Easing into the new year

Due to a teacher training day at my son’s school, today is my first day back at my desk since the Christmas holidays.  After two and a half weeks of combined childcare and hosting family, this comes as something of a relief, despite the fact that a misremembered date has left me with a book chapter to complete in less than a month.  In fact, January is going to be pretty writing intensive, with a couple of book reviews due at the same time, as well as my sole New Year’s resolution, to draft or redraft a chapter a month until I get my book completed and sent to a publisher.

SherlockOn the theory that writing breeds writing, I am going to embark on this rigorous schedule with a blog post about … the New Year’s Day episode of Sherlock (BBC1). (Beware spoilers from here on in.) I don’t even really have the excuse of doing this with my historian’s hat on.  I make no pretensions to being a proper Victorianist, but I am, alongside my First World War expertise, a historian of popular culture with a specialism in detective fiction and it is as such that am going to make so bold as to comment.

I am also, of course, a gender historian so let me start off by saying that, as far as the ‘mansplaining’ debate which convulsed portions of Twitter in the wake of this episode, I agree entirely with Camilla Ulleland Hoel, who articulates why this is not an example of men silencing women far more eloquently than I can.  I do, however, take one slight issue with her reading of the episode, and that is in her comments on the ‘the pointy hats of Ku Klux Klan (in order to create an echo, I assume, to the orange pips story)’.  Because I am fairly sure that the entire set up to the scene was not a gratuitous KKK reference, but rather one to the 1985 film The Young Sherlock Holmes, directed by Barry Levinson, a film which, aged 12, frightened me into nightmares for months (no, I was not very sophisticated and rather too imaginative for my own good).

And that is what I loved about the episode.  Yes, there were the many, many references to the Sherlock canon.  But there were also the references to the much wider field of Sherlockiana, including Watson’s suggestion for ‘The Monstrous Regiment’ as a potential title for the episode, one that has already been used by Laurie R. King as the title for one of her Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes series, an explicitly feminist reworking of the tradition.  And then there was the plot, not simply a metafictional phantasmagoria but also a spoof on Anthony Schaffer’s Sleuth (1970), itself part of a long line of spoofs on the detective fiction tradition, which Conan Doyle arguable founded, stretching back through the entire 20th century.

I picked up three references, but I am sure there were many, many more which I missed, given that it is some years since I have been properly involved with Sherlockiana and the field has developed hugely since then (a couple more can be found here).  My guess is that most of these conceits were the contribution of Mark Gatiss rather than Steven Moffat.  Gatiss’s writing, whether on Sherlock, Dr Who or the ridiculously clever clever and very funny Lucifer Box series, always gives me the disquieting if rather pleasing sense that here is a man who shares my somewhat obscure frame of reference when it comes to popular culture.  Which probably just means that my very limited and specialised frame of reference also happens to be a very small subset of his far, far larger one.  This is a man, after all, who, as Hoel points out, is as happy incorporating a Victorian music hall stage trick into his plots as he is with referencing semi-obscure mid-to-late 20th century plays and novels.

The delight of all this to me, beyond the comfortable smugness that comes from feeling that I am getting the joke, is the reinforcement it gives to my own belief in the importance of the history of popular culture, including low- and middle-brow material that is all to often dismissed as culturally worthless.  This is in part because it tells us something about the time in which such cultural production was created, always useful for a historian, but also, often, because if forms part of a much longer tradition, allowing us to read change and continuity across time.  Sherlock itself embodies this duality and, in this episode, made it the very conceit on which the plot was built. Itself a hugely popular element of contemporary popular culture, it nonetheless lays explicit claim to the timelessness of Conan Doyle’s creation.  By tipping its hat to the long tradition in Anglo-American culture of riffing on that creation in ways which illuminate different historical moments, it located itself within that linear tradition and made its own bid for immortality. Now there is metafiction and self-referentiality for you!

Advertisements

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.

Calm down, dear, it’s only a drama!

We are now three weeks into the six-week run of The Crimson Field, BBC 1’s Sunday night drama set in a First World War ‘field hospital’ ‘somewhere in France’.  The quotation marks around ‘field hospital’ may give some indication as to my opinion of the programme.  It is one of a number of small inaccuracies that, like lice in a uniform, have been driving me (and a number of other historians of British medical care in the First World War) a bit nuts.

