Featured Historian: Simon Potter

Simon Potter is Professor of Modern History and Head of History. His research focuses on the global history of the mass media, and the impact of the press, radio and television on politics, society, and culture. His work on radio and internationalism, and on the BBC and empire, grows out of his wider interest in the history of imperialism and decolonization.

Headshot of Simon Potter

Hi Simon, thanks for joining us. So what’s the title of your new book and what’s it about?

Wireless Internationalism and Distant Listening looks at radio when it was a ‘new medium’ – the equivalent in some ways of today’s social media. In the 1920s and 1930s radio broadcasting (most people called it ‘wireless’ at the time) looked like it was going to transform the way people, and nations, interacted with each other.

I was really struck when I was researching and writing the book by how people thought radio broadcasting was going to change the world, ushering in a new era of international peace and understanding. That seems very utopian, but for people who had just lived through the First World War, it was a pretty attractive prospect. It was part of the wider internationalism of the period, part of the same climate as the League of Nations.

However, in the 1930s, people quickly became aware that they were in fact dealing with a very powerful weapon of mass deception. First the Communist USSR, then the Fascist states, turned radio into a means of international propaganda, and democratic countries soon followed. In writing the book I’ve also become really interested in cultural histories of listening and ‘soundscapes’ – trying to think about the history of sound as part of the lived experience of the past. So the book also looks at how international broadcasting was heard and experienced in the noisy context of the ‘Roaring Twenties’, and beyond.

 

How did you become interested in these ideas about radio, internationalism and sound?

My last book was about the history of the BBC and empire and ranged from the 1920s to the 1970s. I was very aware as I finished writing it that empire was a really important part of the BBC’s wider international engagement, but had to be put in a wider context – and that the existing historiography didn’t really do that.

I also got really interested in the early years of international radio, which is again a topic that has been a bit neglected – the Second World War and the Cold War have attracted a lot more attention. The whole topic of interwar internationalism has really taken off, so reading about that formed a lot of the backdrop for my research – I wanted to connect with all the great new work on the Wilsonian moment, the League of Nations, and so on. I managed to get a big grant from the Leverhulme Trust to put together a network of historians working on international radio, and while writing this book, I met regularly with them. We are co-writing another book at the moment on the global history of international broadcasting across the whole twentieth century. Together we spent a lot of time talking about the history of sound and soundscapes, so working with other historians (something that historians are doing more and more, particularly because it is one of the only ways to do global history well, bringing out its diversity and complexity) has really enriched my understanding of this area.

 

What is the importance of the history of international radio today?

People have been saying that radio was dead for a long time – since at least the 1940s, with the advent of television. But radio has in fact remained one of the most pervasive and adaptable media throughout its hundred-year history – 15 June is the centenary of the first organized entertainment programme broadcast in Britain (Dame Nellie Melba singing Home Sweet Home from the Marconi station at Chelmsford) and 2022 is going to see the centenary of the BBC.

Radio now reaches people via the internet, and also gets to people who don’t have reliable internet access, all around the world. It allows all sorts of people to have a voice, and also continues to be a very powerful tool of soft power and cultural diplomacy – or if we don’t want to use euphemisms, propaganda. The British government stopped funding the BBC World Service in 2014, but quickly reversed that decision, because it realized what a powerful tool of persuasion international broadcasting is. In an age of fake news, a lot of the themes of my book really resonate. The League of Nations itself tried to run a campaign against what it called ‘false news’, and established its own radio station to try and present a source of ‘pure’ news that would counter the lies of other broadcasters.

I’ve explored some of the themes relating to the book in my third-year Lecture Response Unit ‘The Development of the Modern Mass Media’, which looked at the role the mass media is meant to play in a democratic society. I taught that course for the last time this year, but I’m hoping to teach some more media history as part of our new curriculum.

 

What advice would you give to a student interested in media history?

This is a great field to get involved in – it is still relatively unexplored, and there is a huge amount of original research to be done.

It is a fantastic subject for original student research projects, with lots of great digital primary source material that you can easily access and use. The Library has lots of subscriptions to various digital newspaper archives, for example, and you can find links to these on the subject resource page.

You also need to think a lot about what you are actually trying to achieve when you are doing a media history project. It is easy to get overwhelmed by the content, just report on what you read, listen to, or see, and not be critical. You need to think for yourself about how far the media are shaping as well as reflecting the societies and cultures of which they are a part.

There is also lots of scope to integrate media history with ‘mainstream’ history, showing how media history can shed new light on some well-established topics in social, cultural and political history. Work by critical media scholars like James Curran and Laurel Brake provide some great background reading.

 

What’s the best advice you ever got about history?

It was advice about life as much as history – from my personal tutor, Brian Harrison. He told me to cultivate a healthy disregard for what others around me were doing – don’t feel the need to conform, or to accept that you should be doing what everyone else is doing. That advice has always stayed with me.

 

What’s the most interesting thing you’ve read in the last twelve months?

It is not History – I’m a huge Sci Fi fan, and I just finished Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice. A very thought-provoking exploration of imperialism, oppression, resistance and (the Sci Fi bit) a world in which an individual can be a part of a wider consciousness (and not in a good way).

 

If you had a time machine, where and when would you most want to go?

During the lockdown I watched a lot of Dr Who with my kids, so this is quite topical for me. I think it would either be to see prehistoric England before massive deforestation – what our countryside covered with trees looked like (that would have to be from an airborne TARDIS). Experiencing Mayan civilization would be nice, too.

 

What’s your must-do Bristol experience?

I live in North Somerset and am a big fan of walking in the beautiful countryside that surrounds Bristol. In the city I love going to venues like St George’s and the Fleece – there is a huge amount of great live music going on, which I’m really missing at the moment. The Orchard Inn is pretty good for cider.

 

You can also hear Simon talking about his new book on the New Books in History podcast here.

Featured Historian: Benjamin Pohl

Benjamin Pohl is Senior Lecturer in Medieval History. His research interests are medieval European history and historiography with a focus on the Anglo-Norman world, palaeography (the study of old handwritings), codicology (the material study of books, specifically old books), book history and monastic cultures. He is the author of numerous journal articles and several books, including the monograph Dudo of St. Quentin’s Historia Normannorum: Tradition, Innovation and Memory (2015) and the edited volume A Companion to the Abbey of Le Bec in the Central Middle Ages (11th–13th Centuries) (2017). He is currently writing his new monograph Medieval Abbots and the Writing of History and editing The Cambridge Companion to the Age of William the Conqueror (both forthcoming).

Hi, Ben. Could you tell us the title of your current research project? What’s it about?

My current research project is called ‘History for the Community: Monk-historians and Communal Heritage’. Funded by a British Academy Mid-Career Fellowship and partnering up with the present-day Benedictine community of Downside Abbey in Somerset, I investigate the role(s) of historical writing within medieval (and modern) monasteries, and I’m interested specifically in the involvement of abbots as historians.

You can learn more about this on my project blog, where you can watch an introductory video about the project, follow its latest events and activities and listen to regular podcasts and recordings of public lectures such as this one. The project also has a dedicated Twitter profile @AbbotsMedieval, so please do consider following us if you’re interested.

 

How did you become interested in this subject? What is the importance of medieval historical writing today?

 I’ve been interested in medieval cultures of monasticism and historical writing for some time, thought the concrete idea for this project emerged from my previous research on one particular abbot-historian living and writing during the twelfth century, Robert of Torigni.

