The unfinished year

So as is traditional (at least for the past two years), it is time for me to reflect on the past year and offer a few hopes for the coming one.  Last year I reflected on a hard year in 2015 and hoped for an easier one in 2016.  I doubt many people would identify this past year as such, and the political and international situation looks bleaker than it did 12 months ago.  But at a personal level, this has been a year that, even if not noticeably easy, then at least an improvement on the previous one.  Both my parents are still ill and neither will ever rid themselves of their respective conditions, but somehow we have come to some sort of accommodation that makes the day-to-day manageable, most days.  This is life, not crisis. Similarly, the managerial work that felt so frightening two years ago has become less overwhelming as I have become more familiar with it.  It is still labour that I am less secure with than, say, writing a book, but I am slowly discovering my own capability for this role, which makes things easier.

And there have been some triumphs. My husband got himself a new job, which he will take up in a couple of months.  This brings many positives and a few potential problems, but it is definitely a step in the direction that he wants to go.  My daughter started on the great intellectual adventure that is formal schooling. In the column marked ‘unadulterated joy’, my sister got married and my brother introduced us to his new partner. The Men, Women and Care project is properly off the ground (including its very own website and blog!) and definitely going places, places which offer their own challenges but are hugely exciting.  The team I have recruited is, so far, living up to their promise and doing interesting and creative work.  There have been a few (small) funding successes, to balance out the inevitable failures.  And, above all, I finally got my book proposal off to a publisher and it has been accepted!

Which is why this year, more than most, feels unfinished.  So much of the positive has not be the culmination or completion of hard work, whether personal or professional, but baby steps along the journey.  So I will enter the new year with papers to write, books to read, a major project to work on, including pursuing new theoretical and methodological angles which I hadn’t considered before this year, a few smaller projects (including two conferences) to organise, and, of course, a book to complete.  On the domestic front, there are still carpets to be laid, decisions to be made about renovations, and the tantalising potential of a house move that has been under discussion for the past year. The children continue to grow, physically, emotionally and mentally, challenging me as a parent as they do so.

There is a lot to do, but I will go into the new year with some lessons learned – about my own ability to recover from the personal paralysis induced by major political crises, about the importance of flexibility and my own capacity to accommodate the unexpected, about how much I can do, how much I rely on others to lend a hand or ear – and just how many wonderful friends and colleagues I have who do just that.  Some things, I hope, will come to fruition in 2017.  Others will carry on carrying on.  Whatever the new year brings, however, I am approaching it, once again, in hope and more energy than last year.

Finally, it has been a year when I have turned more than usual to poetry as a source of consolation, primarily Auden and Frost, who I can probably say with some confidence are my favourite poets.  So I will leave you with a poem appropriate for this point in the year, as the temperatures tumble and cover the world in frost crystals, if not necessarily snow, making my first run after a 5-month hiatus due to planter faciitis, a thing of sparkling wonder and promise.  It is, as it happens, the first poem I was ever conscious of memorising as a child.

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and snowy lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Robert Frost, 1922

Wish you and yours a year of promises kept and fulfilled and miles travelled safely, however near or far the ultimate destination. Happy New Year.

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Bearing Witness

*Spoiler alert throughout*

I hadn’t intended to write this post. I have been making a very conscious effort this holiday not to do any work until today anyway, and I was planning (still am, I hope) a short post reflecting on the labours of the past year and the promises of the new one, to be written tomorrow.

But then last night, while watching the BBC’s flagship Christmas drama, The Witness for the Prosecution, as a double bill on catch up, I found my husband attempting to soothe me as I harrumphed in irritation at the First World War backstories supplied to both the Voles and John Mayhew.  Having tweeted indignantly and non-specifically about it, I feel it behooves me to explain why in more detail.

To start with, I should say that the production as a whole was beautifully shot and acted extremely well by its stellar cast. It is hard to go wrong with Andrea Riseborough or Toby Jones, and they were, as expected, exceptional.  I wasn’t so keen on the adaptation which, padded out to fill a full two hours felt baggy and lacking in tension.  Was the whole twist involving the cat (very much not part of the original) necessary or even credible?  Given the amount of time which passes between the murder and the discovery of the cat’s body, surely it wouldn’t be in such an uncorrupted state?  But that is, perhaps, a minor criticism.  The bones of Christie’s original plot were maintained, even if the twist she wrote had less impact after nearly two hours than it did in the compact half hour dramatisation that was my introduction to this story.

So I could live with this production of a classic mystery drama, with all its updated bad language and sex scenes.  It was with the First World War back stories that I found I could no longer sustain my suspension of disbelief.  To start with the second, that of the solicitor, John Mayhew, whose poor health and blood-spattered coughing underscore almost every scene he appears in.  The cough, we are told, is the result of being gassed in the war, in which he lost his son, age 17, also to gas.  In the final scenes of the drama we are informed that Mayhew lied about his son’s age in order that they could enlist together and his motivation throughout the play is ascribe to the guilt he feels that he came back while his son did not, thereby destroying his wife’s love for him.

