Monthly Archives: May 2014


With my book's publication imminent and my return to the job market beginning to, if not loom, then at least creep up, it's time to think about what's next in terms of a research programme. I had been thinking of something to do with mystery aircraft, and indeed my next small research project, on scares during the First World War, was intended to be part of that. But after turning this idea over for a while, and trying to outline a grant proposal, I don't think this is quite viable, at least not by me, or not by me right now. It's either too big or too small. It's too big in the sense that to do mystery aircraft properly and bring out what is interesting about them, in the sense of speaking to larger historical questions, Britain is too narrow a compass: I really need to do a comparative study across all the English-speaking countries at a minimum, and ideally take in Europe as well, from the 1890s to the 1940s. It's too small in that I'm not sure that what is interesting about mystery aircraft scares is actually all that interesting: at least not interesting enough for a grant committee, and maybe not enough to warrant three years of my life plus a book. And the smaller I make the project, the less interesting it gets. There's probably a happy medium to be struck between these problems (okay, so I maybe don't need to include every single mystery aircraft wave from Australia to the United States, and let's be honest, how interesting is anything I do likely to be?) But perhaps I need to develop more as a historian first. Perhaps I need to step back a bit and look at the bigger picture.

What I am now thinking should be my next project is what I have termed the aerial theatre, the use of aviation spectacle to construct national identity and project national power. This is small enough, in that I can focus just on Britain's aerial theatre, while still drawing comparisons only when and where it is helpful. And it is big enough, in that there is a huge variety of topics I can pull into the aerial theatre concept, many of which I have long been interested in and would love an excuse to study in a more sustained way. Hendon is the prime example, both in its civilian phase under Claude Grahame-White before 1914, and its military phase under the RAF between 1920 and 1937. But I keep thinking of many, many things I could look at. Like Hendon, some of these were organised by civilians and some were organised by the military; some had only incidental civilian audiences, some had only incidental military purposes. The Daily Mail prizes, like the London-Manchester race in 1910. Grahame-White's 'Wake Up, England!' campaign, which toured seaside resorts in the summer of 1912. Empire Air Day, the RAF's 'at home' day in the 1930s. The Air Defence of Great Britain exercises between 1927 and 1931, held around London. Even combat operations, like Operation Millennium, could be considered aerial theatre: it was explicitly designed, in part, to be a media spectacle, to impress people at home and abroad with the power of Bomber Command. I could go on and on, and hopefully will (just not now).
...continue reading


Kenneth R. Sealy. The Geography of Air Transport. London: Hutchinson University Library, 1966. Revised edition. A bit outside my usual timeframe, but I had to rescue it from a secondhand bookshop. Lots of statistics and maps about world aviation in the early jet age, but also going back to the interwar period. If I ever need to know the seasonal variation of BEA traffic types in 1963-64, daily seat/miles for leading western European airlines in 1961, isopleth maps of contact flying hours for the British Isles (day and night), or indeed passenger numbers for the Scottish air ambulance service going back to 1934, I know where to look.


Since I'll be undertaking a research trip to the UK this November or so, I need to think about exactly what I'm going to do there. Giving a paper at the AHA is part of that process. That will hopefully help me formulate my approach or at least identify potential approaches to comparing airship, spy and invasion scares in the First World War. But I also need to nail down where I am going to go in a very physical and literal sense. This is because I want to get out of London for at least a week, to look at scares in a provincial area, and raid the local archives for civil defence files or personal diaries and so on (which of course I can supplement in the London archives). This is partly because it'd be nice to avoid the London-centric perspective for change, but also because I suspect that such fears could be as or even more intense in outlying areas -- particularly on the eastern coast facing Germany. I had been thinking somewhere like Hull, which was raided by Zeppelins on multiple occasions, or East Anglia which is the closest part to Germany and so an obvious (at least in the folk sense) place for a German invasion or raid. Both areas also had notable phantom airship sightings in 1913. So maybe there. Or maybe somewhere else.

I wondered if it there was perhaps a systematic way of gauging fears along the invasion coast, something better than throwing darts at a map. And it occurred to me that I might be able to use the British Newspaper Archive (BNA) for this. We're all used to n-grams by now, which are great for tracking the varying usage of words over time. Tim Sherratt's QueryPic does this for Australian newspapers based on the Trove Newspapers corpus; though there's nothing similar for BNA that I know of, you can manually extract the data yourself without it getting too tedious. What I am thinking of might be termed an n-map: an n-gram across space instead of across time. It's a very obvious thing to do, but I don't think I've seen it done for the databases I'm used to using. It's really just GIS (without an actual map). Or distant (newspaper and map) reading.

There's no publicly-available BNA API to make it possible to do this in an automatic way, but again it is actually not too difficult to use the BNA interface manually. This is because BNA has a very fine level of geographic discrimination: all newspapers in the database are allocated a place (e.g. Hull), a county (e.g. East Riding of Yorkshire) and a region (e.g. Yorkshire and the Humber). These appear as filters when you do a search, and listed beside each filter is the number of issues the search has thrown up for it. So you can just copy down the numbers into a spreadsheet to construct your own low-tech n-map (or n-gram, for that matter).

