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…

The Wood for the Trees

The Wood for the Trees


And what, you may well ask, has been happening with my official research project in between watching Parade’s End and musical tributes to Richard III?  Quite a lot as it happens, mainly involving list making.


The terrifying and exhilarating part of being at this early stage of a research project is the sheer number of potential sources and useful books that emerge as you start to delve into the subject.  No one, and I really mean no one, has written about the RAMC Other Ranks.  There is plenty of stuff about doctors and nurses but stretcher bearers and orderlies and ambulance drivers get a passing mention by academics or are completely subsumed in discussions of conscientious objectors.  Which isn’t to say that they didn’t write about themselves.  Many did, most notably Ernest Hemingway and Ward Muir, as well as many, many others whose letters and memoirs were never published but are now accessible in various archives.  All of which leaves me with a book and sources list that is now running to seven single-spaced pages and counting.


Even more excitingly my list making has uncovered the pleasing fact that the Special Collections at the Brotherton Library now includes the recently donated Bamji Collection of medical books relating to the First World War.  Having applied for my grant on the basis of the well-known Liddle Collection of First World War documents and artefacts, to suddenly have all this directly related material at my fingertips feels like serendipity.  Part of me is aching to get into the archive to start uncovering what it there.  Part of me is also scared.  How much of this mass of material will actually be useful remains unknown and it will take a lot of very hard work to properly investigate, assimilate and understand it all.  As I say, terrifying and exhilarating.


So I have been procrastinating on actually digging into the archive by making other lists: lists of speakers for a seminar I am helping to organise (although one of my co-organisers has proved to be list-maker extraordinary and put my efforts shame), lists of potential contributors to a special issue of a journal that I am trying to put together, lists of related projects and the bodies that might help fund them, lists of potential topics to be included in a call for papers for a conference I want to run.  At some point I am going to have to start actually doing something about these lists – reading books, sending e-mails, writing articles and reviews.  But that will have to wait for next week.  In the meantime I am revelling in all the exciting possibilities that my lovely lists represent.