This narrative is physiogologically unlikely, but perhaps not impossible, although Toby Jones as Mayhew looks old enough to have had lie about his own age to have been accepted for service before 1916 (when the dual enlistments must have happened if the two men ‘volunteered’ together. His eyesight, given his spectacles, would have made doing so when overages particularly difficult.)  Equally unlikely would be for them to be serving in the same unit, causing them both to become casualties of the same gas attack (as is strongly implied).  Mayhew’s son apparently learned about motor vehicles during the war, which would suggest a posting either to the Army Service Corps or the Tank Corps to me.  It is just possible that Mayhew Senior would be assigned to the ASC which, as a non-combatant unit, might take volunteers with impairments that disqualified them from combatant duties.  Even so, the chances of father and son ending up in the same unit seem slim.  Psychologically, however, this story seems nigh on impossible.  Fathers certainly supported and even encouraged their sons’ decisions to enlist, may have in some cases turned a blind eye to a teenager lying about his age, and there are examples of fathers and sons both serving, as Laura Ugolini [1] has shown, but the idea of a father supporting his son to the extent of both lying about his age and enlisting alongside him assumes a level of war enthusiasm that has been effectively undermined by historians such as Catrionna Pennell and Adrian Gregory [2].

So Mayhew’s back story is unlikely in the extreme, calling into question the attribution of his motivation to old man’s guilt, as in Owen’s Parable of the Old Man and the Young, over the loss of his son and his son’s generation.  By forcing Mayhew into the role of both guilty old man and, apparently, a witness to war, a ‘man who was there’ [3], the story ensures that he is incapable of properly representing either.

Which brings me to the second backstory, that of the Voles who, in the opening scenes of both episodes, are shown meeting in a bombed-out trench during the war, before walking hand-in-hand across a shell-pitted landscape oddly denuded of any individuals, given that this was apparently the scene of a major battle. For the military historian, this is a frustrating piece of representation.  Setting aside the question of what the hell Romaine as a woman was doing on the battlefield in the first place, somewhere that military authorities on both sides went to great lengths to ensure did not occur, the recurrent emptiness of no-man’s-land is an extremely irritating trope of contemporary televisual dramas.  Even if the battle itself was over, and night had not fallen, in which case Leonard and Romaine would have been fair game for snipers, there would still be wounded men around, as well as corpses, human and otherwise.  Desolate here does not mean empty, but presumably the scene is meant to be symbolic, as much as literal.

I hazard this suggestion on the basis of the final scene in which Leonard and Romaine appear, as they pursue Mayhew down the corridor of a luxury hotel, taunting him with their brutal success.  ‘We are what happens when you butcher the young’ says Romaine, following up her husband’s dismissal of Emily French’s murder ‘just one more life after so many’.  And it was at this point that my husband had to stop me from yelling something very rude at the television screen, because this interpretation of Christie’s story, and the relationship of the whole genre of Golden Age detective fiction to the war, is just plain wrong.  Yes, this narrative of disillusionment existed in contemporary modern novels, the ‘war books’ of the 1920s boom.  But as Rosa Maria Bracco and Alison Light have both shown [4], it was not the narrative of genre fiction, including detective fiction.

In fact, the relationship between interwar detective fiction and the war is a complex one, but the idea that the war brutalised society to the extent of making murder acceptable is, in fact, the very antithesis of the message the genre holds.  There are remarkably few interwar murderers (although rather more murder suspects) who are explicitly ex-servicemen or whose motives can be traced back to wartime experiences.  More common, indeed, are ex-service detectives (some, but not all, attempting to assuage their guilt a la Mayhew), the very people whose role in such fiction is to reassert the social order by bringing the murderer to justice.  War, like murder, may disrupt society in these narratives but in the case of murder, social order reasserts itself; civilisation and society are restored, not distorted.

The significance of this reading can, in fact, be seen in Christie’s own treatment of The Witness for the Prosecution, which she rewrote to ensure that Leonard does not get away with murder.  In this second version, Romaine stabs him as he is about to leave her for his lover, Christine.  The Law in this story remains an ass, but justice, in the classical sense, is served and Emily French’s death avenged.  No life, in interwar detective fiction, is ‘just one more death after so many’.  It isn’t until post-Second World War detective fiction (such as Marjory Allingham’s Tiger in the Smoke and Ellis Peter’s The Funeral of Figaro) that we start to see the war-brutalised ex-serviceman emerge as a hardened criminal.  By attempting to attach this narrative to the First World War, the adaptors of The Witness for the Prosecution do a disservice to both the ex-servicemen of the First World War whose main aim was to reintegrate themselves into civilian society in spite of the trauma they had suffered, and to the writers of detective fiction in the interwar years who sought, through their fictions, to make it easier for them to do so.

