The senses of history

History is textural (as opposed to textual), something I was reminded of while reading a recent blog post from the always articulate and evocative Matt Houlbrook. It reminded me of another post, this one by Will Pooley, which similarly thinks about history in terms of the tactile. The interactions of history become as much about touch as intellectual comprehension.

This post, then, forms my own contribution to this mini-genre of historical thought, inspired by the coincidence that, on the same train journey where I read Matt’s blog, I also read the recent seminar paper that Edmund King gave at the Senate House on ‘British Manuscript Cultures of the First World War’. I wasn’t able to attend the seminar, but the wonders of modern technology (well, a combination of Twitter and email) meant that I was able to read the text the following day.

Among a variety of fascinating sources quoted, one stood out in relation to this question of the textures of history, from a letter from 2nd Lt. Sanders Lewis to his fiancee:

‘So my letters smell like a tobacco store. I am glad … I have been able to give you at last some real taste of the sort of place we live in. Here out of the line the officers’ mess is one wood huts heated by two stoves. There is a long table … and on it candles flicker a shadowy light over the hut at night. A few men are writing letters at one end, two parties are playing bridge at the other … and everywhere med are smoking so that with the shadows flicked on the walls by the candle flames, and the slow columns of pipe and cigarette smoke hanging over our heads, everyone looks dim at ten yards interval.’ [1]

In this quotation, Lewis evokes three of the five senses – smell, sight and touch – to try to describe his experiences to Margaret. As King notes, ‘Describing the material contexts of writing becomes a way of bridging the sensory and temporal divides between writer and recipient.

Lewis was by no means alone in doing this, nor were the senses of hearing and taste to be forgotten. Descriptions of sound were a deeply significant element of men’s letters home in their attempts to describe their experiences to their families. [2] Taste was similarly central to the emotional power of the food parcel from home, as discussed by Rachel Duffett. [3] The senses, all five of them, then, were vitally important to the ways in which the First World War was communicated as an experience at the time.

But what struck me is that, if such evocation of sensory experience acts as a bridge between writer and recipient, it also has the power to act as a bridge between the writer and other readers, in this case the historian who has accessed the letter through an archive. As with the original reader, the descriptions in men’s letters have the potential to show us what we have not experienced ourselves, to share with us a world we do not know.

At the same time, while verbal descriptions remain potentially powerful, other sensory aspects of these manuscripts and objects have been lost. 100 years on, I doubt the smell of tobacco still clings to Lewis’s manuscript. Metaphorical evocations also start to fail. Does the comparison of a bombardment to coal being tipped down a cellar have any meaning for the historian who has never heard either? What does plum and apple jam or Machonocie stew taste like?

Attempts have been made to recreate historic materials which evoke the senses. Rowntree’s experiments with an original 1914 recipe for chocolate had mixed results, while museuological experiments with evoking the sensory nature of the trenches have attracted as much criticism as praise. [4] More successfully, my colleague Iona McCleery’s You Are What You Ate project has been recreating historic recipes as part of a long-term educational project introducing the history of food to audiences throughout West Yorkshire. Films such as The Battle of the Somme allow us to see, if not the battle itself, then the view offered to British civilians of that battle in 1916. Early recordings bring the voices and music of the war years back to life. But as historians we can only access these senses critically and from a distance. Ingredients change with farming practices, the medium deteriorates, introducing visual and aural flaws, the scent of tobacco clinging to a piece of paper fades over time, the paper itself crumbles at the reader’s touch.

History is a sensory discipline and one that is becoming more so as material histories and histories of the body increase their reach and impact. The weight of a wood and canvass stretcher loaded with three sodden blankets and the dead weight of a wounded man is vitally important to my understanding of my historical subjects, even if I have never tried to lift one myself. But, as with all disciplinary developments, this one throws up its own complications and contradictions, giving the practice as much texture and richness as the as the sources themselves. I don’t think historians would have it any other way.

