Why am I still writing about Michael Gove?

I thought that, with yesterday’s post, I had managed to get everything I needed to say about Michael Gove’s intervention on the First World War out of my system.  Then I read this and I discovered that I had not.

I consider myself a ‘proper’ historian, a ‘careful’ researcher and, as it happens, one who spends an awful lot of time reading the accounts, both contemporary and retrospective of ‘the men who were there’.  In fact, I have written at some length about why there are historical problems of privileging ‘the men who were there’ as witnesses to the ‘truth’ of the past.  And yet, unlike Mr Mastin, and, as it happens, Sir Richard Evans and Gary Sheffield, I do believe there is a value to showing Blackadder Goes Forth in the classroom, not simply for what it tells us about ‘the different ways in which the past has been interpreted’, and certainly not because of what it has to tell about the lived reality of the war.  But it does have a great deal to tell us about the history of how the war has been remembered and commemorated as a major cultural (as well as military) event in British history and is thus an important historical document in its own right.

I am not going to rehearse my defense of why the cultural history of the war is at least as important as the military history, this centenary year of all years, here.  I have been making that argument in just about every piece of academic work I have published and I have a book review to write.  But I am going come out and say yes, we should be showing students of the history of the war television programmes like Blackadder and getting them to read books like Birdsong and Regeneration. They will teach students as much about how the war was remembered in the last quarter of the twentieth century as they will about the war itself, but that too is part of the history of the war.

What is more, I would add that we should also be getting students to read Sergeant Michael Cassidy by ‘Sapper’, The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West, Unpleasantness at the Bellonna Club by Dorothy L. Sayers, Kitty by Warwick Deeping.*  They should be watching Journey’s End and The Big Parade and La Grande Illusion.  Will these cultural works tell them the ‘truth’ about war experience? Only as much as Robert Graves’s Goodbye To All That tells the truth of war experience.  But they do tell us a great deal about how the war was remembered and understood and interpreted by British (and French) culture.  And that, too, is the proper history of the First World War.

*I have personally cited all these works of fiction as historical evidence in essays which have been published by reputable publishers in independently refereed journals. References available upon request.

Advertisements

In which the saga concludes (sort of)

Those of you who follow me on Twitter may remember a series of tweets attached to the hashtag #thesagacontinues.  These related to the writing of a paper on cultural representations of shell shock which I was struggling with.  One part of the problem was that I was extremely intimidated by the line-up of participants at the conference, Aftershock: Post-traumatic Cultures since the Great War, where I was presenting the paper, an extraordinary pantheon of academic specialists including Jay Winter, Mike Roper, Simon Wesselly, Sophie Delaporte and Fiona Reid, among many others.  Reading the participants list felt a bit like reading the bibliography of my PhD.

Well, the conference, held at the end of May, has been and gone and was much more enjoyable than my agonized tweeting might have predicted.  It was a pleasure to meet up again with colleagues such as Jay and Mike who I haven’t seen since my move to Leeds.  It was even more of a pleasure to make the acquaintance of others whose work I either have admired from afar or whose exciting research (into the trauma suffered by Second World War RAF ground crew or French films of shell shock, to give just two examples) I encountered for the first time.  The papers presented were, as might be expected, extremely stimulating.  Particularly exciting from my perspective were Sophie Delaporte’s discussion of psychological trauma in relation to Freud’s ideas about the encounter with death, which has forced me to completely rethink my own attitude to Freudian theory, and Mike Roper’s paper on his current project interviewing the children of First World War ex-servicemen on their experiences of childhood which looks to be yielding a wealth of original and fascinating information.  I also acted as commentator on a panel of papers well outside my own field of expertise, dealing with the interactions between civilians and soldiers of contemporary conflicts, which gave fascinating perspectives on the problems of that individuals have in making transitions between the identities of civilian, soldier and veteran.

There was also a great deal of networking (some over one of the tastiest conference dinners, in a unique restaurant in Christiania, that I have ever had), with the happy result that I was able to add three more speakers to the roster of the workshop I am running in October.

Oh, yes, and the paper went quite well in the end, with it even being described as ‘lovely’ by one person!  More usefully, I realised that the other problem I had had with writing it is that I was attempting to squeeze the subject matter for a book into the space of 20-minute paper.  At some point in the future I am going to need to write something substantial on representations of trauma in 20th century popular culture.  It is a subject I keep coming back to, time and again.  Some day I am going to have to research it much more fully and lay that particular ghost of my Phd. to rest.

So the saga has concluded successfully.  Well, almost.  Two months later and I am still waiting for my expenses claim to make its way through the new(ish) on-line system…