A Part of History is rather an odd book. It’s a collection of essays about the Great War, but I defy anyone to guess what the criteria for selection were. Some essays are strictly academic; others are chatty. Some give a detached overview; at least one is pure furious polemic. Some essays seem a bit too short; the longest could definitely have done with some strict editing. No wonder Hew Strachan gave the book a very snooty review in the TLS the other week.
Despite all this, I’ve been enjoying the book greatly. As a collection, it’s a bit of a mess, but it gives an idea why academic study of the war is fun.
First of all there’s variety. Gary Sheffield gives a succinct account of the war from a revisionist perspective, explaining in seven pages exactly why military historians have gone beyond describing the war as an essay in futility. Two chapters later, and Julian Putkowski is making the case for the pardons granted to executed deserters, and doing so by rubbishing the whole revisionist enterprise. A casual reader (an A-Level student, say, or a foreigner unprepared for the passions that this war arouses among the British) might well be confused by the contradictions here – but would certainly come away with the impression that Great War studies are lively.
Some of the essays are very good indeed. Stephen Badsey on ‘Press, Propaganda and Public Perceptions’ cuts through a lot of mythologising about the power of propaganda in the war. Dominic Hibberd gives a very clear history of the ways that anthologies of Great War poetry have reflected the times in which they were compiled. Jane Potter is good on women, Brian Bond on C.E.Montague, and Dan Todman (another victim of Putkowski’s anger) on Remembrance.
Ian Bostridge writes just four pages on Britten’s War Requiem, and made me want to read more. Tony Pollard on trench archaeology makes me want to know more, too.
These are good introductions to their subjects, but Terry Castle’s essay is really just an introduction to herself, as she natters away about family history, Vera Brittain and running up escalators. She is surprised that Kipling showed compassion for deserters, and claims “there must be a lost baby picture of me – at my father’s perhaps? – in which I look just like Mel Gibson in Gallipoli. Glug, glug, glug!” What on earth is this doing in a book of academic essays? Or am I just being old-fashioned.
Dan Todman has called attention to the fact that when Julian Putkowski attacks his work, this is in large part based on comments from Trench Fever, Dan’s blog. Dan objects to “selective and out of context quotation” as well he might, but of course academics have been quoting each other’s books selectively and unfairly for years. The trouble is that blogs make this easier. Just cut’n’paste. And it raises the question of the status of a blog post. Are they considered formal discourse or chatty conversation? Is it fair to quote them against the author in print when you probably wouldn’t quote an unguarded comment that someone made in a pub? On the continuum between public statement and private chat, I guess they’re about half-way.
It’s made me think about my own blogging. Some things I write down in an attempt to get them straight in my head. Others I note because they’re topical. Occasionally I just type away because I feel like it, having had a couple of glasses of Rioja (you can generally tell these posts by the spelling errors).
I get things wrong; I change my mind. I occasionally look back to the first posts two years ago, and think, “I wouldn’t write that now, being older and wiser.” Occasionally though, I find something else, and say, “Yes, of course! How could I forget that?”
Since, unlike Dan, I’m not on the verge of a glittering academic career, I don’t really mind if some people read the blog and think it’s rotten – I can live with that. The advantages (making academic contacts, being put right when I’ve got things wrong and – best of all – hearing from descendants of the novelists I study) easily outweigh the disadvantages. Maybe things would be different, though, if I was trying to sell my skills in an academic market, where dispproving professors might want to seize on unguarded comments.
As for the Putkowski-Todman debate, I’m on Dan’s side about pardons. And looking back on the time when Des Browne granted the pardons, I remember thinking that the online debate about the subject was more interesting and wide-ranging than anything I saw in the newspapers. When historical controversy collides with public policy, the Internet comes into its own.