[1]Saunders Lewis to Margaret Gilcriest, 6th February, 1917, quoted in Edmund King, ‘British Manuscript Cultures of the First World War’, paper given to the Paper, Pen and Ink 2: Manuscript Cultures in the Age of Print Research Seminar, London, 18th May, 2015.

[2] Jessica Meyer, Men of War: Masculinity and the First World War in Britain, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009, 30-31.

[3] Rachel Duffett, The Stomach for Fighting: Food and the Soldiers of the Great War, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2012, 199-205.

[4] Richard Espley, ‘”How much of an ‘experience’ do way the public to receive?”: Trench reconstructions and popular images of the Great War’ in Jessica Meyer (ed), British Popular Culture and the First World War, Leiden: Brill, 2008, 325-349.

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Curioser and curioser

One reason for the recent hiatus in my posts on here is that, a little while ago, I fell down a metaphoric rabbit hole.

What literally happened was that I received an e-mail informing me that, if a grant application for which I was in the process of applying was successful, I would have to complete an ethical review before the project began because (and I quote) the project ‘involves any personal stories (even if the person is no longer alive)’.  This prompted me to enquire whether this review was necessary because the project’s outputs* were to be broadcast rather than published or if this was true of all projects involving personal stories.  It turns out that this requirement is true of all projects involving personal stories of all, including those who have been dead for less than 100 years.  I was completely unaware of this fact and, as a result, have been scrambling to apply for a retrospective review for my research project which has formally been running for 18 months (ethical reviews are supposed to occur before the project actually starts).

The result has been that I find myself tangled in something of a surreal mess.  How, for instance, do I answer the question ‘Will participants be taking part in the research without their knowledge and consent?’? The subjects of my research are dead.  They are, by definition, unable to give consent of any sort, let alone informed consent.  Is the archiving of the material I am using enough to presume consent on the part of the subject?  Even when the donor of the material is a descendant rather than the creator of the material?  I have always assumed this to be the case, not because of any ethical review carried out into my research methodology but because archived material comes under intellectual property (IP) protocols.  As a result, I need to get the necessary copyright clearance to actually publish anything I use from archival sources and copyright passes on to the descendants of the creator of the document.  This is why so many acknowledgements in historical monographs contain phrases like ‘Every effort has been made to contact the copyright holders of the materials quoted’.  The further away from the date of donation we get, the more tenuous are links with the copyright holders and many archives have lost touch with the holders over the years.  Most archives have in place a system whereby material can be used even if direct permission has not been gained but every effort has been made by the author to gain it.  Such efforts can be quite complex.  For instance, the copyright of personal letters held by the National Archive (NA) remains with the descendants of the writer.  Official documents (anything written for a government department or agency) comes under Crown Copyright.  So a letter from a disabled ex-serviceman to the Officers’ Awards branch of the Ministry of Pensions has a private copyright holder who must tracked down, while the response from the official is easily cleared through Crown Copyright.

All of which is possibly fascinating but a matter of IP, not ethics.  And while it helps to address concerns over the misrepresentation of archived material, it doesn’t answer the question of how informed consent to participate in a study is to be given by the dead.  All the protocols I have read around the subject (data protection, informed consent, verbal informed consent, reimbursement and low-risk observation) deal with living subjects only, raising issues which certainly have relevance for those using oral histories but having little to say to someone whose work is entirely archive-based.  So I am going to have to send my form off to the review committee and hope for the best.  And start seriously considering shifting my research focus to the Napoleonic Wars, or possibly surreal children’s literature.

*Apologies for the use of bureaucratic language.  A month of writing grant applications has had a bad effect on me. Normal service should hopefully resume shortly.

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)

AHRC ‘Connected Communities’ Showcase: 12th March, 2013

I have been spending the last several weeks frantically writing, something that may come as a bit of a surprise to any regular readers out there.  At the beginning of February I realized that I had three months to write three conference and/or seminar papers, plus several planning documents, so I have had to get my head down.  The results of my industry are drafts of a variety of things, including a call for papers that you will be seeing a lot more of in the future, I suspect.