In fact, ‘field hospital’ was a term used very little after the Boer War.  I have come across a Territorial medical unit which used the term in relation to the hospital where they trained recruits before they were sent overseas as a field hospital, but the hospitals along the lines of communication were, by 1916, when The Crimson Field is ostensibly set, known as either Casualty Clearing Stations (what would formerly have been referred to as field hospitals) or Stationary or Base Hospitals (of which this appears to be one).

Is this sort of criticism too nit-picky?  Certainly, one of the reactions on Twitter to this type of comment (which I have been making a fair amount of over the past three weeks) has been ‘It isn’t a history lesson, it’s a drama!’ with the implication that criticizing the historical accuracy of the depiction is both unfair and detracts from others’ pleasure in watching.  Essentially, this reaction is a version of ‘If you have nothing nice to say, don’t say it.’

At one level, this is fair enough.  The Crimson Field is a drama rather than a history lesson, and I don’t have any problem with cosy Sunday evening historical dramas.  I actually have a soft spot (as well as remarkably high tolerance for a historian) for such dramas, having recently enjoyed The Musketeers and Call the Midwife, and even, once I had properly suspended disbelief, still relish a good episode of Downton Abbey.  But the BBC itself is creating a block to the sort of suspension of disbelief that I have achieved with Downton by attempting to locate The Crimson Field within its own narrative of historical commemoration.  The programme is part of the ‘World War One’ season and there are regular tweets and links to related factual content on the BBC’s website.  In other words, the BBC is presenting this as both drama and history, even though they are getting quite a lot of that history wrong.

Which brings me to the other reason I have problems with the ‘It’s drama, not history’ criticism.  Because a great deal of my criticism actually is of the programme as a drama.  Having started out quite well, introducing several strong female characters with the potential to develop into interesting individuals opening up new perspectives on the popular understanding of the First World War, the dramatic arc has all too rapidly declined into a series of mythic clichés enacted by stock figures who simply represent modern ideas rather than having any real personality, historic or otherwise.  As Amanda Vickery has pointed out, the plot predominantly involves the imposition of 21st-century ideas and concerns on characters placed rather than fully located in 1916. It is unsurprising, therefore, that the drama feels clichéd and inauthentic as it tries to crowbar issues of class, race and sexuality into story lines that use endless accusations of cowardice as a shorthand for reactions to the horrors of war or attempts to deal with the complicated question of Irish politics in part of one sixty-minute episode.  In other words, The Crimson Field is not only poor history, but also not very good drama, by whatever standards you judge it.

So why do I keep watching?  Why not give it up as a bad job and let those who are enjoying the drama enjoy it in peace?  Two reasons, one superficial, one (I hope) rather less so.  The superficial reason is that, whatever the quality of the drama, the casting is, on the whole, very good.  It is not simply that I would watch Hermione Norris and Suranne Jones in pretty much anything they appeared in, however terrible, but also that they are good enough to bring depth to their parts.  Norris, in particular, has created a believably restrained and awe-inspiring matron, thankfully setting off the bizarre characterization of the hospital CO as a weak and deeply un-awe-inspiring figure.  I will probably keep watching to the end for her alone.

There is, however, a more important reason for why I will keep watching and, for that matter, keep tweeting as I do so.  It might be described as the ‘teachable moment’ excuse, to use a truly abominable American phrase.  Because I am trying to do is not merely criticize for the sake of finding fault, but to explain, insofar as 140 characters lets me, what my research has taught me about the historic reality of medical care in the First World War.  I can not only complain about the representation of a shell shock sufferer in the first episode, but also point out that he would most likely have been treated in isolation for the sake of general morale. Nor is the process only one way.  So far, questions I have had or points I have made have led to interesting discussions of how laundry was done at Base hospitals and the date at which female radiographers began working overseas.  I have thus learned something indirectly from the programme as well as, I hope, giving a little more historic depth to the understanding of a few viewers.

There is also an element of ‘Know thy enemy’ to this.  Yes, I despaired when the one fully-formed orderly character was revealed to be gay in the most historically unlikely of circumstances.  But this particular bit of trite 21st-century plot does provide an opportunity to explain that, while the masculinity of medical orderlies might be (and often was) impugned, it was, as far as I have been able to uncover, never in terms of suspect or criminal sexuality, but rather in terms of age and physical health.  Homosexuality as a pathology affecting war service was an accusation more commonly (although still not very often) leveled at men who failed to enlist or were diagnosed with shell shock, another symptom of an inherent physical and moral insufficiency which signified male degeneracy.  Exploring these distinctions in masculinity is a key element of my research project; finding and exploiting the opportunities to disseminate my research and analysis more widely, in whatever unlikely form, is thus part of my professional remit.  In other words, I watch and critique because it is my job.

