Three books (and counting)

My children finished school for the academic year today. Universities have been celebrating graduations. Emails about induction week are starting to circulate. It must be the start of the summer holidays.

This summer, in between childcare duties, I have several projects to work on – a couple of applications, two articles to (re)write, a very overdue book review, some engagement events to prep for. But my main goal, as I keep telling people, is working out what my next book is going to be about. And the problem I have (which is a nice one to have, but no less problematic for that) is an embarrassment of riches. I have three possibilities but probably only the mental space and energy to concentrate on one of them. They are as follows:

1) The book I need to write. This is the book I have promised the funders that I would produce from the Men, Women and Care project. It is a book about disability, masculinity, temporality and the life cycle; about care giving, emotions and gender; about the history of the welfare state, the family and the role of the individual in negotiating the spaces where the two overlap. It will be a very academic book, a book which will use words like ‘temporality’, ‘hegemony’ and even, if today’s reading is anything to go by, even ‘phenomenology’. It is a book that may, eventually becoming the articulation of the most significant intervention I will ever make into the historiography of masculinities and the First World War. At the moment, it is unfocused and under-researched.

2) The book I have promised myself I will write. In January, I tweeted that my resolution for the year was to write the ‘trade’ version of my recent academic book on the history of the RAMC in the First World War. This one, I have done the research on. I also have a chapter and a half in draft, about five different plans of chapter breakdowns and a great deal of excellent advice from colleagues about how to approach this project. What I don’t have, yet, is either a clear, saleable thesis, or a proper strategy for finding myself an agent, which is very much the next thing I need to do to get this off the ground.

3) The book I want to write. For years now I have been talking about doing a project on the representation of trauma in detective fiction – and I still want to do it, not least so I can write properly Ellis Peters’ George Felse novels. But, after talking about the project for so long without actually doing anything about it, I am starting to think there may be a less academic, more experimental book that I need to write first, about Golden Age detective fiction and contemporary novels set in the Golden Age, how both use images of and references to the First World War and what the differences between these two forms of the genre can tell us about gender, memory and commemoration. I’m pretty sure I have the argument for this one, and I find myself writing bits and pieces at odd intervals, but I also need to dedicate a lot more time to (re)reading the works of Jacqueline Winspear, Frances Brody, Kerry Greenwood, as well as some of the more obscure members of the Detection Club if this is going to be the book I really want it to be.

So those are my options, three projects, all of which require time commitment in different ways. Alongside the continuing work needed for the final year of Men, Women and Care, the teaching and administration I’ve agreed to undertake and my family commitments, there is barely room for one of them, let alone all three! So I am looking for advice: which one of these do I prioritise this summer?

(And the ‘and counting’? That would be the book I dream of writing – the detective novel in the style of Dorothy L. Sayers, with a plot based around an ex-servicemen’s association and post-war battlefield pilgrimages. Some day…)


Men at work

Last Thursday, as well as being my birthday, was the date of the second in the Legacies of War seminar series.  Rob Thompson gave a fabulous talk on engineers at Third Ypres.

Superficially, this looked to be a relatively dull topic, but not the way Rob presented.  First of all, he is an excellent and highly engaging public speaker.  But more than that, he gave one of the best demonstrations I have seen of how cultural and military history can fruitfully be married to create a deep analysis of particular moments in the history of war.  He argued that by 1917 the culture of war had changed from a martial one fought by warriors to a civil one worked by civilian soldiers. He pointed out that most men serving in the BEF were predominantly labouring (building roads, digging trenches, mending things) rather than fighting (engaging with the enemy) and that the landscape was dominated as much by the roads, rails, trucks and trains of logistics (sights familiar from civil society) as the otherworldly eeriness of no-man’s-land.

Having outlined this cultural shift in the way war was being carried out, Rob went on to argue that the failure of British High Command to fully grasp the implications at an operational level led to ultimate failure at Third Ypres. The dominance of civil logistics was due to the rise of artillery, yet no provision was made at the front line for an increase in manpower to serve the needs of the engineers in building/rebuilding roads for the artillery to advance over the landscape it had decimated.  The result was poorly trained, exhausted soldiers doing this work badly with the result that the advance became bogged down in its own built-in inertia.

Rob’s arguments were highly seductive, particularly given his flair for dramatic and humorous narration.  The more I think about his arguments, the less convinced I am about the dominance of civilian work culture as that of the war.  There were other cultures at play as well, notably the domestic culture which Joanna Bourke and I have both discussed and which had links to the structures of the regimental system, as discussed by David French.  There is also an entire social group being ignored by an analysis that focuses on the work cultures of manual labourers, namely the aspirational lower middle classes, the clerks and shop keepers and service workers, men whose experiences of work would no more prepare them for the heavy labour of the front than it would for hand-to-hand combat with an enemy.  This is a not-insignificant group of men, yet there has been little discussion beyond that of domesticity, as to how they retained a sense of civil identity in wartime.

There was also a question of morale that I am not sure was fully addressed.  From my own work on diaries and memoirs, the aspect of warfare that men found most morale-sapping was repetitive heavy labour and the feeling of being a cog in the machine, both aspects of this civilian culture that Rob identified.  Yet morale was maintained, even at the pinch-point of 1917.  Why the British Army did not mutiny even at the height of the manpower crisis is something that clearly needs a lot more discussion in light of this analysis.

So there are many questions still to answer, not least, for me, the effect of the manpower crisis on the RAMC in 1917.  I am starting to wonder if I might not be able to challenge Mark Harrison’s assertions about the centrality of 1916 to the RAMC and its effectiveness, arguing that from a personnel, rather than organisational, stand-point 1917 is more significant.  It certainly has given me some useful ideas to work on.

And, as a bonus, the talk served as a useful reminder that engineers didn’t spend their entire time (or even most of it) digging tunnels.  It is always good to have a few assumptions demolished occasionally!