In between writing and the general demands of family life, however, I also seem to have spent a great deal of time in London, mainly in relation to the AHRC and HLF-funded Research for Community Heritage project that I am now a postdoctoral research fellow for (this is in addition to my Wellcome fellowship which is on-going).  The project is part of phase two of the AHRC’s Connected Communities programme which is funding some 200 projects bringing together community groups and academic institutions in a variety of ways.  After a session on public engagement for postdoctoral fellows which I attended last week, this week I found myself in London again for a showcase event which allowed me to get a much better sense of the breadth of the programme, as well as bringing me into contact with an extraordinary range of highly engaged (and engaging) individuals.

The day started with a series of short presentations from representatives of the AHRC and the programme’s leadership fellows, followed by a key note address from David Willetts, the Minister of State for Universities and Science.  This sought to emphasize the importance he, as minister, placed on humanities and social science research which he believed to be a ‘bold, significant, world-class participant in UK research’.  He also labelled as ‘unfair’ the impression that the humanities had less connection with the wider world than the sciences.  I couldn’t help feeling there was an element of the lady protesting too much with this. Should the government really need to reassure arts and humanities researchers that they are just as important as all the big scientists and their funding, ring-fenced with funding for the sciences was safe?  If so, it must be down to the impression given by the policies and pronouncements of said government.  The message was also rather undermined by the answer given to a question from the floor about how arts and humanities researchers might influence policy, to the effect that ministers might be accessed via the chief scientist of each department.  Apparently this included social scientists.  I am not sure this was of much comfort to various groups whose excellent work in the arts, often in collaboration, was on display.

The bulk of the remainder of the day was an opportunity to explore the projects whose work was showcased around the venue and participate in breakout sessions.  I missed the session which involved weaving small circlets but did go to a showing of the Imperial War Museum’s film ‘Whose Remembrance?’, based on their on-going project into the black and colonial history of the world wars.  This was fascinating, not only because it tied so beautifully into last week’s Legacies of War seminar from Santanu Das, but also because of the questions it raised about how communities can be encouraged to engage with archives which, all too often they feel excluded from by institutional gate-keepers.  Given that communities are often the very sources that these archives spring from, this is something that needs to be tackled, something that I hope to contribute to through my work with groups involved in Research for Community Heritage.  Making sure that the Liddle and Bamji Collections here at Leeds are better known and fully exploited by all interested communities has suddenly become a very important part of what I am trying to do.  And I was very excited to make the acquaintance of  Cliff Pereira who worked on the Bamji Collection when it was still held in Sidcup.  My one reservation about the session was the rather London-centric nature of the discussion of archival resources.  Given the community-based nature of the research that Connected Communities supports, local and regional archives and their accessibility to community groups really needs to form part of the discussion.

Outside the breakout sessions there were 30-odd stands presenting information about a huge variety of projects.  Many involved mapping and I had long and potentially fruitful discussions with researchers from Birmingham and Bristol about how to present images and information relating to historical geography in an interesting and accessible way.  I ended the day with a fascinating conversation with Paul Crawford from University of Nottingham about health versus medical humanities which gave me some exciting new ideas about how to frame aspects of my own research.  The focus on community activity and expertise within healthcare implicit in health humanities is something that chimes with my long-term interests in the role of families in supporting disabled service personnel.

The formal schedule concluded with round-table discussion about how the Connected Communities project  could evolve in order to achieve ends that will include, as hoped by Keri Facer, one of the programme’s leadership fellows, a change in how universities approach and structure research in the arts and humanities.  Few definite conclusions were reached, but points were raised about interactions with other funding bodies, the need for spaces to share failures and discuss difficulties as well as celebrate achievements, international connections between communities, how resources can be made visible and accessible and, again, that question of how the research being undertaken might affect public policy.

All in all, it was a stimulating, if exhausting day (not helped by the cancellation of my train ‘due to technical failure’ which made it that much longer).  Quite apart from all the ideas generated for the various research projects I am engaged with, and the potential for at least one, if not two, new sources of funding for the Legacies of War project, it was my first experiment with live tweeting a professional event.  I am still not sure I have worked out how to do it.  I certainly wouldn’t want to try at an academic conference as I think I might do injustice to a denser, more complex argument simply through lack of proper concentration.  And I owe a huge apology to my friends and family who, through the linking of my twitter feed and Facebook page, were subjected to a stream of posts of little or no interest outside my professional sphere.  Yet again the question of the work/life balance raises its ugly head in the most unexpected places.