This is, of course, fundamentally the same defense for using Blackadder as a teaching tool about the history of the First World War.  The drama or comedy is the starting point, not the destination, and they probably have  more to tell us about the social and cultural context in which they have been created than about the historic realities of the period that they represent.  Using them in this way is not always comfortable.  For historians it means tackling popular historical misconceptions head on and sitting through the itchy discomfort of historically inaccurate dramas to find out what, exactly, has been portrayed and how.  For non-historians who wish to engage, it can mean having assumptions and beliefs punctured and deflated. At the very least, it means being forced out of a comfortable Sunday night of suspended disbelief.  Not everyone wants to spend their Sunday evening leisure engaging critically with what they are watching, and that of course is their prerogative. No one has to either watch and critique or read critical commentary if they choose not to. But I have to admit to enjoy bringing my practice of critical analysis to The Crimson Field of a Sunday, so I will carry on. And maybe in doing so I can also make a not very good drama at least a slightly better history lesson.

Some more about footnotes

Jeremy Paxman’s Britain’s Great War finished its four-part broadcast on BBC 1 last week.  Billed as the BBC’s flagship centenary programme, and the starting point for its commemorative activities, which now appear to reaching fever pitch in advance of the launch of the regional and online World War One at Home project, despite it only being February, the programme was a bit of a curate’s egg, although one that, on the whole, I enjoyed.

Four hours to cover the entire course of the First World War, principally from the perspective of the British ‘home front’, although with bits and pieces about the Western Front tucked in as well, is not a lot, and many topics were, inevitably, simplified or simply omitted.  To some extent, this doesn’t matter.  The BBC has, as it keeps informing us, over 2,500 hours of programming devoted to the war planned for the centenary years and many of the topics, including the global reach of the war, the relationships between Britain and her allies and even straightforward military history will, doubtless, be dealt with elsewhere and in more detail.

Other aspects were more troubling.  Choosing to focus, often in some detail, on particular topics ended up giving an oddly skewed impression. Shell shock and facial disfigurement, currently vying for the status of symbolic wound of the war, were by no means the only life-altering medical conditions that men survived with, yet there was no mention of disease, amputation or the long-term affects of gas.  Fronts beyond the Western Front had little impact on this narrative of war, despite their impact on the consciousness of the British population at the time. And the limiting of the discussion of the importance of letters to a brief section on the postal system and the perspective of a single officer on the process of censoring letters was, for me as someone who has worked extensively on the letters men wrote home, extremely reductive.

Which brings me to the real problem I had with the programme, which has at its hearts a fairly fundamental contradiction.  Paxman has gained many plaudits for his authoritative and, on the whole, sensitive presentation of a range of material which was new to many viewers and which reflected many of the more cutting-edge and original arguments made in recent years by academic historians.  He also interviewed a number of people, most memorably the centenarian Violet Muers, whose eye-witness account of the German bombardment of Hartlepool made for powerful television.  But not one of these interviewees was a professional historian, a deliberate decision on the part of the producers who wanted to use the programme to emphasize familial connections between the war and their audience.

This in itself is not a problem.  As programmes such as ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ have shown, family connections to the past make for good television and are a powerful way of connecting contemporary audiences to history.  It is the attempt to combine cutting-edge historical arguments with the perspective of the interested descendent that creates issues.  Because the overall effect was to invest all the authority for the arguments made entirely in Paxman himself.  And while he is an authoritative figure, and I can well believe read widely around the subject and come to his own conclusions about what points to make, he is not, in fact, the historian who has undertaken the research that backs so many of the claims he made over the course of the programme.

Some of that research has been done by programme’s historical adviser, Adrian Gregory, who published The Last Great War (Cambridge University Press, 2008), an excellent piece of social history that is both scholarly and accessible and which I would highly recommend to anyone interested in the topic. Presumably the interested audience member would be able to pick Adrian’s name from the credits and track down his publications if they wanted to read more about the subject.  But Adrian’s is not the only original research to influence Paxman’s arguments.  David Cannadine’s The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy (Yale University Press, 1990), Dan Todman’s The Great War: Myth and Memory (Hambledon and London, 2005), Michael Roper’s The Secret Battle: Emotional Survival in the Great War (Manchester University Press, 2009) and, most recently of all, Laura Ugolini’s Civvies: Middle-Class Men on the English Home Front (Manchester University Press, 2013) all contributed to at least some part of the argument being made.  And these are simply the works that spring most immediately to mind, reflecting as they do my own particular research interests. With greater concentration (and rather more time at my disposal), I suspect I could compile a further reading list of recent scholarly research so extensive as to be potentially daunting to an undergraduate, let alone a curious but not obsessive Monday night television viewer.

