I currently have a part-time contract at the University of Melbourne in a non-academic, communications role. I feel that my work is valued and that I am supported by my unit and my managers. Nevertheless, I'm on strike. Why?...continue reading
In two weeks from today I'll be leaving Armidale for good, and heading back to Melbourne, my hometown. It's mostly for excellent personal reasons, but in part it's also because of the usual early-career academic story of precarious employment. My colleagues at the University of New England have supported me as much they could, but work is drying up and it's clear that any kind of secure position is, at best, a long way off. In addition, with a faculty restructure and as a casual, access to research support is increasingly limited (unfortunately, I had to give up my KCL fellowship). So, after 5 years it's time to leave.
Not that there's a job waiting for me down south, but there are five or six times as many universities in Melbourne as there are in Armidale, so that must help my chances! In the short term I'll have to readjust to life as an independent historian again. I will continue to research and to write, including as part of the Heritage of the Air project, and attend conferences when I can (starting with the International Society for First World War Studies conference in Melbourne, as it happens). Airminded will likely see more activity than it has in the past few years, too.
I will miss my friends here in Armidale. But there's a lot to look forward to in Melbourne!
Some big news. Today the Australian Research Council (ARC) announced that it is funding Linkage Project LP160101232, 'Heritage of the air: how aviation transformed Australia' to the amount of $440,000 over three years, with financial and/or in-kind contributions from Airservices Australia, the National Museum of Australia, the Civil Aviation Historical Society, and the SFO Museum. The project's official summary reads:
This project aims to generate new understandings of how aviation has transformed Australian society over the last hundred years, and how the technology of global mobility has shaped people, cultures and communities. Whilst aviation has transformed Australian society over the last hundred years, its heritage is under-appreciated and at risk. The project will build a partnership between the aviation industry, community groups, museums and a multidisciplinary academic team to develop fresh insights from under-utilised sources of aviation heritage, communicate their unique stories to the public through innovative exhibitions and publications, and help conserve it for future generations. As a result, the project will make an important contribution to culture and society by enabling community access to neglected and at-risk sources of aviation heritage, and engage the public's fascination with aviation through new interpretations of its extraordinary social and cultural impact.
The reason why this is big news, apart obviously from the scholarly value of this research, is that I am on the project as a Partner Investigator. What that means is that I will still be working as a lecturer, but some of my research time will now be devoted to Heritage of the Air working as part of the project team:
- Associate Professor Tracy Ireland (the lead investigator and the one who has done nearly all the work)
- Professor Ross Gibson
- Associate Professor Tim Sherratt
- Professor Ross Harley
- Associate Professor Anne Clarke
- Dr Peter Hobbins
- Dr Mitchell Whitelaw
- Dr Jane Ferguson
- Dr Prudence Black
- Professor Paul Ashton
- Dr Brett Holman < - that's me
- Miss Jennifer Wilson
- Dr Claire Marrison
I'll no doubt have more to say in future about the actual plans and progress of the project, and my involvement in it. But for now I'll just say that this is a big deal for me, as it's the first major grant I've been a part of, and it's the kind of thing that humanities academics increasingly need on their CV these days, at least in Australia. So I'm grateful to Tracy for giving me this opportunity, and I look forward to working with her and the rest of the team over the next few years!
Image source: National Library of Australia.
On Friday, 1 April 2016, I gave my second Humanities Research Seminar (again introduced by Nathan Wise) at the University of New England, under the title of 'Constructing the enemy within: rumours of secret German forts and aerodromes in Britain, August-October 1914'. It was based on a (hopefully) forthcoming article, which in turn is based on a series of posts here as well as a research trip. The abstract:
I will explore the false rumours of secret German gun platforms and hidden Zeppelin bases which swept Britain in the early months of the First World War and climaxed with the fall of Antwerp in October 1914. These were so persistent that they were repeatedly investigated by both thepolice and the military. I argue that these rumours were the latest manifestation of a long-standing myth-complex around the threatening figure of the German enemy within. But they also represent an important moment in the British people's imaginative transition between the cautious optimism of the early months and the increasing likelihood of a long, total war.
I haven't listened to it (and don't plan to!) so can't vouch for its comprehensibility -- especially since since I didn't have as much time to prepare it as I would have liked. It might be safer to wait for the article!
These are (lightly edited) topic notes I wrote for a unit I'm teaching into in a few weeks, HIST332/HIST432 History as Film. The basic format is that students watch a historical film chosen by an academic to fit a specific theme, who also gives a lecture and leads a seminar discussion on the film. My theme is 'capturing historical reality on film', and the obvious choice (for me!) was Battle of Britain (1969). The lecture will have rather less Barthes and Baudrillard and more bombers and Blitzes!