Catching up

Last week my husband and I sat down and updated our diaries and (more importantly) the family wall planner for the rest of the year, or at least until November.  A household that consists of two academics and two young children poses some challenges when it comes to attending conferences, seminars and the like.  Remarkably, we seem to be doing quite well, with only one major conflict where both of us are due to speak at different events at the same time.  Fortunately, mine is the Social History Society Conference which takes place in Leeds this year, so I will have skip the evening events to look after the children while my husband swans off to, well, Sweden. (I would be a lot more resentful if it was the South of France, but that isn’t until later in the year.)

Seeing all my commitments written down (bar the yet-to-be scheduled meetings and the workshop I haven’t confirmed funding for but which hopefully will take place in October) has brought home to me just how much writing I have to do.  With a rising sense of panic, I realise that I am giving three conference papers this year, on three different subjects, only one of which I have spoken on before.  The fact that the first of these is the one based most firmly in my primary research topic and will be the first time I have presented at a society’s general annual conference since speaking at the IHR’s Anglo-American conference in the final year of my PhD, getting on for eight years ago, does not help matters.  Last week I found myself facing a blank page, in a state of complete and utter academic paralysis.

This was not helped by the fact that, along with realising just how much work I had set myself to do, I was also put into contact at that time with Dr Emily Mayhew, who is currently working on a narrative history of stretcher bearers during the war.  Her work sounds fascinating and will, quite rightly, introduce the public to this all-too-often forgotten group of servicemen, which is rather what I hoped my work was going to do.  Having also found out that Amanda Vickery will be presenting a new radio series on gender and disability, a subject central to my research since I began it, I started to panic about being seriously behind the curve.  For the first time in my career I began to wonder if my years’ maternity leave, wonderful as it was, might have been a bad idea.

Fortunately, at this point one I had what I can only describe as a stroke of luck, or rather several small strokes.  In rapid succession I discovered that there are copies of the Gazette of the 3rd London General Hospital in the Bamji Collection here at Leeds as well as in the Wellcome Library and, via an unrelated Twitter conversation, began following Sue Light who blogs about the Happy Hospital, as the 3rd London General was known.  The name comes from the title given by Ward Muir, one of the hospital’s orderlies, to his second collection of columns and vignettes, published in 1918.  (His first, and better-known collection, Observations of an Orderly, was published in 1916 and is now available print on demand.)  Co-incidentally, and in my third small stroke of good fortune, I was reading this volume, and worrying that my forthcoming paper was going to be overly weighted to the 3rd London General, when I came across the following:

‘the case of two of our orderlies, both privates, whose sons are officers: these youths will have to be saluted and Sirred if by any chance they ever turn up here as patients and are waited on by their fathers.’

This one sentence contains so much of what my work is about: rank and authority, maturity and age, medical and combat roles.  All at once I was excited again about not only my forthcoming conference paper, despite the narrower-than-desired focus, but also about my project as a whole.  If this is what the experiences of one (very articulate) orderly in one (slightly unusual) hospital have to offer, the potential for unpacking a great deal more about the masculinity of men serving in these roles is still there.  And while the work of Dr Mayhew and Liana Markovich, who is writing on Australian stretcher bearers, will do much to open up the subject of these remarkable men, there is still so much to say about them in relation to courage under fire, the bearing of arms in warfare and the strength necessary to be a soldier.  In fact, I have started toying with the idea of a definition of masculine courage in wartime as endurance of danger in direct and explicit contrast to armed attack. (This will need a lot more work, but given the disproportionate number of medals awarded to RAMC personnel there does seem some basis for exploring this further.)