The problem this highlights is the fact that, as there are no footnotes on television, how do professional historians (both academic and otherwise) working on the history of the First World War ensure that their work is properly acknowledged?  Many have spent a great deal of time and effort, not to mention funds, sourcing and interpreting the primary source material, as well as formulating the arguments that Paxman so authoritatively deploys.  For academic historians, this work forms the basis of their professional reputations and the intellectual capital that they deploy to make a living.  As such, that work needs to be recognised not simply by specialists but, if those arguments are going to be deployed more widely, then by all those who are making use of them.  This is not merely good manners; it is the very foundation of intellectual exchange and honesty.  But how to do this in a way that is both engaging to a broad non-specialist audience and is fair to researchers remains something that needs urgently to be discussed.  I have been mooting the idea of topic-specific further reading lists to be publicised alongside future programmes, but who compiles these and how their time is paid for remains an open question.  Equally problematic, from the perspective of engagement, is the ethics of recommending books that may have cover prices beyond not merely the interested individual but also the cash-strapped local library.  The Cambridge History of the First World War may be one of the most important recent publications on the subject, but at £90 a volume (£240 for all three), it is hardly going to have a wide circulation beyond university and other specialist libraries.

There is also the related problem in the BBC’s apparent fear of historians as specialist commentators, at least in relation to its most prominent offerings on the First World War.  While BBC 2 and BBC 4 television both seem willing to interview historians as specialists, BBC 1 so far prefers to use Paxman, Kate Adie and Dan Snow for almost all commentary related to the First World War.  Regional radio, working in partnership with the AHRC, has made extensive use of specialist historical knowledge in producing the World War One at Home project. It remains to be seen how the programme is received more widely, but as a researcher and contributor it has, to date, been a positive and highly informative experience.  Yet Woman’s Hour has run a number of features on First World War topics (including Edith Cavell and the aftermath of the war) with no input from historians, despite there being not merely experts but indeed female experts in these fields who might have added useful perspective.* And the major on-line offering, the interactive guides to various aspects of the war, are predominantly fronted by either media personalities or those with contemporary professional interests in the subject, with historical expertise usually tucked away at the end.**  This is the most public and accessible display of historical knowledge of the war that the BBC is providing, yet the role of the historian in all of this is too often hidden and unacknowledged.  This is troubling given that most historians are fundamentally communicators, interested in ensuring that other people know about the work they do and the stories that they uncover.  And many are not only presentable but are capable of learning the skills necessary to engage with a popular audience.  Indeed, in the current academic climate, with its emphasis on impact and engagement, many are not merely willing but feel compelled to do so, whether through formal media training or less formal practices including blogging.

None of this, of course, is new or specific to the centenary of the First World War, or even to the popular media.  Recent impassioned blogs by Matt Houlbrook and Lesley Hall point to the pervasiveness of the potential for mistreatment and exploitation of academics, particularly early-career researchers, by both the media and well-known established historians (and their publishers).  For historians of the First World War, however, this centenary moment presents both a challenge and an opportunity, to ensure not only that our research, in all its originality, is made accessible to a wide audience, but that we gain due credit for we have done and are doing, both those of us who choose to work directly with media outlets and those who do not.  There are no easy answers as to how we do this, but the moment to have the discussions is too opportune to be missed.

In the meantime, I will start compiling my further reading list, to be posted on here at a later date.  Please do get in touch if there is a particular volume that you think should have been cited in relation to Paxman’s programme (preferably with a note as to the bit it relates to) and I will make sure it is included.

*The special extended programme on 5th February made excellent use of Professor Joanna Bourke and Professor Maggie Andrews as commentators, but again, Kate Adie and Baroness Shirley Williams were the guests who names featured most prominently in the publicity.