It may seem obvious that films shouldn't be confused with reality. We watch them precisely because they aren't real - they are escapist fantasies which take us away from our lives for a couple of hours. Wherever films take us, we know that when they are over we'll be right back where we started. But a large part of the reason why films are so brilliantly successful at transporting us in this way is precisely because of the way they are able to produce an illusion of reality -- what Roland Barthes calls a 'reality effect'. They appear real -- or even realer than real, hyperreal, in Jean Baudrillard's phrase. So the question is perhaps, can we avoid confusing films with reality?
Generally, though, we aren't quite fooled by this apparent reality effect. We may willingly suspend our disbelief when we watch them, but only for a short period, not permanently. It's understood that the stories we watch on screen never happened and the characters within them never existed. Christian Grey is just as unreal as Imperator Furiosa. But there's an important exception to this rule, which is of course the historical film. These do try to depict actual events and actual people. The extent to which they do so in a way which would satisfy historians is, of course, highly variable, to say the least. But not everyone watching historical films is a historian, let alone one specialising in the events being portrayed. Inevitably then, some, perhaps most, people will come away from a historical film thinking that it does more or less represent wie es eigentlich gewesen -- 'how it actually happened' or 'how it essentially was', in Leopold von Ranke's famous phrase. In other words the simulation replaces what it is simulating: hyperreality displaces reality.
This week we'll be looking at how one particular historical film, Battle of Britain (1969), works to represent and perhaps replace the history it portrays. As the title suggests, Battle of Britain is an example of a particularly popular subgenre of historical film we've already encountered in this unit: the war film. The historical Battle of Britain was fought over a period of several months in the summer of 1940 when it appeared to many that the fate of western civilisation hung in the balance, when only Britain (and the British Commonwealth) remained standing against Hitler. Having already conquered Poland, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands and Belgium, the German army had just crushed France within weeks and ejected the British army from the Continent; Germany now controlled the northern coast of Europe from the Bay of Biscay to the North Cape. A key element of this Blitzkrieg or lightning war was the striking power of the German air force, or Luftwaffe, to which Hitler now entrusted the task of battering the Royal Air Force (RAF) into submission and hence Britain itself. Against overwhelming odds, the RAF's fighter pilots repelled the Luftwaffe's bombers, saved Britain from invasion and inflicted the first defeat on Nazi Germany. Or so goes what is sometimes called the 'myth of 1940', which Battle of Britain both draws upon and passes on. A myth, in this sense, is not necessarily false; but its correspondence to wie es eigentlich gewesen is beside the point - it's how we want to believe it really happened. Much like hyperreality, in fact, and we might suggest that this is what makes historical films such compelling vehicles for the propagation of historical myths. (Think Gallipoli (1981) and the Anzac myth for another example.)
While the particular narrative of 1940 presented by Battle of Britain, both what it includes and what it leaves out (what of the Royal Navy? wasn't the Blitz worth more than a few scenes? was Britain really in danger of a military defeat in the summer of 1940?), it's interesting that few war films these days attempt to portray the big picture in the way that Battle of Britain tried to, telling the story of the whole battle from start to finish and from the point of view of the high command as well as the men (and women) at the sharp end. War films now tend to focus on smaller, more personal stories, for example Saving Private Ryan (1998), The Hurt Locker (2008) or American Sniper (2014). Yet individuals also feature prominently in Battle of Britain, as a way of humanising the grand narrative as well as -- not incidentally -- providing roles for a cavalcade of film stars intended to ensure the project's profitability. The commercial aspect of making historical films should never be forgotten; even where the desire to tell things as they really happened is present, the desire to turn a profit is usually paramount. A war film on such a big scale as Battle of Britain was an expensive proposition and its makers (who were partly responsible for the hugely successful James Bond films) made compromises in order to attract a younger audience with little direct experience of or interest in the war. But this did not mean that historical authenticity was neglected altogether; to the contrary, as S. P. McKenzie shows, Battle of Britain's producers went to great lengths to secure airworthy Spitfires, Hurricanes, Messerschmitts and Heinkels, even modifying some examples when they differed too much from the types which flew during the Battle. (Supposedly, these aircraft constituted the world's 35th largest air force, albeit an unarmed one.) Whether or not this kind of attention to detail tells us much worth knowing about how it really was can be questioned -- it certainly did not rescue the film's financial fortunes (it only made a profit after more than 30 years, after being released on DVD). But whatever the motivation, and despite (or because of) the lack of CGI, the gorgeous vintage aeroplanes and the spectacular aerial cinematography clearly produce reality and hyperreality effects of the kind Barthes and Baudrillard talk about. Battle of Britain is still very watchable, easy to immerse yourself in and imagine you were there. From a historian's point of view, is that a problem? Or as Barthes himself argued, is this displacement embedded in the process of writing history itself?
