Cake, biscuits and lemony pudding

Cake: It may not be obvphotoious from this picture, but on one of the post-it notes in the ‘hospitality’ section is written the word ‘CAKE’.  This, along with all the other post-its, was part of a ‘brain dump’ exercise undertaken as part of a facilitated meeting of the Legacies of War steering group aimed at defining the next steps for the project.  The process took 3 busy very hours, moving from defining desirable outcomes for interested parties (individuals, funders and audiences, both in the flesh and on-line) through the brain-dump of achieving those ends to prioritizing aims and, via a series of specific questions, suggesting practical steps for achieving those priorities.

The final result was this:

photo (2)a rather neater arrangement of post-it notes.  ‘Cake’ did rather get lost in the shuffle, with priorities being defined as the way the project is run, locating the project in the international context of war commemoration and breaking down barriers. However a few immediate plans of action were decided upon and the process, unlike anything I have participated in before, was a fascinating experience.  I am not sure precisely how useful it would be more than very occasionally, but as a focusing exercise it certainly worked in the short term and hopefully will show results in the medium to long term as well.  And cake, we all concluded, is not a bad answer to any question.

Biscuits: Following this intense morning, four of us then headed over to the Imperial War Museum North for a meeting of regional scholars to discuss the forthcoming exhibition on the First World War in Manchester and the North West.  While the (very nice) biscuits were promoted as a principle attraction, the discussion of pretty much every aspect of the war, from recruitment and enlistment to demobilisation and disability managed to distract us from them most effectively.  The scope of the proposed exhibition is vast, covering aspects relating to both civil and military experience over the course of the entire war, with the locality serving as the focus.  As a result, I suspect the museum’s researchers got more than they perhaps bargained for in terms of suggestions of subjects to be pursued.  It will be very interesting to see how the project develops.  In the meantime, I got to take away a good deal of information about the demographics of the Manchester region c.1914 and some food for thought about population mobility in the years before the war.

Lemony pudding: These were the puddings on offer at lunch on the second day of the Social History Society conference, held at the beginning of the week.  I was only able to attend two days but those were both so full that I haven’t yet been able to fully absorb everything that I learned. Highlights were meeting Carina Peniston-Bird, with whom I had a chat over said lemony puddings, and Cath Feely, whose work on conscientious objectors’ reading in wartime is intriguing.  My top paper, though, has to be Helen Smith’s on masculinity and sexuality in northern working-class communities in the years just after the First World War with its important challenge to Joanna Bourke’s argument about male intimacy as a product of the trenches.  It reaffirmed for me the importance of work and professional identity as key to understanding masculinities, something that I need to explore more in relation to my ideas about the centrality of life cycle and maturity to these understandings as well.

So, lots to think about on all sorts of levels.  Never underestimate the power of dessert.


A letter to Simon Russell Beale

privateson-parades_2423627bDear Mr Russell Beale,

First of all, please allow me to apologize for making such a complete idiot of myself when I saw you on Friday evening before the performance of Privates of Parade. In the first instance, it was extremely rude of me to stare at you so long and so idiotically while you enjoyed your cigarette at the stage door. Secondly, when you had the civility to say hello, for me to mutter something incomprehensible and slink off in the other direction was beyond impolite. My only excuse is that, at that stage, I did not have anything I could have said to you that would not have been more than the burblings of a long-term fan.

In all honesty, I do wish our encounter had taken place a few hours later, after I had had the privilege of seeing your hugely enjoyable performance as Terri Dennis. As a theatrical experience it was, as the reviews have said, enormously enjoyable, courageous, full of energy and life and wit. But writing as a historian of gender and warfare your performance,along with that of all the rest of the cast and Michael Grandage’s highly accomplished direction, offered a great deal of food for thought as well.

The story the play tells is, of course, one about the achievement of masculine maturity, both sexual and emotional, in a theatre (in all its many meanings) of conflict. As Steven says in the final scene, he has become a man thanks to his experiences in SADUSEA, specifically, rather than in the military more generally. But what I found far more fascinating was Terri’s attainment of a conventional masculine identity at the end, one defined not by his military status, which is so successfully undermined throughout by the campness of his demeanour, but through his marriage and impending (surrogate) fatherhood, a narrative emphasized by the modulation you brought to that closing scene.

