A (belated) report from the wilds of Borsetshire

A recent post on Twitter asked if we are starting to witness the demise of the personal academic blog, at least in the field of history. Reasons put forward for the decline in the number of posts being written were pressures on time, developments in the research cycle (implicitly related to the increased imminence of the Research Excellence Framework) and variations in the teaching cycle, as posited by George Gosling.  Concern was also expressed that blogging was coming to be viewed as a requirement of postgraduate and early careers scholars, rather than more established ones.

I didn’t respond, all too aware that it has been months since I posted anything here, and even more since I directly posted anything related directly to either of my research projects.  This is due to all of the above reasons. I am teaching this term, not much but a new module that requires a certain amount of additional preparation and organisation.  I have committed myself to a large number of speaking engagements and forthcoming publications, as well as helping to organise two conferences.  On top of my research commitments and administrative obligations, this leaves me little time for writing the remaining chapters of the book, let alone reflections for the blog. And then there is the question of what I write about.  While I agree that blogging should not be the sole responsibility of PGRs and ECRs, I am becoming increasingly aware that it is easier to blog about searching for a job than it is about applying for promotion.  Similarly, blogging about ideas at the start of a project enabled me to work through key themes in ways that now seem to have less utility as I actively incorporate them into the book. If I am going to write about these ideas, I need to do it as part of my manuscript, not as a shorter reflection.

Which doesn’t mean that I don’t have things to write about (beyond my despair at the current political situation).  There are stories emerging from the new research project, although as this has its own blog now, I tend to reserve them for that forum.  And the number of speaking engagements I have undertaken means I am regularly coming into contact with the work and ideas of others which is giving me much food for thought and which is worthy of putting on record.

Which brings me to the Academic Archers conference, possibly one of the oddest but also  among the most interesting academic experiences I have had since I spent two days up to my ankles in mud talking about medical care on the Somme last summer.  This was the second annual conference organised to bring together academic analysis subjects based on or inspired by Radio 4’s long-running rural soap opera and the immensely knowlegable ‘Research Associates’, the long-term listeners whose knowledge of the world of Ambridge and Borsetshire is unrivalled in terms of breadth and depth.  Papers presented range from sociological analyses of familial relationships among prominent family groups, and the wider social implications of the resulting (matriarchal) power structures through an examination of the programme as an exemplar of rural theology to a discussion of the social standing of male characters and the relationship to perceived penis size (a phrase I never thought I would type on this blog or, indeed, anywhere else).

Arguably this was all tongue-in-cheek good fun, something not to be taken very seriously but to be played predominantly for laughs.  Certainly the most popular papers, such as the ones picked up by the press looking at negative aspects of competing in village flower and produce shows, and the ‘Ambridge Paradox’, or why all the characters don’t suffer from type 2 diabetes, involved much laughter along with the learning.  But there was very serious scholarship being undertaken here as well.  The session focussing specifically on the Rob and Helen story line of domestic violence and coercive control was sobering not only in terms of the subject matter, but also in relation to the information conveyed, whether on the forensic analysis of blood spatter patterns or the cost per day of food for women in prison.  Additionally, my understanding of my own work has been enhanced by a number of papers.  I have come away with a long list of recent sociological texts on masculinity, disability and violence taken from Katherine Runswick-Cole and Becky Wood’s paper on the use of the stoma bag in representing Rob’s disability and Jennifer Brown’s keynot on using Rob to understand the antecendents of domestic violence perpetration. Amber Medland’s concept of culinary coercion, while derived from the domestic context of Rob’s control of Helen, has opened up questions for me about the regulation of food in the institutional setting of the military hospital.  And I am looking forward to learning a lot more about masculinity in post-Second World War literature, particularly as it relates to birdwatching, in the on-going work of Joanna Dobson.

As for my own paper, I’m not sure I got the balance between humour and scholarship quite right.  ‘Erudite’ was one description of it, and I can only apologise to the tweeter whose brain apparently hurt when I finished speaking.  But the opportunity to explore how this particular artefact of British popular culture has memorialised the First World War – and to use the title ‘Some Corner of a Foreign Field/That is Forever Ambridge’ – was too good an opportunity to miss.  Among other things, it provided me with the opportunity to design an academicMeyer Poster poster in collaboration with some very excited and supportive colleagues. [1] I will, I hope, be publishing an extended version of the paper in the forthcoming edited collection (the one from last year’s conference is a beautiful object, available to buy from Amazon).  Writing it up will enable me to engage more fully with debates around imagined communities and invented traditions than I have done since I was a post-graduate, a useful exercise that will enhance my other academic endeavours.

And, in a sign of just how stimulating and welcoming the conference was, I’m already considering the topic of next year’s proposal. Leading the field is a plan to recreate the Ambridge War Memorial using the information from English Heritage uncovered by Laurie MacLeod, one of the attending RAs.  I’m even thinking about putting together an application to the Heritage Lottery Fund, if any of the Academic Archers community would like to form a group to work on this.  And I know there are several other First World War historians, many more eminent than I, who might be persuaded to trace the progress of the Borsetshire Regiment on the Western Front, analyse the minor poetry of Lt. Rupert Pargeter, explore the records of the Borsetshire Military Appeals Tribunal or discuss the impact of the use of women and prisoners of war in agricultural labour on wartime Ambridge.  I hope they will consider putting in a proposal when the call goes out.  The experience, both intellectual and social, will be well worth it.


[1] My thanks to Sara Barker, Tess Hornsby-Smith and Sabina Peck for their encouragement and insight.


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.