more exciting dramatic exploration of the social and emotional legacies of the First World War than, for instance, Downton Abbey, the fifth series of which was broadcast at much the same time in Britain.  Downton set out much more explicitly to depict the legacy of the war through its preposterous and inaccurate memorial subplot which made me want to hurl the works of Alex King and Mark Connelly [1] (among many others) at the heads of the script writers.  Yet one of the most significant legacies, that most men who fought in the war returned but changed by their experiences, was completely ignored.  Thomas, the drama’s only surviving combat veteran now that Matthew Crawley has been killed off, is, indeed, troubled, but his drug use, unlike that of Arthur Shelby, is attributed to his emotional conflict over being gay (that again!) rather than any memory of his war service.  Even his physical wound, the self-inflicted gunshot wound to his hand which did miraculously little damage at the time, does not seem to bother him at all any more, at least based on the representation on screen.  Indeed, long-term physical disability is remarkably absent in Downton, although I think I caught sight of a man with a missing arm at the unveiling of the war memorial.

Which brings me to the subject of wider commemorations of the war in this centenary year.  Throughout the year we have, appropriately enough, talked a great deal about the reasons why the war broke out and carried on for as long as it did. We seem to currently be talking about the history of the 1914 Christmas Truce on the Western Front.  This is not something that interests me a great deal, not simply because I don’t have any interest in football beyond the ways in which association with football (either as players or spectators) was used to construct ideas of patriotic masculinity (very negatively in the case of Sapper’s short stories, if you are wondering), but also because whatever happened on Christmas Day 1914 is not an overarching symbol of the war in its entirety, any more than 1st July, 1916 was.  To understand why men fought and continued fighting, we need to look at these individual days within the wider context of the 1,560 days of the conflict, all days in which, somewhere, men joined the army, killed and were killed, thought kindly of the enemy, rebelled against their commanders and reaffirmed their sense of duty to whatever they felt they were fighting for. So focussing on one particular day as a way of remembering the war risks losing our perspective (as I fear some of my colleagues may be running the risk of doing) about the full extent of what it is we are commemorating.

But the Christmas Truce has, at least, the redeeming factor of being, like the outbreak of the war, an appropriate moment this year to pause, think and discuss what happened 100 years ago.  I have struggled a great deal more with the focus this year upon the dead of the war, with any number of projects examining extant memorials and creating new ones.  The dead should, of course, be a hugely important part of our commemorations, but by making them the centre of the centenary from the outset runs the risk of recreating the struggles over commemoration of the interwar period when, as Dan Todman as noted, the interests of the bereaved came to take priority over those of the survivors,[2] a situation which had important and devestating implications for those who, like Arthur Selby, continued to suffer from the traumas of war experience long after it was all over and done with.

Which is why, as we come to the end of this first year of commemorations and gird our loins for the second, I reiterate a plea that I know I have made before, that we talk about men like Arthur Shelby, men like Robert Fentiman and men like the one cited by Michael Roper whose child recalled how he eschewed as violence in the wake of war, including corporal punishment, deeming it pointless and ineffective.  Only by talking about these men, and representing them in our popular cultural as much as we do the dead, can we ensure that they too are remembered.

[1] Alex King, Memorials of the Great War in Britain: The Symbolism and Politics of Remembrance (London: Bloomsbury, 1998); Mark Connelly, The Great War, Memory and Ritual: Commemoration in the City and East London, 1916-1939 (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2002).

[2] Dan Todman, The Great War: Myth and Memory (London: Hambledon and London, 2005), 53.