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 academic poster in collaboration with some very excited and supportive colleagues.  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.
 My thanks to Sara Barker, Tess Hornsby-Smith and Sabina Peck for their encouragement and insight.