Popular history

Another visit to the Book Festival, this time to hear Max Arthur (of the Forgotten Voices series) and Richard Holmes (Tommy etc). Both were excellent speakers, but it was a shame there were so few people at Arthur’s session, whereas Holmes was a sell out. I suspect this was because the schools are now back and Arthur was on during the day while Holmes was on at 18.30.

Arthur was promoting his new book, Lost Voices of the Edwardians, and it sounds a useful book to read for anyone researching the Great War, as this is the generation that went to war. He said the book arose out of his previous book, The Last Post, which was a series of interviews with the then last surviving veterans, and he thought it would be useful to do a book on their background. Society has changed a lot in the intervening century and he hoped to provide some insights into the sort of people who happily volunteered in 1914. We tend, as a society, I think, to have a very rose-tinted view of the Edwardian period. It’s all Upstairs Downstairs (which incidentally I re-watched on DVD recently, and still loved) and croquet on the lawn, not the grinding poverty described by Arthur’s respondents in his book. Even television such as the 1900 House a few years ago, and its country house follow-up, or others such as the Victorian Kitchen, failed to capture the experience of most people. Grinding poverty doesn’t make attractive television I suppose.

We also tend to think that the Great War acted as this huge fault line in society, creating a barrier between the “golden” Edwardian period and the flapper-filled twenties. However, one of the points Arthur made, was that there wasn’t a huge difference in the experience of most people between say the late Victorian period and the nineteen twenties, and he gave a plug for a future book covering that latter decade. There were changes, certainly, but they were not perhaps as far-reaching as we generally believe they were.

Holmes, who admitted to wearing two hats, that or military historian and member of the armed forces, asserted that he had not wanted to write his current book, Dusty Warriors, about the experience of a battalion serving in Iraq a couple of years ago. It had come about as a result of the regiment of which he is Lt Col, having one of its battalions posted to Iraq. This was less interesting for me in a historical sense, although the politics of it were fascinating. Holmes kept having to steer a course between what he could say, as a member of the armed forces, and what he wanted to say as a historian, and there were some questions he refused to answer. What did come over, however, were the attitudes and behaviour of the soldiers, whose average age after all, was only twenty. They seemed very similar to those described in Tommy, which was interesting. What was even more interesting from the point of view of my current writing project was a brief discussion about preventing post traumatic stress disorder.

The audience were almost equally interesting, there being large numbers of bristling moustaches, and fearfully pukka accents, although in response to a question, Holmes did say that the army was much less class ridden than previously and commissioning from the ranks was fairly common.

All in all, two fascinating speakers well worth seeing.


2 responses to “Popular history

  1. Pingback: Frog in a Well - The Japan History Group Blog

  2. Pingback: History Carnival #38 | Frog in a Well

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