Robert started his career at the great Norman abbey of Le Bec before being promoted to the abbacy of the island monastery of Mont-Saint-Michel. In both these places, Robert used his resources and influence to record selected events from both the distant and the recent past and commit them to writing, either by putting his own pen to parchment or by delegating this mechanical task to others within the monastic community.

I soon began to wonder whether what I found with regard to Robert and his work was specific to him and his situation, or whether similar practices were at play elsewhere in medieval Europe, too, which is how the idea for this new project came about. I believe that closely investigating the working methods of medieval historians and they ways in which they interacted with their communities can teach us a lot about our own work and how we use the past, both individually and as a scholarly community.

 

What advice would you give to a student interested in medieval history?

I’d like to offer you four pieces of advice: always be curious, don’t take anything at face value, embrace the unfamiliar and – I can’t stress this enough! – try to get your hands on original manuscripts and documents as often as you can.

We all know that studying distant historical periods such as the Middle Ages and their rich cultural legacy can be dauting at first, especially when the surviving sources seem strange and difficult to access. Don’t shy away from them, though, but learn to love the challenges of dealing with languages, scripts, media and mentalities from a thousand or more years ago. I promise you that the more you do it, the easier it gets, and before you know it you’ll be thinking of these unique and fascinating artefacts as ‘old familiar friends’.

Despite what some people might tell you, there is always more to be discovered in the archives and research collections that contain medieval holdings (some of them don’t even know what they’ve got), so make sure you get in there early and often!

 

What’s the best advice you ever got about history?

To read it as I would read literature.

 

What’s the most interesting thing you’ve read in the last twelve months?

Apart from this blog, you mean? Well, I guess in terms of research-related reading, my recent top three would have to be, in no particular order: Elisabeth van Houts, Married Life in the Middle Ages, 900-1300; Samu Niskanen (ed.), Letters of Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury. Vol. 1: The Bec Letters; Paul Bertrand, Documenting the Everyday in Medieval Europe.

In terms of pleasure reading, my recent top picks are, again in no specific order: German singer-songwriter Hannes Wader’s brutally honest autobiography Trotz alledem: Mein Leben; Philip Pullman’s brilliant pre-/sequels to His Dark Materials, namely The Book of Dust Vols. 1 & 2; Jo Nesbø’s creative modern adaptation of Macbeth.

 

If you had a time machine, where and when would you most want to go? 

I’d quite like to visit Earth prior to human civilisation.

 

What’s your must-do Bristol experience/activity?

Pre-Covid-19, I definitely would’ve said running the ‘Bristol Half Marathon’ is a must-do experience. It’s a great event that brings together people from all walks of life (no pun intended), from fair-weather runners to pro-level athletes. The route is quite easy, mostly flat and will take you past some of Bristol’s most spectacular landmarks, including a loop through the Avon Gorge underneath the towering Clifton Suspension Bridge.

Post-Covid-19, I might add a somewhat less sporty and more gluten-based recommendation: Hart’s Bakery. Located in one of the arches underneath the Temple Meads station approach, they’re hands-down the best bakery in the city. Their bread and bread-based products are a real treat – as a German in exile, you can (and should) take my word for it! One of my personal favourites is their cheese-and-mustard Danish, but you’ll have to get up early if you want to get one before they’re gone!

 

What are you working on next?

 For my next project, I’m planning on studying the practical ways in which medieval scribes and copyists acquired their exemplars across long distances, specifically as regards the logistics of borrowing, lending and transporting these valuable books.

Got some money down the sofa that you’d like to use to fund this research?

(Editor: no.)

Looking for Chan Ching Yau: the first Chinese undergraduate at Bristol

Chan Ching Yau: The first Chinese undergraduate at the University of Bristol

‘In passing’, a colleague in our Library Special Collections recently wrote in an email to me, ‘I saw the attached entry in the ‘Register of Undergraduates’. ‘Passing’ being relative, he appended the file reference number and all the details: Chan Ching Yau, of 3170 Great Western Road, Shanghai (date of birth: 21 August 1897; matriculated: 27 November 1916).[1] Mr Yau’s entry was no 1,027. ‘I wonder what happened to him?’, he signed off, provocatively.

So began a lockdown project. In academic year 2019-20 over 2,300 students from China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, were studying at the University of Bristol, but Yau’s is the first Chinese name ever to have appeared in the register. The annual University Calendar, which cumulatively recorded the names of all graduates up to the 1939-40 edition, showed that he graduated with a BSc in Civil Engineering in July 1919, and what immediately happened next to Chan Ching Yau is easy to find out: on 22 October 1919 he boarded the White Star line’s SS Lapland at Southampton and sailed to New York.

The immigration record notes that Yau was born in Beijing, and was 5ft 5in tall, but what struck me immediately about the passenger list is that Yau was accompanied by his wife, Ivy. Gloucester-born Ivy Hillier, daughter (according to her baptismal record) of a cowman who later became a farm bailiff, had married Yau in Somerset in 1917. It seems likely that she was in domestic service when they met, for in the 1911 census she was listed as a nursemaid at a school in Weston-Super-Mare.

Ivy proved to be key to unlocking Chan Ching Yau’s story, as far as I can recover it, for she is mentioned under her maiden name in a family history, The Zhangs of Nanxun, published in 2010 and co-authored by Laurence and Nelson Chang. While the couple were at sea, Yau’s older sister, Yau Hui 姚蕙, was fatally injured in a freak accident in a New York park when a tree branch fell and hit her. Ivy Hillier found herself on arrival in New York helping to look after Yau Hui’s five traumatised, ‘spoiled and headstrong’ daughters, who lived with their uncle, Foo Yau Chang and his wife in an apartment on W108th St. It is hardly surprising to find the family history noting that for an Englishwoman from rural Gloucestershire, this unexpected turn in the course of her life proved equally unsettling. But, as a result, the Changs record her in the text by her maiden name.[2]

In 1923 this ménage travelled to China, the couple accompanying Yau’s older brother, the girls, and their mother’s remains which were then taken to the Zhang family mausoleum in Nanxun, a town equidistant between Hangzhou and Suzhou in eastern China’s Zhejiang province. I do not know what Yau did in New York. He may have worked with his brother (although in the 1920 census he lists his occupation as ‘Engineer, Civil’), but he may well also have pursued further study. I have found a few brief references to Yau’s subsequent career. In 1926-28, he was employed by the Rockefeller Foundation-funded Peking Union Medical College as Chief Engineer, known there as Yu-Van Yau (or Yuvan, possibly a transliteration of the Chinese for John: Yuehan (in Mandarin)).[3] The was a grandly conceived ‘Johns Hopkins for China’, a medical school that would have a profound impact on the evolving new medical infrastructures being created across China. It is also probable that he is the man referred to in a 1927 note that ‘A highly qualified Chinese engineer has lately been placed in charge of the mechanical equipment, filling a position formerly held by foreigners’.[4] In the 1930s, Yau is said to have taught at a municipal school in the International Settlement. At the same time, between about 1932 and 1937, he privately tutored two sons of Zhang Shuxun, a cousin of his former brother in law, Yao Hui’s husband Zhang Jingjiang 張靜江, who is better known as Zhang Renjie 張人杰. Yau, wrote Chang, slightly mis-remembering,

was very Westernized, as he had been educated at Cambridge University and was married to a British woman. As a result, we learned much from him about Western customs, manners, and culture.[5]

Yao Hui (Yao Jingsu), from an article in Shennü Shibao 婦女時報 May 25, 1913

Some of these names are familiar to students of modern Chinese history and culture. Yao Hui was a prominent feminist and literary figure. A poet herself, she was, as Yao Jingsu 姚景蘇, a member of the editorial board of the magazine Shenzhou Nübao 神州女報, in which she published literary articles. Her brother, C. F. Yau – Chang Foo Yau 姚昌復 – was a prominent gallery owner in New York, managing his brother-in-law’s business, the Ton-Ying Gallery, which relocated from Paris during the First World War. Ton-ying (Tongyun 通运公司) had been founded by Zhang in 1902, when he was posted to Paris as a junior diplomatic official.[6] The New York branch had opened on 1 March 1915 on 5th Avenue. As well as operating a bank, and a teahouse in Paris, in 1909 Jiang with his friend Li Shizeng, had also founded Europe’s first beancurd factory.