For me, that was the most powerful theme of the entire evening, the importance of the domestic and of home to the identity of all the men involved. The scene in which letters home are opened and read is the first in which their characters become fully defined, as sons and husbands, and throughout it is through their domestic ties, former, potential, respectable and subversive, that the characters developed. Dennis’s own story of domestic tragedy was profoundly moving, a lovely counterpoint to his eventual domestic ‘respectability’.

Not that these were the only themes: the role of uniform and costume in defining masculinity, the transient power of wounding and disability in creating heroic identities and the appalling things that conflict does to warp both men and women were all powerfully evoked. In the end, I had so much to say that, had I seen you again I probably would have been no more coherent than I was on our first encounter. So all I can do is say thank you, to you and the rest of the cast, for creating a theatrical performance that had so many profound echoes of my own work and which forced me to think critically about questions of sexuality and emotion. And again to ask your forgiveness for one tongue-tied long-term fan who remains

Yours very sincerely,

Jessica Meyer

Critical Ramblings

After a week in the archive last week I have been reading a few articles in an attempt to get a bit more into the correct mindset before writing my own.  With one exception, none have been directly related to my research (there isn’t a whole lot out there as far as I can make out) but two were articles that I have been meaning to read for some time as they have been cited in many other things that I have read.  The experience was enlightening, although possibly not in the ways the authors intended.

The first of these was actually a chapter in a collection of essays, Ilana Bet-El’s ‘Men and Soldiers: British Conscripts, Concepts of Masculinity, and the Great War’ in Billie Melman’s Borderlines: Genders and Identities in War and Peace 1870-1930 (Routledge, 1998). Bet-El’s argument is that British popular memory of First World War soldiers as men is dominated by the Myth of Volunteer (her capitals) at the expense of the masculine experiences of conscripts who, in fact, made up the majority of service personnel over the course of the war. While Bet-El certainly has a point, she does fall into the trap of ascribing too much meaning to the way in which a man became a soldier, the very criticism she has of the civilian population at the time, who she sees as being out of touch with the realities of warfare.  Thus the experiences of maleness in wartime as one of endurance and survival which she ascribes exclusively to conscripts surely applies as much to the experiences of volunteers once they were in the front line as to those of conscripts.  She also doesn’t play entirely fair with her sources, using public propaganda posters in relation to volunteers but personal documents when discussing conscripts.  This does bring new sources into the debate, but it is rather a case of comparing apples and oranges.

My notes on Bet-El’s articles are thus full of exclamation points and pointed asides about her claims, many of which I disagree with.  What is encouraging, however, is the date of the article.  Having wondered why she was using such a monolithic definition of masculinity (and one that tended to over-emphasize the importance sexuality, although this was clearly in response to the historiographic context she was arguing against), I went back and checked the dates and realized that almost all the more interesting and subtle analysis of masculinity and the First World War had been published after this article.  So John Tosh’s discussion of domestic masculinity and its relation to adventure and, even more significant, his analysis of ‘manliness’ as opposed to ‘masculinity’, and Joanna Bourke and Michael Roper’s work on male emotions in wartime has all been published in the past decade and a half, which is before you consider the reconsiderations of war enthusiasm, recruitment and citizenship that have also appeared.  That the field has developed so much, and introduced so many complex and interesting questions to the debate is very exciting and encouraging for those of us who are trying to take the work further.