**Honourable exceptions here are Gary Sheffield and Sam Willis.

Peaky Blinders and the Ubiquity of Poetry

Peaky Blinders gang in Stanley DockA quick disclaimer to begin with.  I do not propose to get involved in the debate over the accuracy of the Brummie accent in Peaky Blinders, the stylish interwar gangland drama broadcast on BBC2 earlier this month, that exercised a number of tweeters.  As someone whose accent hovers around the oddly mid-Atlantic, and has, mortifyingly, once been compared to that of Lloyd Grossman, I am in no position to make any comment on anyone’s accent. Nor is this post is not going to be, strictly speaking, a historical critique of the drama.  I am not a historian of crime and that sort of critique has been done already by those who are, notably Heather Shore in this blog post.

That being said, as a historian of the First World War, I was always going to be interested in a drama set in the war’s immediate aftermath, and there were an unsurprising number of references to the conflict.  The only one I took real issue with was the incitement to strike in the first episode, where men’s war service was used as a reason for striking.  Now, the injustices of the failure to find a land fit for heroes on demobilization was certainly a cause of labour unrest in the 1920s. What was less convincing was the purported date, 1919.  I find it hard to imagine that a significant number of working-class men had been demobilized, rehired and were already prepared to strike at that date.  More plausibly these men would have been on the verge of riot in a camp in France, chafing at the delays in demobilization.

Such quibbles aside, Peaky Blinders wore its war context relatively lightly.  There was the inevitable victim of shell shock, although shooting such a man with pig’s brains at close range is a form of aversion therapy is a treatment I have yet to come across in the medical literature.  The references to the role of women, most obviously in the form of the redoubtable Aunt Polly (Helen McCrory) as the mainstay of the family business in wartime, were nicely done.  And it was interesting to note that the inevitable flashbacks to war experience were set in the tunnels, a trope of war that seems to be increasingly popular at the moment, as if Paul Fussell’s metaphor of the trogolodyte world can only now be properly understood if represented literally.  (Something similar seems to be happening with facial disfigurement, which appears to be overtaking shell shock as the metaphoric wound of the war.)

But it was only in the final episode that I felt I was being beaten about the head by the fact that this was a post-war drama and that war experience was at the heart of character’s attitudes and actions.  That it should be so is no surprise.  This was the episode where the Peaky Blinders, under the command of their wartime leader, Tommy Shelby (Cillian Murphy), went into defensive battle against Billy Kimber (the fantastically spivvy  Charlie Creed-Miles) armed with that key weapon of First World War battles (at least in the popular imagination), a machine gun.  The references were inevitable.

What interested me, however, was that extent to which the images of the battle referenced war poetry as much as military history.  This started early on, when Aunt Polly told Grace (Annabelle Wallis), that Tommy had thrown his medals into the cut.  Siegfried Sassoon allegedly throwing his MC into the Mersey is the obvious precedent.  This is followed by Tommy’s extended meditation on living in the present in the moments before he and his comrades going into battle, a meditation intercut not with the earlier images of the fighting in the tunnels of France that made up his flashbacks, but memories of making love to Grace the night before.  As I watched I found myself quoting from Alan Seeger’s ‘I Have a Rendevous with Death’:

God knows ’twere better to be deep

Pillowed in silk and scented down,

Where love throbs out in blissful sleep,

Pulse nigh to pulse, and breath to breath,

Where hushed awakenings are dear…

But I’ve a rendezvous with Death

At midnight in some flaming town,

When Spring trips north again this year,

And I to my pledged word am true,

I shall not fail that rendezvous.[i]

Then there is Ada Shelby’s appearance, in widow’s weeds and pushing her infant son in a pram (an extraordinary image that I want to think about further in terms of what it says about domesticity and respectability), bringing to mind ‘the pallor of girls’ brows’ that was, for Wilfred Owen, the pall of young men dying in battle.  And finally, in the culminating moment of battle, when Tommy Shelby single-handedly kills Billy Kimber, I thought I saw a look of recognition pass across Murphy’s. By this time I was so attuned to potential poetic references that all I could think was ‘Oh, Strange Meeting, of course’.

Now, I have no way of knowing if Murphy read any Wilfred Owen when researching the part of Tommy Shelby, or if the director Otto Bathurst is familiar with ‘I Have a Rendevous with Death’, not one of the better-known poems of the war, though it should be.  My associations may simply be an over-sensitivity on my part to any poetic reference in relation to the war, an unfortunate aftereffect of studying the war and its culture for too long.  But the fact that the references are there, even only subconsciously, tells me something about the power of these poems to speak down the generations in their representations of an emotional truth about war, violence and its aftermath.  Dramatically, this is how our culture understands the war and its aftermath, the images that it associates with this bit of history.