Europe’s first beancurd factory

The Yau siblings grew up in a literary family, their father, best known as Yao Jupo (姚菊坡, also: 姚菊岐, 姚丙然)), was a scholar, and chief education official in Shandong Province before he was sacked for corruption. Yao was heavily involved in the International Institute of China 尚賢堂. Although its origins lay in the missionary world, and it was originally known as the Mission among the Higher Classes in China, this was in fact an enterprise aiming to promote what we would now call intercultural dialogue. It had been established in 1897 by American missionary Gilbert Reid, a controversial figure who was the subject of a scathing critique by Mark Twain, ‘The Ethics of Loot’, about his role in the aftermath of the Boxer Uprising. Very closely associated with reformist officials involved in 1898 in what was called the ‘One Hundred Days’ of radical reform that was cut short by a conservative coup, the Institute and its activities relocated from Beijing to Shanghai in 1903, where it offered classes and public lectures. Yao died in early February 1916, and Reid composed an obituary and presented a tribute to his friend of twenty years standing at a memorial service in Shanghai.[7] Here is Yau senior (one of the three men seated on the right) at a dinner to celebrate Reid’s fiftieth birthday in 1907.

Chan Ching Yau’s brother-in-law, Zhang Jingjiang, had long been involved in political activity, and was a strong supporter before the 1911 revolution in China of the revolutionary leader Sun Yat-sen (who stayed in their apartment when visiting Paris). Zhang remained so, returning to China from France immediately after the revolution broke out. In Shanghai he became heavily embroiled in financial and political affairs, would become one of the right-wing elder statesmen in the political party Sun founded and led until his death in early 1925, the Guomindang, and a friend and sponsor of Sun’s successor as party leader, Chiang Kai-shek. After Yao Hui’s daughters, the eldest of whom was 17 at her death, returned to China they were befriended by Chiang’s first wife, while one of them married Eugene Chen (Chen Youren), the Trinidad-born politician who became Foreign Minister in the Guomindang’s revolutionary National Government.

This is a notable pedigree, encompassing art and culture, the missionary enterprise, Qing reformers, and different strands of twentieth century radical and conservative nationalist politics, and feminism. We might also remember the beancurd.

It has been hard to trace Chan Ching Yau otherwise. His father’s obituary records that he was already in Britain in February 1916, and it would make sense to assume that he had earlier joined his older brother in Paris, probably before the outbreak of war in August 1914. He and Ivy had a son, Arthur Joseph Yau, who was born in New York in February 1921, and who in February 1949 moved to the United States from China. Arthur Yau settled in Burlington, Massachusetts. In May 1927 Ivy had taken him to Britain, sailing at the high-tide of the Guomindang’s Northern Expedition, during which it launched its National Revolutionary Army, led by Chiang, which saw it established a new National Government with Nanjing as its capital. Ivy gave her address as 18 Ma Chao Miao in Peking (and her husband’s name as Yuvan, as his brother had also recorded it in 1926).[8] Her passage across the Pacific, and that of another British woman married to a Chinese man on the same vessel, was paid for by the Peking Union Medical College. Mother and son sailed to Seattle, and then out of New York 18 days later, making their way back to China in April the following year travelling via Suez to complete a circumnavigation of the globe.

Almost thirty years later, Ivy returned to Britain. In July 1958 she landed at Liverpool, having been living in the United States, travelling on to live in north Bristol with her sister and brother in law. Ivy Yau died in Horfield, Bristol, in September 1969 on the day of her 80th birthday. Her grandson recalled that she had lived with them in Massachusetts for a few months before she moved on, having left her husband, but it is not clear when she entered the US. She claimed, he later noted in a poem, ‘to be a descendant of the Huguenots’, which he in his child’s mind conflated with the Argonauts. Perhaps he was closer to the spirit of her life’s voyage than he thought.[9]

Chan Ching Yau himself seems to have China in late 1956, when as Yuvan Yau he is recorded as one of the passengers arriving at Hong Kong on a ship that had sailed from Tianjin and Shanghai.[10] He will not have had an easy time in China after the Communist Party seized power in 1949 and established the People’s Republic. His own Chen family background, the family’s network of relations with the defeated Guomindang, his professional status – which made him an intellectual in the rigid caste system of the new regime – his Anglophone education and cosmopolitan background, and probably even his foreign wife, would have made him an obvious target. He did well to leave when he did.

So, that stray reference, a name noticed ‘in passing’, set off a search that led me swiftly into a rich historical landscape, woven across with forking paths that could track us this way into revolutionary politics, that way the international trade in Chinese art and antiquities, there feminist literary culture and political activism, or high finance in Shanghai (and low, for Zhang Jingjiang was embedded in Green Gang networks), the Protestant missionary enterprise at the end of the Qing, social gospel initiatives such as PUMC that evolved from it and presaged the era of international humanitarianism, and China’s cosmopolitan modern cultures, international mobilities and international migration. That reference, glimpsed in passing, that recorded the moment a young Chinese man presented himself in suburban Bristol to commence his studies, offers a direct route from the heart of this university into the heart of China’s long and arduous twentieth century.

In preparing this post I have greatly benefited from the assistance of Vivian Kong, and Ning Jennifer Chang, who found vital references, and I am grateful, too, to Jamie Carstairs, who set me off, and to John Yau.