These are the readings:
Tony Aldgate, 'The Battle of Britain on film', in Jeremy A. Crang and Paul Addison (eds), The Burning Blue: A New History of the Battle of Britain (London: Pimlico, 2000), pp. 191-206.
Mark Connelly, 'The fewest of the few: the Battle of Britain, June-September 1940', in We Can Take It! Britain and the Memory of the Second World War (Harlow: Pearson Education, 2004), pp. 95-127.
Brett Holman, 'Battle of Britain and the Battle of Britain', Airminded, 15 September 2006, http://airminded.org/2006/09/15/battle-of-britain-and-the-battle-of-britain/, accessed 25 June 2015.
Martin Hunt, 'Their finest hour? The scoring of Battle of Britain', Film History, Vol. 14, Iss. 1, 2002, pp. 47-56.
S. P. Mackenzie, 'The big picture: Battle of Britain (1969)', in The Battle of Britain on Screen: ‘The Few’ in British Film and Television Drama (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007), pp. 75-97.
Richard Overy, The Battle (London: Penguin, 2000).
Robert J. Rudhall, Battle of Britain: The Movie (Worcester: Ramrod Publications, 2000).
Malcom Smith, 'Invasion and the Battle of Britain', in Britain and 1940: History, Myth and Popular Memory (London and New York: Routledge, 2000), pp. 52-69.
There aren't many reasonably scholarly secondary sources relating to Battle of Britain. Mackenzie is excellent, and there are one or two others, but I've had to pad out the list with texts relating to the Battle itself and to British memory of it (and even an old Airminded post). I'd be grateful if anyone can think of any others.
Taka taka taka taka taka taka taka...
Last Friday, 3 October 2014, I gave the Humanities Research Seminar at the University of New England on the topic of 'Staging the aerial theatre: Britishness and airmindedness in the 20th century' (kindly introduced by Nathan Wise), in which I expanded upon my ideas for a research project involving aviation spectacle. You can watch the seminar itself above; the abstract is below.
The place of the sea and the navy in the construction of British national identity has recently come under scrutiny from historians, for example in the way that spectacular fleet reviews and ship launchings were orchestrated in a kind of naval theatre in order to display national strength, assure imperial stability, and enact international rivalry. With the coming of flight in the early 20th century, however, the air and the air force became increasingly more important to both the defence of the nation and to its self-identity: for example, think of the Battle of Britain and the Spitfire, in popular memory Britain's salvation and the agent of its salvation, respectively. But the process began long before 1940, in large part through an aerial theatre: aerial displays, aerial reviews and aerial races. This kind of airmindedness, or the enthusiasm for aviation, advertised and celebrated British technological and destructive capabilities, though how it was interpreted by its audience is another matter. In this seminar I will outline a research programme to investigate how airmindedness was conveyed by aerial theatre, and how this worked to construct Britishness in the 20th century. My primary case study will be the Royal Air Force Pageant, held annually between 1920 and 1937 at Hendon in north London, in which British airpower was demonstrated in highly choreographed, large-scale aerobatic routines and battle scenarios for the enjoyment of huge crowds. I will also look at other examples of British aerial theatre, such as Empire Air Day, the Aerial Derby, and Operation Millennium, as well briefly touch on some international comparisons. Aerial theatre helped define what it meant to be British in the 20th century; but in so doing it also revealed tensions over alternative identities, as well as anxieties about whether Great Britain could in fact continue to be great in the aerial age.
The presentation itself was a bit rough. Normally I would speak off the cuff, and in the past I've read out talks verbatim, but this time, because of the length of the seminar and because I wanted to keep the slides themselves low in information density, I used notes, which of course just tripped up my tongue and made me sound even more inarticulate than usual. Partly as a consequence, I don't think I really gave a good explanation of why I think the aerial theatre is so interesting, which was really the whole idea of the thing. If I gave the same talk again (which almost never happens), I'd do it a bit differently. But I got some really good questions at the end and had fun choosing photographs and newsreels to talk to. Also, it was possibly the first time I've used the phrase 'pure sex' in a public forum. So it wasn't all bad.
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).