This is a fact that those of us who argue that there is far more to the war than ‘the mud, the blood, the endless poetry’ must come to terms with in our attempts to convey what else history has to tell us about the First World War.  That there are emotional as well as historic truths to be acknowledged.  The continued power of war poetry is that it taps into the sense of being ‘of all time’, speaking as powerfully to us today as it did to those who read it when it was first composed and published.  This does not make it the only narrative of the war, but it does make it a significant one.  And if we stay attuned to these references, in whatever unlikely scenario they pop up, not only will we be able learn more about the place of the First World War within our cultural heritage, but we may also have an excuse to quote some very moving and beautiful poetry.


[i] Alan Seeger, ‘I have a rendezvous with death’, http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/19396, last accessed 28/10/2013, 15-24.

The Wipers Times (belatedly)

A couple of months ago, I tweeted this in response to the publicity surrounding a new television drama co-scripted by Ian Hislop and starring Michael Palin as a First World War general. That drama was The Wipers Times, which has now been broadcast, several weeks ago, and I can only apologise for the delay caused by pressure of work which means it is no longer available on iPlayer for anyone in Britain who may have missed it.

As the comments on my original tweet forshadowed, I am forced to eat my words because, as a historical drama, it was, I thought, very good indeed, mainly because it didn’t attempt to represent itself as historical realism.  Rather it adopted the tone of the trench journal which was its subject to represent the war as seen by the Wipers Times.  Here I want to particularly commend Ben Daniels as a stereotypical brass hat blowhard, the very stereotype I was so concerned about, played to the point of exquisite caricature, beautifully illustrating the way in which trench journals such as the Wipers Times satirized the absurdist situation in which the men who created them found themselves.  Far more than the music hall interludes, with their nods to ‘Oh, What a Lovely War’ and the excesses of cabaret culture, Daniels’s performance (and that of the more sympathetic figure played by Michael Palin) illustrated how our view of the war has been distorted by a tendency to define all wartime behaviours in black and white terms.  No one in reality could be either so blindingly stupid or so wittily sympathetic as the characters these two actors portrayed. Only as satire do they make sense.

In general, all the performances were excellent, although Emilia Fox’s role as a loving wife was more or less superfluous.  And my only potential historical criticism relates to some mumbling on the part of Julian Rhind-Tutt who made what I assume was meant to be ‘red tabs’ (staff officers) sound suspiciously like ‘red hats’ (military policemen), an entirely different, if equally loathed group of authority figures.  But it was a good drama and, for the first third, very funny indeed.  After that the humour became repetitive, and the shift of focus almost exclusively to the officers meant a loss of the voices of the ordinary soldier.  While the tone towards these men was generally condescending, mocking the ignorance and unsophistication of the young British working class man, this was an accurate reflection of the language used by many trench journals which were as class-bound as so much else in British culture during the war.

The increasing staleness of the humour as the drama continued may seem like a criticism, but it is not.  It too is an accurate reflection of trench journalism.  For anyone who has spent any time reading such journals, and those produced in prisoner of war camps and hospitals, this growing staleness is all too familiar. It reflects the fact that (pace all those television reviewers who referred to the public school humour of the publication) these publications represented the humour not of the upper-middle classes (although this was well represented) as much as that of the institution.  The result is a predominance of in-jokes which, to the outsider who is not caught in the institutional setting, be it a hospital, a prison or a military unit under orders, seem either inexplicable or dull.  The trajectory of the drama captured this beautifully, with the only duff note being the uncharacteristic injection of sentimentality and 20/20 ‘foresight’ in the scenes depicting Fred Roberts, the originator and editor of the Wipers Times, at home with his wife on leave.