[1] ‘Register of Undergraduates 1’, DM2287/9/4.
[2] Laurence Chang & Nelson Chang, with Song Luxia, The Zhangs of Nanxun: A One Hundred and Fifty Year Chronicle of a Chinese Family (Boulder: C.F. Press, 2010), pp. 270-71.
[3] A personnel record is listed in the China Medical Board Archives finding aid at the Rockefeller Archives, datd 1926-28: https://dimes.rockarch.org/xtf/media/pdf/ead/FA065/FA065.pdf , p. 150.
[4] The Rockefeller Foundation, Annual Report 1926 (New York: Rockefeller Foundation, 1927), p. 301. In its 1928 report, Yu-Van Yau is listed as Chief Engineer: Peking Union Medical College, Annual Announcement (Peking, 1928), p. 20.
[5]Chang & Chang, with Song , The Zhangs of Nanxun, p. 425. Elsewhere in the book Yau is described as an Oxford graduate.
[6] https://carp.arts.gla.ac.uk/essay1.php?enum=1096638570; New York Times, 15 March 1915, p. 4.
[7] Tsou Mingteh, ‘Gilbert Reid (1857-1927) and the Reform Movement in the Late Qing’, in Daniel H. Bays (ed.), Christianity in China From the Eighteenth Century to the Present (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996), pp. 73-90; Renata Vinci, ‘Meeting the West in a Conference Hall: Gilbert Reid’s Lectures at the International Institute in Shanghai’, in Marina Miranda (ed.), Dal Medio all’Estremo Oriente. Studi del Dottorato di Ricerca in ‘Civiltà dell’Asia e dell’Africa’ (Rome: Carocci, 2018), pp.119-13; ‘姚先生’, 尚賢堂紀事第7卷第3期(1916), pp. 5-6; ‘纪本堂为姚菊坡先生开追悼会事’, in 尚賢堂紀事第7卷第6期 (1916), pp. 20-25.
[8] A problem with searching for the Yau family, and others, is that people used various names. (In addition, Yau is now written as Yao in the Hanyu Pinyin transliteration system, but in this period might be Yau or Yao). They might have a Zi (字) a courtesy name, and a Hao. In this case also, foreign immigration officials mangled the Chinese names they heard, misread what they received (Yau becoming Yan), and in addition Francophone and Anglophone conventions differed. Yao Hui was Mrs Ysang on arrival from Europe in 1917, also Tsang, Chang, and sometimes can be found today referred to as Zhang Yaohui, but also Zhang Jingsu, Jingsu being her pen-name.
[9] John Yau, ‘Ing Grish’ (2005) in Joshua Beckman & Matthew Zapruder (eds), State of the Union: Fifty Political Poems (New York: Wave Books, 2008), p. 74.
[10] ‘Coming and Going: Arrivals from China’, South China Morning Post, 31 October 1956, p. 5.

Featured Historian: Janek Gryta

Dr. Janek Gryta  is a Lecturer in Modern European History. His research focuses on the Holocaust and its impact on postwar Communist Poland, but also Europe more broadly. He writes about the history and memory of death camps, and about heritage sites, museums and memorials, and has more recently starting exploring the histories of health spas in Communist Europe. His book Jews and Poles in the Holocaust Exhibitions of Kraków, 1980-2013: Between Urban Past and National Memory has just been published by Palgrave Macmillan.

Hi Jan! Can you tell us what Jews and Poles in the Holocaust Exhibitions of Kraków is about?

This book analyses how the Holocaust has been remembered in Kraków, the cultural capital of Poland, from the 1980s onwards. There are many assumptions about the memory of the Holocaust in my home country. My colleagues often insist that it is an artificial memory imposed on Poles by Western Europeans after 1989. They claim that no one in the relatively anti-Semitic country wanted to remember the Holocaust and that Poles trying to join the European Union were asked (forced?) to ‘become more European’ by remembering the Jewish Genocide.

Tracing the history of the museum exhibitions in Kraków I tell a different story. I show how local activists have been working hard to recover the memory of the Holocaust from at least the early 1980s onwards. They wanted to use the memory of the suffering of Poles of Jewish origin to remind their compatriots that Poland was not always a monoethnic state and the openness and tolerance are important aspects of being Polish.

portrait of Dr. Janek Gryta

Happier times: a library!

How did you become interested in memory of the Holocaust?

I was always very interested in memory and its relationship with history.

From my early undergraduate years, I wondered how the research of professional historians is translated into what people know and remember about the past. I think I was always a bit frustrated with the fact the people don’t actually that know much…

When I approached my MA supervisor, Professor Jan Rydel from the Jagiellonian University in Kraków, with that idea, he suggested looking into the memory of the Holocaust, as it is a socially very sensitive and important topic in Poland. It snowballed from there.

First, I looked into the history and memory of the Nazi death camps that were located in Poland. Then, I moved to a far more ambitious project. When I started my PhD, I had a vision of writing a complete history of postwar memory in three different Polish cities. Fortunately, my supervisor, doctor Ewa Ochman from Manchester, quickly popped that bubble and helped me shape my idea into something more manageable.

I ended up focusing on Kraków only, writing about the heritage sites, monuments and museums in the city. In the past couple of years, I worked only on the museums to finally publish the book.

What is the importance of the memory of the Holocaust today?

Remembering the Holocaust in Poland, but also across Europe, is important not only because it enshrines a tragic fragment of European past in stone. It is also used to redefine what does it mean to be Polish or, for that matter, European. The heroes of my story grapple with big questions: who were the people killed during the Holocaust? What do we owe them? Were the victims part of the Polish nation, were they Polish Jews? Or were they some different, separate group that only happened to live in Poland?

If we admit that some of those Jews were indeed Poles, we can ask what exactly is the definition of Polishenss? Does one have to be ethnically Polish to be part of the nation?

Moreover, if we say that Jews living in Poland were Polish, then we have to ask ourselves, have we done enough to help our co-nationals at the time of need? Thinking about the plight of minorities of the past, we can take a leap from the past to the present. Are we doing enough now to support members of our nation who are somehow not like us? Are we supporting, in fact, do we owe any support to present-day minorities?

Some of those questions are specific to Poland but people ask similar questions globally. Looking into how we failed Jews during the Holocaust can help us redefine obligations we have towards ostracized or suffering minorities in the present.

What advice would you give to a student interested in memory studies?

Be prepared to get disappointed.

Looking into how our societies fail to tackle problems from our pasts is hardly the most cheerful topic. You’ll have to be ready to get disenchanted with humanity on a daily basis.

On a more practical note, chose the strand that interests you the most. In memory studies, we can analyse space and memorials. We can tour museums. We can study films. It’s an interdisciplinary field which is in equal measures fascinating and daunting so be ready for a great (and challenging!) adventure.

What’s the best advice you ever got about history?

A good dissertation is a submitted dissertation. A very good dissertation is a defended dissertation. Can I say that? Or is it giving a bad example and setting the bar low?

(Editor: You can say that, Jan.)

Ok. Well. It is true, though. As historians, we always push ourselves and always try to become better. There is always another book we can read, a different archival collection we can consult. Being able to stop in the right place is very important. We have to deliver something (an essay, a dissertation, a book) that is good. The best it can be at that particular moment in time. But we have to reconcile ourselves with the fact that our writing is never going to be perfect because ‘perefect’ doesn’t exist. And this is fine. Maybe master Yoda was wrong after all. Maybe trying is enough.

What’s the most interesting thing you’ve read in the last twelve months?

I’m half-minded to say the Witcher saga which I’ve revised last Autumn. I’m Polish so I feel I should promote Polish fantasy. But I also suspect this question is not about my procrastination strategies but about my scholarship. So, I think I’ll go with Leisure Cultures and The Making of the Modern Ski Resorts a fascinating edited volume about … the history of skiing. It has a chapter on skiing and James Bond which is the most amazing topic ever. But it is also an inspiring read about modernity, tourism and environment; a set of problems that are topical and important to a lot of us.

If you had a time machine, where and when would you most want to go?

This is an easy one. I always wanted to experience life in a medieval castle. I’d have to choose the right moment very carefully though. More plagues, religious prosecution, sieges, famines are not something I want to face. If there was a moment in time when life was peaceful, stable and safe then I’d be in!

So maybe, this question wasn’t easy after all… 

Falafel King or Eat a Pitta?

Can I admit, I’ve never tried any of those? I know. Eat a Pitta is basically a Bristol institution. In fact, there is one just around the corner from my place so I should have visited. But there is also another place which is even closer to my flat and that is where I normally end up going: Pinkmans. Pinkmans is the place to try.