Mentioning Mike Roper brings me two the second article which has been raising my blood pressure, Tracey Loughran’s ‘Shell Shock, Trauma, and the First World War: The Making of a Diagnosis and Its Histories’ in the Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences (Vol. 67, no 1, 2010, pp.94-119), which cites The Secret Battle extensively.  Again, this is an article I have been meaning to read for a while and it was definitely worth the wait.  I think Loughran’s argument about the need to locate understandings and diagnosis of shell shock in the wider intellectual context of the early twentieth century is spot-on and I am looking forward to her book on the subject which is tantalizingly in production.  What I was less convinced by was her argument for a middle way approach between those who locate an emotional truth of the war in art and literature and what she refers to as the ‘myth and memory’ school of historians who locate that truth in ‘the widest possible range of documents, representing the widest possible range of people’, citing Dan Todman’s The Great War: Myth and Memory.  I think this is a bit of a misrepresentation of the myth and memory argument which certainly isn’t about the weight of sheer numbers.  It is primarily about the very thing Loughran herself is interested in, context, and providing a counter-balance to what might be described as a hegemonic understanding of the war based on a relatively small number of sources.  Certain stories about the war have great prominence – the war poets, men shot at dawn, most recently men with facial injuries.  Trying to tell the stories of other groups, not necessarily larger but equally relevant and representative, can be difficult, especially if those stories appear to contradict the ’emotional truths’ of the better known groups. Understanding how those particular groups came to dominate the historic narrative isn’t everything, but it can help to make the case for why stories about conscripted men or those suffering abdominal wounds or those whose psyches were resilient or adaptable enough that they didn’t display symptoms that could be defined as shell shock are also worth hearing.  Yes, there must also be an ’empathetic imagining of a subject’ in order to ask ‘questions with a human meaning, which ultimately makes the practice of history worthwhile.’  But that empathy is not necessarily precluded by casting a critical eye over how particular stories come to resonate so strongly, any more than the ability to be historically accurate is precluded by the fictional form.
So, that is rather a long-winded way of me getting some first impressions and criticisms off my chest.  Working on a long-term independent project, it can be difficult to find an outlet for such ideas and critiques.  Articles are not, in themselves, subject to book reviews, and I cannot write full reviews for everything I read in any case.  But in the absence of a reading group or seminar series in which to express my ideas, this blog must serve instead as an outlet and record.  Which is, of course, the point.

Amanda Vickery on … Men

I have been listening to this BBC Radio 4 programme on iPlayer for the past few weeks and more or less enjoying it.  The premise is that the historian Amanda Vickery examines six archetypes of masculinity, the knight, the gentleman, the lover, the sailor, the explorer and the suits, through a combination of historical experts and readings from primary sources.  This past week, the explorer, was especially fun for me as it included contributions from Max Jones, my former PhD supervisor, and John Tosh, with whom I have worked.

In general, the programme works well, although the conclusion at the end of episode two, that men defined themselves as much in relation to other men as to women was something of a ‘duh’ moment for me, although that is me talking as an historian of masculinty.  There are, however, some bigger problems with I am having with the programme.  The first of these is the association of each archetype with a particular period in history: the knight with the middle ages, the gentleman with the Renaissance, the lover with the eighteenth century, the sailor with the early nineteenth century, the explorer with the late nineteenth/early twentieth century and the suit with the mid-twentieth century.  Archetype does, of course, refer to the prototype, the original pattern on which all subsequent types are based, so examining the period of emergence is what the programme sets out to do.  But surely to understand the significance of any one archetype to our current view of masculinity we need to see how the pattern developed over time?  In other words we should probably think about the reimagining of the knight and courtly love in the nineteenth century to grasp the full significance of the twelfth century model to our ideas about masculinity and its cultural significance.

My second gripe is about the archetypes chosen for discussion.  All of them are archetypes of public masculinity, with the possible exception of the lover, the discussion of which included the most fabulous diary of a Manchester wigmaker who noted down every time (and position) he had sex with his wives (there were four in total).  Given the argument that men have, over time, defined themselves as much in relation to other men as to women, it seems odd not to have looked at what those other types of masculinity might be.  Especially in light of John Tosh’s contribution this past week, where he argues that the explorer was a form of escape from the domestic, why have we not heard about the archetype of the husband and father or patriarch?  For that matter, after the knight and the sailor, where are the scholar, the craftsman or engineer, the administrator?  Above all, if you are going to discuss the lover as a masculine archetype that is defined against woman, why is there nothing on the householder, the ultimate archetype of mature masculinity that separates the man from the boy throughout modern history? As far as I can see, the archetypes have been chosen to illustrate the thesis that men define themselves primarily within all-male hierarchies, a reasonable argument but definitely not the whole story.  So, here is to the return of an interesting series with an expanded cast of men (and their others) in the future.