Last month I went to a three-day conference organised by the University of Bristol, on “Creative Histories”. I signed up basically as soon as registrations were open, and it was exciting to go hang out with people for three days and talk about history-stories.
Sometimes public history can feel like a corrective, like: here is a thing people commonly think, but actually, here is how that is WRONG WRONG WRONG! Often that corrective is needed – like evidence for ethnic diversity in Roman Britain, or of 17th-century women knowing what swears were – but it’s also the sad thing that happens when a tour guide tells a lively story and adds, “of course, the real history is a little bit different [more dull].” There’s the fun history which is light and un-rigorous, and then there’s the proper factual history which is a super buzzkill, and they are different and you can’t be both.
What was pleasing about the Creative History conference is that it is about, as it says, creating – understanding and communicating history by generating something. Presenters and attendees were novelists, artists, a theatre group, a storyteller-dramaturg (I know!), and even the people who have ‘traditional’ historian jobs were doing creative work: making films, commissioning theatre, making comics as part of their PhDs on history-in-comics (I know!). Making something is more fun than cutting off or corralling something, and people who make things are generally pretty great people to spend time with.
It was also at a zoo, and the food was good. As you’ve picked up it was a very enjoyable three days, and these are jumping out as my favourite sessions:
“Loyalty and Dissent: South Asia in the First World War” (Iqbal Husain)
This was the first session on Wednesday, and it totally spoiled us for the rest. First, there was a quiz, which are great because you get to win by showing off what you know. Second, the project Husain was presenting on sounds amazing.
Husain is outreach and learning officer at the National Archives, and for a First World War centenary project, he and a colleague researched South Asians and the British Empire during that war. Then he got permission to ring up a couple theatremakers he knew, and commission plays based on what the researchers had found in the archives. These included: correspondence about where to put a cemetery for South Asian Muslim soldiers near a mosque near Woking; government reports on Indian nationalist (“separatist”) groups in America; South Asian soldiers’ reports on battles; and a few mentions of Madame Cama, introduced in a report from Paris as “a female dissident”, “very dangerous”. (Everyone’s ears perked up at that, I think.)
The playwrights had help from the archivists in interpreting the materials, and some of the theatremakers came to the archives to rehearse. One of the plays was staged recently at the Rich Mix, and I think the others are being professionally produced as podcasts? It sounds like a dream from all possible angles: the archivist ringing up a theatre troupe to make stories about history, the actors getting into their characters among pieces of paper they actually produced, the playwrights getting the commission and consultation to expand on history.
National Archives blog on the project: Loyalty and dissent in the First World War
“Catching Them Young: Historical Fiction for Children and Young Adults” (Kylie Flack on the Australian frontier in children’s books; Lydia Syson on YA fiction about the Spanish Civil War)
History is all of life, but in the past, so it includes stories that by whatever definition are “not child appropriate”. But this panel looked at how young readers still deserve the same amount of research, thought and complexity in their stories as adults do. It helps train them as future thinkers, and the history we take in when we’re young is where we form our sense of “who we are” (for example, why history textbooks are such a political battleground).
Syson talked about how there isn’t popular left-wing history in children’s stories in Britain today: “communism is equated with fascism” because of the political interests of the history-holders during the Cold War, when Communist Russia was the great enemy and we were less bothered about fascism. She tried to write an “honest” story for young adults about 1930s communism in England and Spain: both anti-fascist/anti-racist organising and trying to make a more equal world, and moving towards censorship and totalitarianism. (With a love triangle. “Twilight was everywhere!”)
I’m not sure whether this was intentional in the panel composition, but as well as the main discussion about how to give children the tools for a full and complex understanding of history, the point came up that both Australian Aborigine children and Spanish Republican children were also literally stolen from their parents and communities, as part of the oppressor culture (British imperialists, Franco)’s attempt to stop their parents’ histories from surviving. “The way you destroy and interrupt history is to take the children away.”
There was also an excellent very brief side conversation about “why fiction?”, where someone (sorry) brought up Ruth Levitas on utopian theory, which I hadn’t heard of before. The idea is that you immerse yourself in another reality, and when you emerge you see the world in a different way. We didn’t get much more into it, but it made me think about how theatre is also a created-space that you enter for a time, and then leave (hopefully) changed. I hadn’t put novel-reading and theatre-watching together in that way before.
Lydia Syson’s website: http://www.lydiasyson.com/
Kylie Flack’s Twitter: https://twitter.com/kflack0flack
“Learning from Writers” (Laura Tisdall)
A simple observation carried to an obvious-when-you-think-about-it conclusion that is nevertheless surprising when it comes: “academic writing” is “work” and requires “time” to “do it”.
I think more than most other kinds of writing, writing by academics is seen as something that just sort of happens around teaching and research. A few years ago Tisdall and her colleague Alice Kelly started a planned, scheduled writing group for academics at their university, and shared the structure at this session. Which is:
9:30-9:45: Set and share goals. The goals must be specific (“write 300 words”, “rework that annoying paragraph on page three”,), communicable (you share your goals with your neighbour, because speaking something makes it real) and realistic (not “catch up on my thesis by 4,500 words!!!”).