I’m Polish so I’m very picky when it comes down to bread. Pinkmans sourdough is amongst the best breads I’ve ever tried.

But what is truly addictive is their chocolate and salted caramel sandwich cookie…

What are you working on next?

Right now, I’m writing one last article stemming from my PhD project.

At the same time, I’m deciding on the next big project. I’m torn between three ideas as different as the memory of the Second World War, history of Carpathian spas, and history of persecution of Jews by ethnic Poles during the Holocaust in Kraków. So, to answer your question I can only say… watch this space!

Stranded in Antarctica

view of Shackleton's hut

Shackleton’s hut

Getting stuck in Antarctica is not quite as exciting as it sounds, writes Dr. Adrian Howkins.

Most of the time it involves checking monitors, being driving to and from the runway, and just sitting and waiting.  But at the very end of my recent extended stay at the US McMurdo Station I had an opportunity to visit Ernest Shackleton’s ‘heroic era’ hut at Cape Royds.

For a polar historian, it was an evening that made the delay seem worthwhile.

I was in Antarctica working with the soils team of the McMurdo Dry Valleys Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) site.  We were visiting sites of former scientific field camps in this predominantly ice-free region of Antarctica to collect soil samples to see if we could detect any continuing environmental legacy of human presence, thirty or forty years after the structures were removed (the initial results suggests that we can).  It was a very productive and enjoyable season until bad weather and mechanical problems with the plane delayed my flight north to Christchurch in New Zealand for almost a week.

On what turned out to be my last evening in Antarctica, some colleagues from the McMurdo Dry Valleys LTER were flying by helicopter to Cape Royds on Ross Island to take samples of the soils and ponds around the site of the hut of Ernest Shackleton’s British Antarctic Expedition of 1907-1909.  Knowing that I had done the training to be a ‘hut guide’ for entering the three historic huts in and around McMurdo Station (Captain Scott’s huts from the Discovery and Terra Nova expeditions, and Shackleton’s hut at Cape Royds from the Nimrod expedition) they invited me along so that they could see inside.

Adrian Howkins poses in an Antarctic hut

Not as fun as it looks, or so Adrian claims.

I’d visited Shackleton’s hut a couple of times before on previous trips to Antarctica.  But the experience of stepping back in history as you enter the hut never gets old.

The Cape Royds structure feels light and airy, especially in comparison to Captain Scott’s two huts.  The different designs of these early twentieth century huts have been used to highlight the different leadership styles of these two famous Antarctic explorers, with Scott’s naval discipline reflected in the compartmentalised design of the Terra Nova hut at Cape Evans and Shackleton’s more egalitarian leadership style reflected in the more open plan layout at Cape Royds.

Such comparisons are not entirely fair, since Shackleton’s hut would have seemed a lot less light and airy when it was crowded with men in the middle of the darkness of the Antarctic winter.  But the architectural choices made by the two explorers can still tell us something about their differing approaches to Antarctic exploration.

Photo of shelves in Shackleton's hut, stacked with tins and provisions

Corned beef and lemons: a balanced diet

The Royds hut is full of the material culture of early twentieth century exploration, which has been painstakingly restored by the New Zealand Antarctic Heritage Trust.  Tins of corned beef, canned fish, and ‘Irish Brawn’ give us clues about their diet.  A jar of decayed pickled lemons demonstrates an awareness of the dangers of scurvy, which had blighted Shackleton’s first trip to Antarctica on Scott’s Discovery expedition.  Copious quantities of table salt hints at the need to preserve and eat penguin and seal meat as a supplement to the diet of canned food.

Less obvious as a historical source are the ice-covered ponds located near Shackleton’s hut. The biologist on the expedition, James Murray, collected samples of algal mats, which he deposited with the British Museum of Natural History on return from Antarctica.  The microscopic diatoms contained in these samples can be used to compare the Antarctic environment in the early twentieth century with the Antarctic environment today.  Most of the diatom populations in the ponds remain largely unchanged.  The only pond where there has been a major shift in diatom taxa is Pony Lake, immediately in front of the hut.  We initially thought that this might have been caused by the presence of humans at Cape Royds, but it appears that the change is more likely the result of fluctuations in the local penguin population.

close up of sampling from the algal mat in the pond at Cape Royds

Penguins did this?

As I flew back to McMurdo Station from visiting Cape Royds I reflected on the feeling of being delayed in Antarctica.

Home feels a lot further away when your efforts to get back are being frustrated, even just for a few days.  On Shackleton’s third expedition to Antarctica on board the Endurance, his ship sank and his men ended up spending four and a half months stranded on Elephant Island with only a small chance of rescue.

In the event all members of this expedition were saved, and Shackleton gained a reputation as the Antarctic explorer who ‘never lost a man’.  Getting back to Bristol a few days late pales in comparison to the experience of these early explorers, but it still offers a timely reminder of the power of the Antarctic environment to frustrate the best laid plans.

Featured Historian: Will Pooley

Will Pooley is Lecturer in Modern European History. His research explores popular cultures, folklore, and witchcraft in modern France. He is particularly interested in creative historical practices, such as history through games, theatre, poetry, art, and creative writing. 

What’s your new book Body and Tradition in Nineteenth-century France about?

The book is about trying to understand what it felt like to be an ordinary agricultural worker or artisan in nineteenth-century France. What were the bodily experiences, and how did ordinary people use their own bodies?

Headshot of Will PooleyTo answer those questions, I used this huge ethnographic archive collected by the folklorist Félix Arnaudin in a small area around his hometown, between about 1870 and 1914.

Arnaudin’s an interesting man in some ways, but what really interested me was the people he collected folklore from and photographed. I wanted to understand their stories, songs, and proverbs. So, I use the tools of comparative folklore to explore they talked about sex, work, and body parts.

What do werewolf stories, for instance, tell historians about how the rural population thought about identity and transgression? How does analyzing dialect speech help us to understand a bodily culture that was quite different from our own?

How did you become interested in Arnaudin and French folklore more generally?

I owe the interest in folklore to David Hopkin, who first suggested folklore as a research topic to me when I was a master’s student. I did a master’s thesis on one storyteller and singer from the Massif Central, an illiterate woman named Nannette Lévesque.

Book cover: Body and TraditionFor my PhD, I wanted to do something much more ambitious. I was going to compare three folklorists from southwestern France – Arnaudin, along with Jean-François Bladé, and an interesting folklorist named Antonin Perbosc, who had very unconventional politics, and collected a lot of obscene folklore. But when I was about 14 months into the PhD, I knew I would only have time to do Arnaudin’s work justice… so that’s how I ended up with the subject of this book.

What is the importance of this research today?

Everyone has a body: it’s the definition of being human. And one of the things about embodiment is that our own experience and expectations of the body can seem deeply ‘natural’ to us. The ways we use and talk about our bodies become automatic, invisible.

I’ve always thought that one of the things history can do is to challenge that seeming naturalness. Even our very recent ancestors felt differently in their skin. They described and understood their bodies differently. They had different expectations and fears of their flesh.

How different I am from a shepherd born in 1815 might not seem a burning issue, but I think that part of the value that history has for the wider society is that it highlights some of these differences, and makes them visible. It’s a reminder that what we experience as ‘normal’ for our bodies now is not necessarily what other people around us are experiencing. And that’s a message that some people need to hear more than others, because their unspoken assumptions are normalized and taken for granted in all sorts of ways in everyday life.