[Cross-posted at Society for Military History Blog.]
If I had to recommend one military history book I've read this year it would be Philip Sabin's Simulating War: Studying Conflict through Simulation Games (London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2012). Admittedly, this is not your usual military history book. Sabin ranges at will from the 5th century BC to the present day, devotes twelve pages of its bibliography to games as well as providing the rules to eight games in the book itself, and talks about things that didn't happen more than those that didn't. The reason for all this is that Sabin argues, I think persuasively, that insights into historical warfighting can be gained through historical wargaming. In particular, he advocates the use of wargames in teaching military history, something he has much experience in and offers much advice about. Firstly, Sabin argues that what it is best to use what he terms manual wargames rather than computer wargames, that is played with dice and paper on a table-top (though there are in fact computer-assisted versions too). The advantage of this is that students can easily understand the rules, rather than have them hidden in a software black box. More importantly, they can also modify the rules, to experiment with increasing realism or playability, for example, or to alter what is being simulated. Even more importantly, they can design their own games, to reflect their research and understanding of a particular war, something Sabin has his own MA students do. Secondly, he advocates the use of what are called microgames with small maps and no more than twenty or so pieces per side, as opposed to the more complex wargames available commercially, which can have hundreds or even thousands of counters and very finely detailed maps. The main reason for this is that in his experience anything more complex than this is too hard to teach in a two-hour class. Also, given the need to make a game playable as well as gaps in our knowledge of the battle or campaign being simulated, Sabin suggests that it is better to focus on accurately representing key dynamics, such as the importance of suppressing fire in infantry combat, rather than trying to incorporate every last detail. Thirdly, and relatedly, for several of his courses Sabin uses nested simulations to represent warfare at different levels. So for the Second World War, he uses one game covering the war in Europe from 1940 to 1945, another focusing on the Eastern Front, a third at the operational level (depicting the Korsun pocket), and a fourth at the tactical level, gaming an assault by a British infantry battalion against German defences. This enables him to highlight the ways in which warfare looks different at different scales. There's much more in here, reflecting Sabin's years of teaching, playing and designing wargames; it's an essential book if you're interested in trying this at home (or in the classroom).
So if you had to recommend one military history book you've read this year, what would it be? What one book most impressed you, informed you, surprised you, moved you?
Note: I've changed the book featured here. I may discuss the reasons for this in a future post.
I've been awarded a small grant by the University of New England to fund research into 'Popular perceptions of the German threat in Britain, 1914-1918'. I'm very fortunate to have received this and very grateful. The basic idea is this:
This project will investigate the British public's reaction to the threat of German attack during the First World War, including invasion, air raids, and espionage. Broadly speaking, the anticipation of such attacks before 1914 has received occasional attention over the last few decades. However, the way these fears actually developed during the war itself is less well understood. From scattered evidence it is known that they included trekking to safe areas, spontaneous organisation of civil defence measures such as the occupation of Tube stations as air raid shelters, and anti-German riots, but no comprehensive study has been carried out, with the recent and partial exception of invasion fears in south-east England in 1914. These fears are important for several reasons. Firstly, because they played a role in strengthening or weakening popular support for the war. Secondly, because they played a role in the retention in Britain of substantial military, naval and aerial forces which could have been deployed on the Western Front and elsewhere. Thirdly, because during the 1920s and 1930s, memories of air raids by Zeppelin and Gotha bombers led to an exaggerated fear of bombing which in turn had significant psychological, political and military consequences.
This is designed to be a standalone project (i.e. and an article), but it's also designed to support my longer-term mystery aircraft research by establishing a sort of baseline for the effect and extent of other forms of scares. How I (tentatively) plan do this is as follows:
- Using a combination of distant and close reading techniques, survey the British wartime press to identify periods when fear was likely at its highest, which will likely include the period after the fall of Antwerp, October 1914; the battlecruiser and Zeppelin raids in December 1914-January 1915, the first London air raids in May 1915, the height of the Zeppelin raids in the winter of 1915-6; the daylight Gotha raids in the summer of 1917; the night Gotha raids in the winter of 1918; and the German spring offensives of 1918. This can be done via the Internet using digitised newspaper archives such as the British Newspaper Archive and Gale NewsVault, which between them give good coverage of national and provincial daily newspapers.
- The core of the research will be undertaken in London:
I. 1 week research at the National Archives to examine the official understanding of public fears and responses to particular incidents such as riots and trekking.
II. 2 weeks at the Imperial War Museum to survey diaries from relevant places and periods to ascertain privately held and expressed reactions to the German threat.