References:

NB: As I am not in the office, I don’t have all the notes to hand for full references for this.

[1] Laura Ugolini, Civvies: Middle-class Men on the English Home Front, 1914-1918 (Manchester University Press, 2013).

[2] Catriona Pennell, A Kingdom United: Popular Responses to the Outbreak of the First World War in Britain and Ireland (Oxford University Press, 2014); Adrian Gregory, The Last Great War: British Society and the First World War (Cambridge University Press, 2008).

[3] Samuel Hynes, The Soldiers’ Tale: Bearing Witness to Modern War (Allen Lane, 1997).

[4] Rosa Maria Bracco, Merchants of Hope: British Middlebrow Writers and the First World War, 1919-1939 (Bloomsbury, 1993); Alison Light, Forever England: Feminity, Literature and Conservatism Between the Wars (Routledge, 1991).

Talking about caring

I am still planning on writing a post about Sgt. Arnold Loosemore, VC, but while I wait to hear from someone who has done far more research into his life than I have yet done about a query, I am also helping organise the ‘Who Cares?’ conference to be held in the School of History at the University of Leeds on 27th and 28th March, 2017. In particular, I have been approaching people to ask if they will talk about their personal experiences of providing care as academics.

So far, everyone I have asked to contribute has responded positively, not to say enthusiastically, providing evidence that there is an appetite for having these discussions within the academic community.  This has been a huge personal relief to me as I have been finding it surprisingly uncomfortable to make these approaches in the first place.  While my head has been telling me that these are conversations we need to have, and have in public forums, not privately behind closed doors, my gut has been questioning whether these really are conversations people want to have and are comfortable having.  Are these subjects too personal?  Should we be combining our work and family lives in this way?  Do we risk one colonizing the other in unhelpful ways if we start to blur whatever boundaries we may have established as individuals to maintain our sanity?

I am hoping that all these questions will be explored in March.  But even if they are not discussed directly, then at least the very fact that I feel such discomfort has reaffirmed for me the importance of starting and continuing these discussions as part of our professional lives.  The more openly we can talk about our family responsiblities and how they combine with our professional commitments, the burdens they place on us and the support we get from our colleagues and communities, the easier it will come to have such discussions and to establish good practice for all concerned.  If the end result is a free-flowing discussion where everyone feels heard, then it will have been worth every gut-tightening moment of anxiety that organizing this event is causing.

In the meantime, I am hugely grateful for the generous enthusiasm of colleagues who have agreed to contribute.  It will, I believe, be worth all our effort.

Who Cares? Call for Papers

Next March the Health, Medicine and Society and Women, Gender and Sexuality research clusters in the School of History at the University of Leeds will be jointly running a conference on histories of care.  There will be a conference website in due course, but as this is taking some time to set up properly, I am posting the Call for Papers here as well.

Who cares?: The Past and Present of Caring

Monday 27th – Tuesday 28th March, 2017

School of History

University of Leeds

A collaboration between the Women, Gender and Sexuality, and the Health, Medicine and Society research clusters.

Call for Papers

Deadline for Abstracts: 13th January 2017

 

At all stages of life, people give and receive care. Rapidly changing demographics are affecting the dynamics of care, and now more than ever, gender-based expectations of caregiving in history are being called into question. A growing emphasis on personal well-being denotes a generation that is complicating traditional notions of care.

The way care has been understood and delivered has developed across time.  Approaches to care have historically been and continue to be changed and challenged by spatial, temporal, and socio-political boundaries. This conference seeks to shed light on care within communities and across borders, exploring changes in its perception throughout history and how it intersects with different ages, cultures, and identities.

Our keynote speaker will be Professor Holly Furneaux, Cardiff University, author of Military Men of Feeling: Masculinity, Emotion and Tactility in the Crimean War (OUP, 2016).

The conference will also include a half-day workshop exploring issues associated with care in academic institutions. Through a discussion of parenthood, experiences of supporting family members, and mental health, this workshop will provide a space to explore how researchers at all stages of their academic careers care for themselves and for others. This session aims to highlight difficulties currently experienced within higher education, and identify workable ways the academe can help to ensure personal well-being, and further support staff and students in their varied roles as carers.

Submissions are now invited for 20-minute papers on subjects which may include but are not limited to:

 

–       Varieties of medical care

–       Gender and caregiving

–       Self-care and mental health

–       Care in the military

–       Care and the family

–       Care and the life cycle

–       End of life care

–       Care and the non-human

–       Care and marginalised communities

–       The economies of care

–       The politics of care

–       Critical care

 

We particularly welcome proposals from postgraduate and early career researchers.

Submission guidelines

Abstracts must be no longer than 250 words for 20-minute papers.

Please send abstracts to hisccon@leeds.ac.uk no later than 13th January 2017. Please ensure abstracts contain your name and institutional affiliation (if any).

Any general enquiries may be sent to hisccon@leeds.ac.uk