If bodies were different in the past, they can also be different now, and they will be different in the future. That’s the message I have always taken from work by scholars like Barbara Duden, Lyndal Roper, Annmarie Mol, and even Michel Foucault. 

What advice would you give to a student interested in the history of the body?

There’s so much exciting work being done in the intersecting fields concerned with bodies in the past. I was always fascinated by the new work on anthropometrics, for instance, even though I never did any of that kind of research. Anthropometricians like Deb Oxley and Jane Humphries have used historical and archaeological records of body sizes and weights to investigate questions such as the effect that the Industrial Revolution had on the health of workers, or the ways that families divided limited resources when they did not have enough to eat…

But my advice for someone interested in the history of the body would be two things. First, get to grips with the philosophical and theoretical work on the body. When I started this project ten years ago, I found Lisa Blackman’s short introduction The Body pointed me in the direction of lots of useful things.

The other thing I think I would advise anyone who wants to be a historian of the body is to use practice as research. Cooking historical recipes, trying historical clothing, even imitating movements, gestures, and work can be a really important way of grappling with the difference of the past.

What’s the best advice you ever got about history?

‘You’ve got enough.’

I have a running conversation with one of my colleagues at Bristol, Julio Decker, about not overdoing research. I’ve been working on a database of material collected from historical newspapers for the last six years, and I have too much material. But [in the time before COVID19] every few days, I [would] say to Julio, ‘I really want to go and visit this archive to find a few more cases’, or ‘I just need to spend a few hours nailing some of these details down in some online newspaper records’.

And Julio says to me, ‘Stop it. You’ve got enough.’

That’s great advice. There’s such a temptation to just keep collecting and hoarding material.

What’s the most interesting thing you’ve read in the last twelve months?

I really loved David Shields’ Reality Hunger, which was a present from a colleague, the playwright Poppy Corbett, who has been working with me on my latest project.

It’s a provocative book made up of lots of little short sections, organized into broadly thematic chapters. There are no quotation marks or footnotes, but the afterword explains that some of the material is actually taken from other writers. The book is about this hunger for reality that has dominated lots of cultural forms for the last generation or so – from memoir, to documentary, reality TV, and hip-hop.

I think it has a lot to say to historians about history as part of the same cultural impulse, a desire to ‘tell it like it really is’ but to do so in a way that is artful and compelling.

If you had a time machine, where and when would you most want to go?

This is a tough one! I don’t think I would really much enjoy visiting many of the people I research. I’m not sure we would even be able to understand one another: I taught myself to read the Gascon dialect Arnaudin recorded folklore in, but I can’t speak it!

I’d be quite interested to attend a nineteenth-century criminal trial in France, though. I’m working on criminal trials at the moment, and sometimes the newspaper reports give vivid impressions of courtroom dramas. Sometimes you want to know more. It would be fascinating – as well as probably quite distressing – to sit in on one of those cases, and see how they played out.

What’s your must-do Bristol experience/activity?

Chilli Daddy’s is a Szechuan restaurant with a few branches, and a stall at St Nicholas’ Market.

If you haven’t tried it, you should definitely have the soup noodle first. They offer it in a spice rating of 1-5. I’ve never tried higher than 3!

What are you working on next?

The newspaper database and court cases are research from my current project on crimes of witchcraft in France from 1790-1940. It’s a big topic, and I’m halfway through an Arts and Humanities Research Council grant to work on ‘creative histories’ based on this material. You can read some of the things we’ve been up to here: https://creativewitchcraft.wordpress.com

Featured Historian: Victoria Bates

Dr. Victoria Bates is Senior Lecturer in Modern History, with research interests in the modern social history of medicine and the medical humanities.

A picture of Dr. Victoria BatesHi Victoria, could you start by telling us about  your new research project?

I have just started a UKRI Future Leaders Fellowship called ‘Sensing Spaces of Healthcare: Rethinking the NHS Hospital’. The project rethinks healthcare environments through the body and the senses, focusing on how places have felt rather than how they have looked. The historical part of the project will consider how NHS hospital sensory environments (or ‘sensescapes’) and the perception thereof changed as a result of new design trends, architecture, materials, technologies, nature and human behaviours. This history is just one part of the research, though, which is a complex 4-7 year project with many components. As well as the historical and archival research, there is a strand of the project (led by the project RA – Rebecka Fleetwood-Smith) working on site in hospitals (Great Ormond Street Hospital in London and Southmead Hospital in Bristol). This part of the project will use participatory arts to understand and improve people’s sensory experience of hospital spaces.

How did you become interested in this area of research?

I actually get this question quite a lot because my PhD was on a quite different area of medical history (sexual forensics in Victorian Britain). The project has long roots, so I will try to keep the answer short but with apologies it is difficult to do so!

During my PhD I was co-lead on two projects together broadly called ‘Medicine, Health and the Arts in Post-War Britain’ that included a conference, exhibition, workshop series and edited collection. My interest in this area of research at first related to the roots of the ‘medical humanities’, as a named field of academic enquiry, and its relationship to the history of arts and health. I also became interested in the development of different professional areas (art therapy, hospital arts and the arts in medical education) and their use of similar language (the idea of ‘rehumanising’ medicine through the arts).

I was inspired to conduct further research: why was there a perceived need to ‘rehumanise’ medicine in the post-war period, and why was there a turn to the arts, as a tool to do so? In 2013 I received a small grant from the Wellcome Trust to conduct a small study of late twentieth-century multidisciplinary medical education in the UK. In 2014 I was awarded scoping funding from the Elizabeth Blackwell Institute to look at archives in the UK and USA relating to all three areas (art therapy; arts in medical education; art in hospitals). Of these topics, I found myself most drawn to the history of hospital arts; this subject opened up interesting questions about the relationship between arts, design, space and architecture.

I soon became immersed in spatial theory, new materialism, and sensory studies as well as in histories of art, architecture, and design. I found myself moving away from a human-centred approach to design and perception, and thinking more about space as dynamic and as co-produced between the different objects and people in it. Art is just one of these objects, so I moved my focus to the sensory as a better way to think about space and the ways in which it is made through interactions between people and environments. I was fortunate to receive University of Bristol Strategic Research Funding to develop this work (2017) and to spend a month as a visiting scholar at the Centre for Sensory Studies at Concordia University in Montreal (2019).

Alongside this research I engaged in a couple of projects working with artists, designers, smell technicians and others. One of the projects involved designing a sensory prototype called InTouch and the other was about the non-visual aspects of nature and wellbeing, for which we created an ‘immersive experience’. These projects also got me thinking a lot more about the impact of my work and collaboration with non-academic partners, and is why my new project has a large design and prototyping element. Overall, I am always trying to push myself out of my comfort zone!

What is the importance of this research today?

Design is a pressing issue in healthcare. Poor hospital design impacts staff, patients and visitors, and critiques of hospitals are increasingly widespread. The project’s findings will feed into a rethinking of current and future hospital design, including the development of design interventions for healthcare environments.

The historical research can help us to rethink the root causes of perceived sensory problems. For example, my work so far on the history of hospital ‘noise’ has shown that it has long been defined in social terms rather than in terms of volume. Perceptions of noise have changed over time in line with societal change, ranging from attitudes to race or gender to ideas about privacy. Understanding the societal aspects of such change can help us to think more creatively about solutions to noise as more than an engineering problem.