So I may not have caught up with my year off, or even with my schedule for the next month (the conference paper has yet to be written), but I have come out of the dip in research energy which, along with my fear, was holding me back.  Now to turn my new-found engagement into a decent paper…

From the archives

I have had now had over a week to assimilate the material I gathered from my week in the Wellcome Library and very useful it is turning out to be too.  Of course, I called up a four-volume collection of magazines from the 5th London General Hospital in Wandsworth at 10:30 on my final morning which are filled with stories of hospital life, etchings by C.R.W. Nevinson, who happened to serve as an orderly there until 1915, and the most amazing series of cartoons starring the figure of ‘The Orderlim’ (as opposed to the ‘Orderlette’, female orderlies who were drafted in to replace some male orderlies in 1915).  I was only able to finish about a quarter of the collection, so now I am panting to get back, something that unfortunately won’t happen until the summer at the earliest.

There was a lot more material as well, including the memoirs of two nursing orderlies which were slightly unexpected as they were listed in the catalogue as ‘Field Ambulance stretcher bearers’.  Similarly a man who was initially enlisted as a nursing orderly trained for work with a sanitary unit before embarking for Egypt, a vital role, but one that made for rather dull reading in his diary records of the repetitive disinfection of ambulance train carriages.  I was struck by the extent of this category slippage, which presents me with something of a problem.

The slippage, I suspect, exists not only within roles of within the RAMC but also between combat and non-combat roles. Non-commissioned servicemen in the RAMC were subject to regular comb-outs throughout the war, especially as the manpower shortages grew more acute from 1917.  In the other direction, combat servicemen whose injuries left them at a lower medical classification could find themselves assigned to non-combatant (including medical) roles.  So for many individuals combatant and non-combatant roles both formed part of their service, something that is going to complicate my analysis.  It will also, I suspect, make it harder for me to track down relevant archives as I imagine that most catalogue listings will give precedence to any combat role taken, at whatever stage in the individual’s service.  I will just have to hope for as much good fortune with the archive as I had at the Wellcome!

Why Am I Here?

A couple of recent comments, both on here and via e-mail, have caused me to start thinking a bit more seriously about the point of this blog. Over the past few months I have commented fairly extensively on manifestations of First World War history in the wider culture and a bit less on my own particular field of research. What was originally intended as a space for me to work out ideas relating to the history of non-commissioned members of the RAMC during the war has become a rather more general First World War blog.

I have to admit, this makes me a bit nervous. There are an awful lot of First World War buffs (in the most general sense of those interested in the war, not just pure military history obsessives) out there, and this blog is never going to be able to cater for all interests and I won’t even begin to try. I worry, however, that I spend an awful lot of time defining myself negatively as a historian. I am NOT a military historian (although I do know an increasing amount of military history as I get to grips with the complex systems of evacuation employed by the RAMC during the war). I CANNOT identify specific uniforms not am I likely to be able to help with queries about genealogical research (although I may be able to point people in the right direction). I am NOT a transnationalist and my knowledge of the non-British experience of the war is woeful, although I am hoping this will change in the not-to-distant future.

So where do all these negatives leave Arms and the Medical Man? Well, there are still plenty of positives, I hope.  I AM a cultural historian of warfare. I DO know a great deal about popular literature and the war, and an increasing amount about the medical history of the war.  I AM a gender historian which helps me locate my studies of the war in the narrative of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

I still hope to use it as a space to work out my ideas, especially now that I am starting to have more primary material to work with. I am in the Wellcome archive this week, discovering just how little there is on the work of the nursing orderly, something I am going to have to think hard about as I am due to give a paper on that very subject in two months time. And, as the centenary gets ever closer, I will carry on discussing representations of the war in British popular culture. That aspect of this blog has been the source of the greatest amount and potentially the most fruitful discussion so far. And while creating a forum for discussion about the war was not necessarily my main purpose in starting out with this blog, if that is a role that it fills (in a civilized manner, naturally) then far be it from me to resist!

On which note, here is an article that was doing the rounds last week, in case you haven’t seen it. Encouraging to have the problems of commemoration voiced by such an authoritative source, although I am not sure where we go from here. More discussion, then.