So now the question is, what keywords do I use? This is not completely straightforward, though neither does it have to be airtight. This is just back-of-the-envelope stuff, after all. After some experimentation, I ended up going with 'zeppelin'; 'invasion'; and 'spy'. (BNA automatically searches on plurals as well.) Here are the number of articles in the BNA for each keyword for each region, for the period 4 August 1914 to 11 November 1918.

Borders, Scotland10592103
East Midlands, England269912972657
East, England530395354
Grampian, Scotland271018403429
London, England204148
Lothian, Scotland661432968
North East, England156911641690
North West, England510434086854
South East, England629569656
South West, England477739604917
Strathclyde, Scotland224207349
Tayside, Scotland236116083849
West Midlands, England852247856552
Yorkshire and the Humber, England598830755575

...continue reading


I've just submitted an article for peer review, 'The airship panic of 1913: the birth of aerial theatre and the British fear of Germany on the eve of the Great War'. I'm not going to say where, since it will likely be rejected and I don't need to have a public record of my failures! But while this particular journal does allow self-archiving, it only allows authors to self-archive the pre-peer review version (which I dislike, but it's better than nothing) and then only if it is uploaded before the article is accepted. So in the unlikely event that it is accepted, I need to self-archive it now or not at all. So here it is, and here's the abstract:

In late 1912 and early 1913, people all over Britain reported seeing airships in the night sky where there were none. It was widely assumed that these 'phantom airships' were German Zeppelins, testing British defences in preparation for the next war. Conservative newspapers and patriotic leagues used the sightings to argue for a massive expansion of Britain's aerial forces, perceived to be completely outclassed by Germany's in both number and power. In many ways this panic was analogous to the much better known 1909 dreadnought panic, which took place at the height of the Anglo-German antagonism. But historians generally agree that 1913 was a time of détente between the two nations. Why, then, did Britons not only imagine that German airships were a potential threat, but imagine that they were actually flying overhead?

The answer lies in the persistence, despite improving relations, of the effects of earlier spy, invasion, and naval panics. When combined with an emerging aerial theatre, which used flying displays and aviation exhibitions to emphasise British weakness, instead of strength as with the older naval theatre, the result was the perfect Edwardian panic. The airship panic was simultaneously a spy panic, an invasion panic, and above all a naval panic: navalists argued that Germany, having lost the dreadnought race, was building Zeppelins at a furious rate in order to overcome British naval superiority, and that Britain was losing a new, aerial arms race of which it was barely even aware.

Also, since it worked so well before, I've decided to use open peer review while the article is undergoing closed peer review. If you feel like it, I'd appreciate your feedback (anonymously if you prefer) at Google Docs.

Either or both of these versions may be replaced or even disappear without notice, depending on what happens with the journal(s). Fingers crossed!


James Brown. Anzac's Long Shadow: The Cost of Our National Obsession. Collingwood: Redback, 2014. Brown has garnered a lot of attention recently for his critique of the Anzac myth. What is perhaps most interesting about his position is that he isn't coming at the question from a historical or even political position: his argument is that Australia's veneration of the diggers of 1915 is actually bad for the diggers of 2014. We see the conflicts we send our soldiers to fight in today through our (mis)understanding of wars they fought in decades ago; we spend more money on commemorating the Gallipoli dead, with the ritual invocation of 'never again', than we do on making sure our still-living soldiers are equipped physically and mentally for combat. We honour the armed forces so much that we can no longer criticise them. So not really history, as such; but essential reading as we prepare to embark on four years of centenaries.

David Christian. Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History. Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 2011. As a historian with a background in astrophysics, I'm intrigued by a history book which starts with the Big Bang and has an index entry for 'cosmic background radiation (CBR)'. But I'm also a bit wary. How does it help me as a historian to understand how galaxies evolve? The biological and even geological parts of big history, sure, in an Annales kind of way; but if I'd wanted to do bad physics I would have stayed a bad physicist. Still, there's always value in looking at history from a different perspective.

Richard J. Evans. Altered Pasts: Counterfactuals in History. London: Little, Brown, 2014. Evans would not appear to be a huge fan of counterfactuals, which makes you wonder why he bothered to write a whole book about them -- I mean, it's not like they're in any danger of taking over the historical world. But it's precisely that it comes from a sceptic, but I think a fair-minded one, that will make this worth reading. For one thing, there are are lot of really bad counterfactuals around: Evans takes a hard look at Dominic Sandbrook's rather silly essays, as well as Niall Ferguson's rather schizophrenic approach of laying out a very sober argument for the utility of counterfactuals in his Virtual History collection, which he then rounds off with an again very silly conclusion linking all the chapters together in one big narrative counterfactual history that makes no sense and undermines his pleas that counterfactuals are a worthwhile historical tool and should be taken seriously.

