I’m now back from the Fictional First World War conference at Aberdeen, with my head full of ideas, and with a lengthy list of additions to my reading list. The conference was of a very high standard; here are some of the highlights.
We began on Thursday evening with a plenary lecture from Steven Trout on William March’s remarkable 1933 novel, Company K. This was a book I had not known before seeing it mentioned on the conference programme, so I acquired a copy and read it on the train north. The novel (if it is a novel) is a collection of fragments, some shorter than a page, each in the voice of a different member of an American company of Marines. The book is tough, brutal and effective. Steven Trout made a very good case for it, and I learned a lot from his talk, but I can’t quite agree with his very high valuation of the book, for reasons that I may develop in a future post on this blog.
I gave my paper in a panel first thing on Friday morning (and it was great to get it over and done with). It fitted in well enough with the other two papers – Ashley Somogyi talked about chivalry, Anne-Marie Einhaus about heroism, and I dealt with cowards. Or more specifically with men shot for cowardice or desertion, and how stories about these have changed over a century. Having given the paper, I’m a bit dissatisfied with it; I tried to cram too much into twenty minutes, so some of it was very superficial. I should have focused more closely on one or two texts, maybe. Still, people were on the whole nice about it.
In the afternoon the conference went on a trip, to the Gordon Highlanders’ Museum. This was a rather splendid reminder of the rich culture of the panoply of war (something that tends to be reviewed rather negatively by academics). There were cases full of grim-looking weapons, reminders of military triumphs past, and regimental pride everywhere. Not much support for the ‘futility’ interpretation of the war here.
The second plenary was given at the museum, with Oliver Kohns from Luxembourg shaking us out of any Anglocentrism with an account of European modernists like Doblin and Celine, and their violent disruptions of language. A very interesting talk, but for me it raised once again the big question – why is British war literature (especially the war literature of the twenties) so very different from that found in other countries?
Saturday was an excellent day. The only downside was that sometimes two promising panels clashed. For example, I really wanted to hear the Nursing Narratives papers, and especially Alice Kelly developing her TLS article about Ellen La Motte. Unfortunately, this clashed with a panel where Helen Brooks was talking about First World War theatre. Since I’m set to be playing a small part in Helen’s Recovering First World War Theatre Recovering First World War Theatre project I wanted to hear her paper (which was indeed rather good). I shall blog more about the theatre project when I get started on research for it.
I enjoyed Angela Smith on Storm Jameson and Andy Frayn on R.H. Mottram. (For someone like me, it’s a delight to be in a room where someone asks ‘Who here has read anything by R.H. Mottram?’ and a host of hands go up.)
There was a very good panel in the afternoon, with Vincent Trott sharing his research on veterans’ responses to war fiction, Rachel Bryan looking at The Return of the Soldier from an unexpected angle, and Ian Isherwood discussing that complicated man, Guy Chapman (another one for my re-reading list).
Then Jane Potter talked about Marie Belloc Lowndes and Good Old Anna, that spy novel that manages to be so much more than a spy novel (It’s an example of how novelists could write within generic limits and affirm their support for the war effort, while still expressing an unease at what the war was doing to British society.) In the same panel Kate Macdonald gave a really useful statistical survey of wartime fiction magazines. She will have more to say about this in the forthcoming Edinburgh Companion to the First World War and the Arts (which also contains my chapter on ‘British Soldiers’ Songs’).
In the same panel, Sara Haslam and Edmund King talked about their joint project researching ‘bibliotherapy’, the use of books in the treatment of the ill and disturbed. There is more of this than one might have thought. If they keep on digging for material, maybe they’ll find the fabled ‘fever chart’.
That evening Randall Stevenson gave the third plenary lecture, a pyrotechnic affair time, linking the imposition of Summer Time, the Two Minutes Silence, Einstein’s reassessment of the nature of time, and Virginia Woolf. It was immensely enjoyable. Do I totally believe it? Well…
Early on Sunday morning there was an impressive turnout for the last panel of papers. Umberto Rossi spoke about how an oddly assorted trio – Mussolini, Ludwig Renn and Blaise Cendrars re-shaped their public personas after fighting in the trenches. A very stimulating talk. Cristina Pividori spoke warmly about Ivor Gurney, and Neil McLennan gave the paper that gave me most pleasure in the whole conference. He is a historian by training, researching Wilfred Owen’s time in Edinburgh. The great thing about his paper is that it communicated the joy of research, and also its frustrations. He described dead ends in searching for medical records, and tantalising possibilities, and finished with an account of his tracking a maybe slightly trivial question. Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen and Robert Graves only met together once. It was at an Edinburgh golf course, but which one? Neil McLennan’s detective work finally and triumphantly found the answer (and it wasn’t the golf course that had already prepared a plaque claiming the honour). This was a terrific reminder of the sheer fun and exhilaration of research. And it left me fully determined to go on and do likewise.
I missed the final round-table discussion because I had a train to catch, but managed a final walk into town, via Gallowgate where my grandfather was born. Dull modern buildings now. I also had time to slip into the Oxfam Bookshop, where I found a £2.99 copy of Keepers of the Flame, Ian Hamilton’s very readable book about literary estates. That kept me pleasantly occupied on the long train journey back to Yorkshire.
Big thanks to the organisers of the conference, and all those who shared their research. It was a memorable conference.