The part of the project working with GOSH Arts and Fresh Arts at Southmead will pinpoint sensory challenges for specific types of hospital user/worker or hospital spaces, which might range from sensory under-stimulation to sensory overload. In turn, these challenges will form the basis for sensory design solutions through a prototyping and development process in collaboration with artists, designers, charities and NHS Trusts. These outputs will be produced with and of value to all those who use hospitals, from patients to professionals. We are also working with Architects for Health to develop a hospital building note around sensory design. Overall, the project offers a novel approach to the history of healthcare spaces that helps us to rethink hospital histories and their relevance to current-day design.

What advice would you give to a student interested in this area of research?

Talk to me! I would love to work with more PhD students or postdoctoral researchers interested in this area of research. I would be particularly keen to see some comparative or international work in this area.

What’s the most interesting thing you’ve read in the last twelve months?

I took Sinéad Gleeson’s Constellations away for a weekend to read for leisure, but it turned out to be extremely relevant to my research. It has a section that captures her sensory experience of hospitals, and which addresses this subject explicitly in a way that I have never seen before. For example, she describes noticing the sound of air conditioning after weeks in hospital; the sound becomes extremely aggravating to her, but nobody else can hear it. I found it not only a really engaging book, but also a useful reminder that we need to think about the sensory environment of hospital as dynamic, and as different for every person in them (or even for the same person, on a different day).

If you had a time machine, where and when would you most want to go?

I have never come up with a good answer to this question – how could you possibly choose from all of time and place? My possible answers have ranged from an iconic music concert to solving some great historical mystery or crime or visiting an extinct species. I know that I should pick something related to my research, but I do not think it would be a historic hospital if I wanted to return with my health intact… 

What’s your must-do Bristol restaurant?

I love Korean food, so Sky Kong Kong is my classic Bristol ‘go to’ when people come to visit – it is small and serves really interesting food, with a personal touch, as well as being very good value.

What are you working on next?

This UKRI project is going to take up most of my time for the next few years, so first job is to organise a launch event for it. I’m also co-leading a couple of really interesting, interdisciplinary networks funded by the Wellcome Trust: one on the senses and health/care environments and one on the intersections between medical and environmental humanities. We have lots of workshops, writing retreats and conferences coming up for those over the next two years and I will be really excited to see what comes out of our collaborations. Watch this space on both!

Featured Historian: Grace Huxford

Dr Grace Huxford is Senior Lecturer in Modern History. She is a social historian of modern Britain, specializing in the Cold War period and with particular interest in the aftermath of the Second World War and the Korean War. She is an oral historian and currently conducting an oral history of British military communities in Germany (1945-2000). She was recently interviewed on BBC Radio 3 about the project as part of a special programme on post-war Germany, coinciding with the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall – you can listen to the interview here.

Grace Huxford

Hi Grace, can you start by telling us what you are working on at the moment? What’s the British Bases in Germany project about?

Between 1945 and 2019, Germany was home to many thousands of British service personnel and their families. Initially sent there as a post-war occupation force, the British military quickly became part of the frontline against a possible Soviet invasion. These bases form an important element of Britain’s post-1945 military history, but they were also unique and complex social communities. My project explores the experiences of those who lived and worked on the bases – not just service personnel, but their partners and families, as well as the wide range of support workers, professionals and volunteers who ended up there. My postdoctoral research assistant, Dr Joel Morley, and I interview people as part of this research – we’ve spoken to over 60 people so far with a range of experiences and memories. These interviews will form the foundation of our research and future publications.

How did you become interested in this area?

I’ve long had an interest in social history of the Cold War and my PhD and postdoctoral research examined the varying responses to the Korean War (1950-3) in Britain, which resulted in my book The Korean War in Britain: Citizenship, Selfhood and Forgetting (2018). The Cold War is such a long conflict, much of it about watching and waiting – no more so than in west Germany, where British and NATO forces trained for an invasion that never came. I was interested in how that situation affected people, from service personnel to their families and civilians on the bases.  I also came across many references to Germany in the material I looked at for my book on Korea: though no units were directly posted from Germany to Korea, I got the sense of how important Germany was for the British military. It was at the centre of a constellation of bases across world that had developed as part of imperial strategy and during the Second World War. Another aim of my research is to examine what living in Germany meant for people other than service personnel too. This is an important area of what is sometimes called Critical Military Studies – acknowledging that the military’s influence stretches far further than the lives of fighting troops alone.

What is the importance of the British bases project today?

Apart from a few remaining units and offices, British Forces in Germany closed its last bases in 2019. It’s therefore a really important moment to analyze their historical significance, as well as the impact Germany had on the British military and understandings of military life. One of the most fascinating aspects (and challenges) of using oral history as a method is that the present context shapes the interview too – so our project explores how people viewed British communities in Germany after the end of the Cold War and closing of the bases as well.

What advice would you give to a student interested in oral history?

Oral history has both practical and theoretical elements – you need to think about both when planning and analyzing interviews. There’s a great deal of helpful advice out there already on oral history: the Oral History Society (UK) has some great advice pages about getting started with oral history interviewing and important ethical and legal issues, like obtaining full consent and thinking about how you will store your eventual interviews. I also really like the Oral History Review’s blog, which has some great articles from oral historians reflected on all sorts of topics like recording equipment and personal dynamics, to suggestions of reading.

I’d also encourage students to think about the time available to them (and to their narrators) and to remember that quantity does not necessarily mean quality. Taking the time to interview one person, to really listen to what they have to say and to analyze their testimony with care can be just as rewarding (both personally and intellectually) as doing a huge number of interviews. Alistair Thomson, for instance, has reflected extensively on his interviews with one First World War veteran, Fred Farrall – to great effect.

What’s the most interesting thing you’ve read in the last twelve months?

On the recommendation of a colleague, I read Elif Batuman’s 2017 novel The Idiot. It’s a semi-autobiographical story of a woman’s first year at university – some very funny and moving parts, but also some interesting reflections on what language means and its limitations. Plus, I fully empathized with the line: ‘what was Cinderella, if not an allegory for the fundamental unhappiness of shoe shopping?’ I hate shoe shopping.

What’s the best advice you ever got about history?

It will still be there in the morning.

 Which historical figures would you invite to a fantasy dinner party?

Tough question. I’d probably invite some of the people I came across in my book on the Korean War, particularly some of the British anti-war activists. The Chair of the Stevenage New Town Development Corporation, Dr Monica Felton, was sacked for visiting North Korea during the war, but she always claimed she ‘did it for Stevenage’. I suppose I’d like to ask more about that. I’d also invite some of her critics too though, for balance, including someone called Christine Knowles who worked with the families of British prisoners of war. It would certainly be an interesting evening!

What’s your must-do Bristol experience/activity?

I love the walk along the Avon Gorge to Pill. It’s about 7 miles from the university, across the Suspension Bridge and takes just over two hours. Pack your sandwiches and enjoy the views. Then pop into a pub at the end and get the X4 bus home. And if you’re feeling adventurous you can do the full 23 miles of the Avon path! http://www.riveravontrail.org.uk/

Cycle path - Pill to Bristol © Linda Bailey cc-by-sa/2.0 ...

What are you working on next?