Tom Lawson. The Last Man: A British Genocide in Tasmania. London and New York: I. B. Tauris, 2014. What makes this so interesting is that Lawson is writing not from the Australian perspective but the British one; and not as a British historian but as a genocide historian. So he's not one of the usual combatants in the history wars. He argues that Britain should be viewed as a post-genocidal state for causing the extermination of the Tasmanian Aborigines in the 1820s and 1830s -- not that Australia itself has come to terms with this label (see below).

Richard Ned Lebow. Archduke Franz Ferdinand Lives! A World without World War I. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. Continuing on with the counterfactual theme. I'm not yet sure whether this is sensible or silly. On the one hand, by positing a 'best plausible' and a 'worst plausible' world after Franz Ferdinand's non-assassination, Lebow avoids the trap of simply presenting a single version of what might have been, which Sandbrook, Ferguson and so many others have fallen into. That's pointless; instead we should try to Monte Carlo or more realistically scenario plan the possibilities. Ditto for the equally common practice of writing counterfactuals as simple narratives. This is fun but it is not informative. A good counterfactual history needs to be written from our perspective, not that of our non-existent counterparts. So Lebow gets these things right. But then he goes and repeatedly commits another cardinal error, which is to have individuals after the turning point leading very similar lives or having very similar characteristics to their real counterparts. For example, he suggests that in his 'best plausible' world, Isaac Asimov would have remained in Russia instead of emigrating to the United States. That is plausible: no war, the Russian Empire survives, there is no wave of emigration due to civil war and communism. But he then has 'Isaak Ozimov' leading much the same life as he did in reality, becoming a hugely prolific writer on a wide array of topics but who is best known for his science fiction novels about robots and about a galactic empire. True, these aren't simply the Robots and Foundation novels with the serial numbers filed off; Lebow does change them in interesting ways to make them commentaries on authoritarianism and anti-Semitism in Russia and elsewhere. But so much of life depends on chance that making even small changes can lead to very different outcomes; and that goes many times over for counterfactual history. In Asimov's case, for example, it's well known (at least in his own retelling, which of course may not be trustworthy) that he came up with the idea to write his first Foundation story by randomly picking a page from Gilbert and Sullivan's Iolanthe and seeing an illustration of a sentry, which by a chain of association led him to the idea of a galactic empire. It wasn't inherent in Asimov's DNA or his personality; and certainly not his cultural background. Lebow may convince me otherwise, but I'm prepared for disappointment.

Henry Reynolds. Forgotten War. Sydney: NewSouth, 2013. Reynolds makes the case that the white dispossession of the Aborigines who lived in Australia first amounted to a war, and should be recognised as such. This war has been not so much forgotten as denied.

Flight, 22 March 1913, 341

This cartoon appeared in Flight in 1913.1 It's entitled 'In 1950' with the caption 'Flitting -- by the light of the Easter moon'.

Now, 'flitting' is a term used in Scotland and the north of England to mean moving house. It is, or at least was, a practice which happened much more often there than in the south. In fact, it was something of an annual tradition in Scotland, with 25 May in particular being Flitting Day. The Motherwell Times described the scene in an 1898 leading article:

The week that has about gone provides at least one field day in the year for a considerable proportion of our population. Some people must flit every year, and they are no sooner installed in their new diggings than they begin to cast their vision about in order to select the battle-ground of their next upheaval. Now may be seen the central figure of the show, the commander-in-chief of the whole operations, with whitewash in her hair, fire in her eye, and anathemas on her lips, careering wildly about, seeking for some devoted one which to explode her righteous indignation. The poor titular head of the house is altogether a secondary and quite unimportant individual, and if ever he has been prone to at any time think of himself as somebody in particular, it is about now that he gets the starch taken out, and he is made to realize that he is only small potatoes after all.2

There's an obvious gender aspect to this, and a less obvious class one too -- the poor were much more likely to rent their homes rather than own them, and so were much more likely to move about. This is evident in Flight's cartoon, too: although the flitting in 1950 is being done with the aid of a (not particularly realistic) aeroplane, it has patches on its wings and the passengers perched on the back are of humble appearance. What's more, it's not just any old flitting that is being done, but moonlight flitting: i.e. secretly moving house in the dead of night, in order to escape creditors and landlords.

What is the point of this cartoon? It doesn't seem to be any sort of topical reference, and it was published a couple of months before Flitting Day. Obviously it's not meant to be taken particularly seriously. There's probably a play on the other meaning of 'flitting', in the sense of the swift motion of small animals, particularly flying ones like birds and bats. But there is also a glance at Britain's airminded future, even if in a very lighthearted way, at the idea that aviation would become an integral part of British society, that Britons would naturally and instinctively turn to the skies, that even the poor would have access to aircraft. It's also perhaps a little satirical though, because -- at least in this respect -- becoming airminded has not fundamentally altered British society. People are still poor, still evade their debts, and still flit by moonlight; all the coming of flight has done is to change their mode of transportation.

  1. Flight, 22 March 1913, 341

  2. Motherwell Times, 3 June 1898, 2