In the end, it was not the drama itself which troubled me as a First World War historian, but the response of television critics after its broadcast, an number of whom implied that the Wipers Times was worthy of note because it dramatised the viewpoint of a unique publication and, as such, stands as a necessary corrective to more sombre commemorations of the war.  In fact, as I have suggested, it was one of a number of such publications which treated the trials and tribulations of warfare (including serious injury and the loss of liberty) as subjects of humour and absurdity.  Some 800 such journals have been collected by Cambridge University Library.  Nor was it only periodicals that adopted this tone.  Herman Cyril McNeile, better known as ‘Sapper’, wrote a number of short stories which were published for propaganda and recruitment purposes by The Daily Mail, which also adopted an amused, flippant tone in their descriptions of life at war.  For anyone interested in the subject, I highly recommend George Simmers’s excellent essay on facetiousness in wartime and post-war writing (which does a far better job of teasing out the class dimensions of this literature than I have done here).  And for anyone want to read more institutional war time journals, Sue Light’s blog of the Gazette of the 3rd London General Hospital, Ward Muir’s Happy Hospital, gives an excellent idea of what can be found in that extraordinary organ, including contributions from C.R.W Nevinson, later a war artist, and Stephen Baghot de la Bere, the cartoonist.  Nor were British the only servicemen to produce trench journals.  Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau’s Men at war, 1914-1918 : national sentiment and trench journalism in France during the First World War(translated by Helen McPhail) and Robert L. Nelson’s German Soldier Newspapers of the First World War present a transnational picture of bottom-up morale building during the war.

So The Wipers Times ended up not only proving itself an enjoyable drama, but also the source of considerable reflection on popular understandings of the war. While reviews of the programme expose some of the limits of public knowledge, my previewing comment exposed the limits of my own.  It provoked a very interesting discussion with the historical adviser to the programme on the limitations inevitable with creating drama out of history, particularly on the sort of budgets provided by the BBC.  I am now training myself not to complain about the misrepresentation of roles until I consider how a limited cast is being deployed to cope with sheer lack of numbers, and not to judge a popular television programme by its publicity.

The Village, Part 1

So I started watching The Village last night, Peter Moffat’s new drama about a northern rural village over the course of the twentieth century.  It began, when else, in the summer of 1914 (I am waiting for a course-of-the-twentieth-century drama that has the courage to begin with either the death of Victoria or the end of the Boer War!) although it managed to avoid most of the First World War clichés by the simple expedient of ending the episode with the departure of the first draft of volunteers.

There were some lovely moments.  John Simm’s shame at the generosity (or patronage) of his neighbour in face of his drunken aggression, the dismissal of the unpleasant schoolmaster from the recruitment station for being too short, the use of a recruiting poster that was not the (anachronistic) Kitchener. The implication that Bert’s older brother enlists in order to escape from a life of subservience and drudgery, rather than from war enthusiasm was a particular pleasure.  But overall the whole left me feeling uncomfortable.  It has been sold as the anti-Downton Abbey, a dose of working-class reality in opposition to Julian Fellowes’s soft focus nostalgia for the upper classes and noblesse oblige.  And there were certainly very few positive views of the upper classes, although the middle class (as represented by the nicer, taller schoolmaster and the vicar’s suffragette daughter) came off best.  But in making the daughter of the local squire a sexually predatory halfwit, her mother a vicious snob and promoter of (literally) Victorian gender values and the squire himself a physically damaged recluse who forces his staff to turn their back on him when he passes, the caricature seems to have swung too far in the other direction. Nor did the working classes come off as any more real.  Even with the skills of actors such as Simm and Maxine Peake, they never really gained more depth than ‘violent, drunken failed farmer’, ‘put-upon wife’ and ‘naive country girl’.

And then there was the focus on sex.  Yes, the story is being told from the perspective of a 12-year-old boy, so such a focus can be justified.  But did we really need quite so many scenes of voyeurism and sexual innuendo, culminating in a scene straight out of Lady Chatterley’s Lover?  The whole thing felt extremely Lawrentian, in fact, which coming from me is not particularly high praise.  I do like some of Lawrence’s poetry (Snake is something of a favourite) but as a portrayer of class and sexual relationships in his fiction, I have always found him unconvincing.  Or at least no more convincing than Fellowes’s historical world view.

Can there, then, be no middle way in how the past is portrayed in contemporary television drama?  Are we condemned to see history either in terms of soft-focus nostalgia or sex-and-violence grimness?  Parade’s End might point in another direction, having a satirical bite to its vision of the upper and upper-middle classes at war, although Ford’s portrayal of working class characters verges on the sentimental.  And it was, of course, an adaptation of contemporaneous fiction rather than a contemporary fictionalization of history, a point which rather supports my on-going argument that the fictions of the past have as much to teach us about the times they were created in as any facts.

In short, I don’t know.  I will carry on watching The Village, at least for the moment, but I will need a lot more convincing that this is the correct and necessary riposte to national and international obsession with Downton.