I’m going to be writing up my findings from the British Bases in Germany project – a few articles and a book. I’m also writing/thinking more about the history of military childhood. I’d also like to research more about where I live in Bristol, so need to plan a trip down to Bristol Archives!

 

Forest 404: A Chilling Vision of a Future Without Nature

by Professor Peter Coates , Professor of American and Environmental History, University of Bristol

Binge-watching of boxsets on BBC iPlayer or Netflix is a growing habit. And binge-listening isn’t far behind. Podcast series downloadable through BBC Sounds are all the rage (with a little help from Peter Crouch). Enter Radio 4’s ‘Forest 404’ – hot off the press as a 27-piece boxset on the fourth day of the fourth month. This is something I’ve been involved in recently: an experimental BBC sci-fi podcast that’s a brand-new listening experience because of its three-tiered structure of drama, factual talk and accompanying soundscape (9 x 3 = 27).

Try to imagine a world in which not only forests but every last trace of the natural world as we know it has been erased (almost……). This eco-thriller by Timothy X. Atack (credits include ‘Dr Who’) is set in the 24th century following a data crash called The Cataclysm (404 is also the error message you get when a website is unavailable). The action follows lead protagonist Pan (University of Bristol Drama alumna and ‘Doctor Who’ star Pearl Mackie), a sound archivist who uncovers some recordings from the early 21st century that grab and intoxicate her.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve been working on a project with the world-famous, Bristol-based BBC Natural History Unit (funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council), exploring wildlife filmmaking over the past quarter-century. We wanted to include and support a creative dimension going far beyond the project’s more strictly academic and historical elements. Something poetic and performative that could take the study of nature at the BBC into new territory, and away from the visual. But the core theme remains the same: the value of the natural world and its representation in cultural form. This haunting drama focuses on that cultural value very closely by exploring an alien and alienating future world without nature – a world where the only memory of its former existence is preserved in Pan’s sound archive.

This is a deeply historical approach that re-unites me with a piece of research I published some time ago on what I called the strange stillness of the past – how sounds, both human and non-human generated, were overlooked by most historians. Me and my partners at the BBC and Arts and Humanities Research Council see ‘Forest 404’ as part of an emerging research area known as the environmental humanities. The starting point of ‘enviro-hums’ is the conviction that a scientific perspective, no matter how important, cannot do full justice to our complex and many layered relationships with nature.

The humanities and arts also have a big contribution to make, especially in helping us to appreciate the value of what ecosystem services researchers call cultural services. This refers to the so-called non-material benefits we derive from the natural world – its aesthetic value (beauty), how it inspires imaginative literature, painting and music, its spiritual significance, and its role in forming cultural identities and giving us a sense of place. ‘Forest 404’ confronts us with the brutal possibility of a world not just without forests and trees but even lacking a conception of nature. And it makes us think about how that absence impoverishes us culturally as well as the more obvious ecological dangers we face.

Accompanying the podcast is an ambitious online survey devised by environmental psychologists at the University of Exeter and operated by The Open University. Data on how we respond to nature has previously concentrated on the visual. This focus on natural soundscapes will add a fresh dimension to what we already know about how contact with nature benefits our physical and mental wellbeing. So give the podcast a listen. Then please do the survey. It takes less than 10 minutes.

 

‘An Arena of Glorious Work’

UOB PhD student Gary Willis writes for us, below, on the Council for the Preservation of Rural England. Gary wrote his Masters dissertation on the role of British conservation organisations during the Second World War, and this forms the basis of an article about the role of CPRE during the war which is now published in the October 2018 issue of the Rural History journal.  He is currently undertaking a PhD on the impact on the rural landscape of Britain’s expanded war industry in the Department of History (Historical Studies) at Bristol, supervised by Professor Peter Coates.

_______________________________________

‘An Arena of Glorious Work’ . Such was described the Council for the Preservation of Rural England’s work during the Second World War, trying to protect the nation’s rural landscape against the consequences of its own war effort.  The quote comes from Professor Patrick Abercrombie, Executive Committee member of the CPRE, National Trust and sometime consultant to the Air Ministry, whose unpublished account of his activities during the Second World War is preserved in the University of Liverpool’s Special Collections.  That and the (now) Campaign for the Protection of Rural England’s archives at its South London HQ and at the Museum of English Rural Life, University of Reading, enable an expanded understanding of ‘Home Front’ activities during the Second World War.

The CPRE archives show an increasing pre-occupation with concerns over demands for land from late 1935 onwards, particularly by the Air Ministry for airfields, the Ministry of Aircraft Production for aircraft factories, the army for training camps, and the Ministry of Supply for munitions factories.  With no significant protective legislation in existence until 1947’s Town and Country Planning Act over the use to which land could be put, there was in effect a War Department land-grab free-for-all in 1936 and 1937, with CPRE performing a reactive, rear guard action to stop swathes of countryside from being requisitioned by the military at a time when war was by no means assured.

A flying boat factory at Calgarth on the shores of Lake Windermere during the Second World War; CPRE fought unsuccessfully to stop the factory being built, but extracted a promise that the factory would be dismantled at the end of the war. It was. (photo courtesy of Allan King, photographer Derek Hurst).

Whilst CPRE was supportive of Britain’s war effort once war was declared, it nevertheless sought throughout the war to remain an effective advocate for the preservation of the rural landscape – a landscape which whilst regularly being evoked by State propaganda to stimulate the population’s support for the war effort, was subject to alteration and degradation by that very same effort.  With normal public means of securing influence such as parliamentary debate and the press severely limited by war regulations, CPRE’s response was a generally private campaign by letter, phone calls and meetings, central to which was support from its political allies in government and tip-offs from sympathetic civil servants.  CPRE’s policy and priorities during the war years was a mix of opposition to some war-effort related proposals for rural land use, acquiescence to others, such as open-cast mining and the felling of mature woodlands, and persistent efforts to seek to ensure that requisitioned land was returned to its pre-war use once the war was over.

Central to CPRE’s capacity to influence was a consultative mechanism created by Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain in 1938, following sustained lobbying by CPRE.  It established the organisation as a stakeholder that Government ministries were required to consult with over their proposed use of land in rural areas for airfields, training camps, war industry, and other purposes.  This directive was never revoked by the Coalition Government, but perhaps inevitably became less influential as the war wore on.  Nevertheless CPRE’s stake was still high at war’s end, as in November 1946 the organisation was invited to arrange for the coordination and presentation to the Inter-Departmental Committee on Service Land Requirements all of the evidence which voluntary organisations throughout the country might wish to give regarding the effects of the Services’ post-war land proposals from the point of view of amenity, archaeology, natural history and other scientific interests.   This led to CPRE having under review hundreds of cases across England and Wales, using confidential material supplied by the Defence Departments.

The CPRE poacher had at least momentarily turned gamekeeper.  CPRE found itself, albeit temporarily, an agent of the State, tasked with dealing with multiple voluntary organisation interests and agendas, some more capable of objectivity than others, rather like the different shades of opinion within the broad church CPRE federation itself.  CPRE complained, on behalf of and in defence of the War Office, and without a hint of irony, that there had been frequent unjustified complaints about the Services’ proposals being suddenly announced and precipitately decided.  It was all rather reminiscent of the 1936 to 1937 period, when CPRE had been making those very same criticisms of the Defence Departments.  Except that in between CPRE had been engaged in ‘an arena of glorious work’.

 

Twitter: GaryW_Env_Hist

Email: gw17409@bristol.ac.uk