III. 1 week in a provincial archive in a threatened area such as Hull or Norwich as a check of the predominant London bias of many sources, to gauge local government understanding of and responses to the German threat.
- Analysis of data and followup research, if necessary.
This is significant for a number of reasons. First, it's the first time I've won any substantial research funding. Second, it will be the first time I've moved outside aviation history to any real degree (even if I will still be mostly doing aviation history). And third, while my last research trip to the UK may not have been completely successful, I will be going back for more.
[Cross-posted at Society for Military History Blog.]
The election of Tony Abbott's Liberal-National Coalition on Saturday night, after six years of Labor majority and minority government, will mean many things for Australia. Whether they are good or bad remains to be seen. For historians, however, there are some troubling omens. A $900 million cut to university research funding (ironically, to help pay for an ambitious reform to secondary education) announced by Labor in May was inevitably criticised by the opposition, but then accepted. Despite some fine words in the months leading up to the election about respecting research autonomy, Julie Bishop, then the shadow foreign minister, announced that a Liberal government would cut funding to any academics who supported boycotts against Israel. And with only two days to go the Liberals revealed that they would 're-prioritise' another $900 million of Australian Research Council grants deemed 'wasteful'. This, again inevitably, means the humanities will be targeted, with any research project not contributing to somebody's bottom line open to ridicule, or worse.
Due to its role in constructing the nation's self-image, history is going to be particularly vulnerable to political interference. As I briefly noted back in April, the then shadow minister for education, Christopher Pyne, attacked the history component of the new National Curriculum as politically correct and promised that a victorious Coalition would overturn its emphasis on the so-called 'black armband view of history'. This is a phrase which first became prominent in the 1990s during what became known as the history wars, and though it was historian Geoffrey Blainey who introduced it, it remains indelibly associated with John Howard, the last Liberal prime minister before Abbott. Howard used the accusation that historians were painting a far too negative picture of Australia's past, particularly in the invasion, dispossession and genocide of its indigenous people by European settlers, as an excuse to do nothing about Aboriginal reconciliation. So the reappearance of 'black armband history' suggests that the history wars are about to start again.
If so, then both military history and British history -- my areas of expertise -- may turn out to be key battlefields. Pyne claimed that the teaching of history in Australian schools 'must highlight the pivotal role of the political and legal institutions from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales'. I agree, in principle; certainly the teaching of British history seems have declined at university level over the last decade or so, which seems odd given the importance of Britain in Australia up until the mid-twentieth century. But I have little faith in the ability of politicians to not be politicians when it comes to history. Gallipoli, as ever in this country, shows why. Pyne further criticised the way that the significance of Anzac Day was being taught alongside other national days and hence diluted:
ANZAC day is very central to our understanding of our Australian character and our Australian history, and I think it downplays ANZAC day for it not to be a standalone part of the history curriculum – to be taught about Australia’s culture and what we’ve done in the past [...] I think ANZAC day speaks very much about the kind of country we are today and where we’ve come from. It was the birth of a nation – the birth of a nation in the First World War [...]
He's right that Anzac Day has been and continues to be very important to Australians. But that doesn't mean it's unproblematic -- as the (unidentified) ABC journalist who interviewed Pyne at the time pointed out:
Journalist: You think that the Australian nation was born when we stormed Gallipoli?
Pyne: I have absolutely no doubt that the experiences of the First World War, as exemplified by the campaign in Gallipoli, bound the Australian nation together like no other event in the first fifteen years of federation.
Journalist: It divided the nation – what about the great debates over conscription? It was an incredibly divisive time, Christopher Pyne.
Pyne: Well David, the debate about conscription has nothing whatsoever to do with the campaign in Gallipoli.
Journalist: How can you say that the conscription debates had nothing to do with the slaughter which had been going on up until that time? Those conscriptions, that referendum occurred in 16, and again in 1917. Of course they were referring back to what happened in the previous twelve months, eighteen months, two years.
Pyne: Well, I think you’ve massively expanded the debate. I mean yea, the conscription debates are a fascinating part of Australian History, but…
Journalist: You said it was unifying. I’m saying it was a divisive time.
Both have a point here. The extent to which Gallipoli unified the nation in 1915 can't erase the incredibly bitter conscription debates in 1916 and 1917, or vice versa. (And Australians were very jittery in 1918, too.) But Pyne is the one who will be in power.
With the centenaries of the start of the First World War arriving next year and of Gallipoli itself the year after, historians are going to struggle to preserve any sense of nuance in the public historical debate. But we have to try.