9:45 to 11:00: Write.
11:00 to 11:15: Break.
11:15 to 12:30: Write.
I tried this by myself a few days later and totally smashed my word goal: for me the most useful part was allowing explicit recognition of how difficult it can be to “do the writing” even of something you already “know” – that writing up work isn’t something that magically happens around everything else in your life. (Ha ha ha.)
Times Higher Education article about the group by Dr. Alice Kelly: How to make writing in the humanities less lonely
Creative writing morning
At 9am on the last day, we sat around round tables, looking at historical photos of Bristol Zoo and making up poems and stories about the animals and people in them. I ended up with a radical animals rights activist/international otter smuggler, who had an on-again-off-again with the policeman trying to track her down. Sometimes I stop myself from going places in my own head – pre-emptively telling myself, “oh no that will never work” – and it was lovely to be in a space where we had collectively given ourselves permission to be silly. Even if you don’t end up using anything from it, it’s good stretching.
“Blogging the Many-Headed Monster” (Laura Sangha)
Reflections on five years of academic blogging from one of the people behind The Many-Headed Monster, a multi-author history blog. What mostly struck me about Sangha’s observations is how much blogging-in-general has moved on in just five years. The Many-Headed Monster has a free WordPress.com site (related: is it just me or don’t WordPress.com blogs feel so much more authentic and serious? like the typewriters and film cameras of internet writing?) and the authors can see who’s “following” them – Sangha talked about the different kinds of people who have subscribed to their blog to illustrate the reach to non-academics. I feel like I have no idea who reads this (except for my mom – hi Mom!), and the idea of a “network” of bloggers feels so archaic – which is a loss. (Yes, I miss Livejournal.)
This may just be because there are many more people out there writing their own thing, and the internet being more diffuse. But the idea of the “blogosphere” as a conversation that you could enter and mostly keep up with, instead of a firehose of #daily #content, is appealing. It isn’t easy to find new sensible people to talk to.
“Mapping LGBT+ Bristol” (Andrew Foyle, Nate Eisenstadt)
A project by OutStories Bristol (with Bristol City Council, Freedom Youth and the University of Bristol), mapping Bristol’s LGBT+ spaces for the city’s Know Your Place project/app(!). The app looks very cool, and the historians/activists talked about how it was important to have their history to be part of the “main” public history project, not to the side: “and over here, separately, the gay people” (said ironically, for avoidance of doubt!).
They also talked about the difficulty of “tracking” LGBT+ history when it wasn’t perceived and recorded in that way until recently, and the unpleasantness as an LGBT+ researcher of doing most of your digging through records produced by a hostile state: joking that “hooray! I found an execution!”
“Choose your own adventure: interactive history inspired by video games, board games, and serialised children’s books from the 1980s” (Julia Laite):
Over the conference, something that came up several times was how to teach history as a space in which a lot of different things really could have happened, not an inexorable linear march of events. Laite talked about choose-your-own-adventure books as a model for understanding the possibilities of history. Not “alternate” history – history that didn’t happen – but “may-have” history – the many things that could have happened in the spaces between what we do know about the past. And the idea of teaching history by “playing” it as D&D: with students as players and the educator as the dungeonmaster. On a “campaign”, students could explore history in a directed way: asking questions and discovering possibilities, within the parameters set and guided by the educator.
Julia Laite’s Twitter: https://twitter.com/julialaite
Towards the end I started to get word-overloaded and needed to sit by myself at a table. At these times the flamingo honkings that were audible throughout the venue became very helpful and soothing. Bristol is great, and I’d like to go back sometime that wasn’t graduation week, ie with all the pubs filled with 20-year-olds in silly headgear doing the British equivalent of keg stands. Of course I’m very excited and proud for them, and it did give the old seafaring coves-and-spyglasses timber-framed town a “lively ambience”. It was also just the right amount of rainy (drippy, cobblestones attractively glistening).
Probably the best part of the whole conference was a conversation I had with Leanne on the terrace, which started about various versions of Anne Boleyn’s execution and then executions in historical fiction in general (she’s teaching A Place of Greater Safety this fall), and ended up at how nice it is to come back to academia after doing something else. Academia is very good at making you feel like it’s the only valid way to succeed, and at making you feel bad about yourself for “failing” and “having to leave”. What is extremely helpful is being able to say, “actually I have done other things and been pretty good at them, so my entire self-worth is not dependent on the whim of about <5 people, some of whom may be really mean”. For Leanne and I this came from working in jobs outside academia, but I think creative work in general helps: anything that you create with love that doesn’t have a peer review panel looking crossly over your shoulder at it.
At the closing roundtable, one of the student volunteers from the history department said he wished he could do a joint degree of History and Drama, broadly “working on stories”. This sounds brilliant and I hope it’s picked up (everyone I met from the University of Bristol seemed quite sensible and clued-up, so I hope it will be). I expect most history enthusiasts got into it because of stories, but when we “grow up” and become “real historians” we are supposed to stop being excited about stories, like narratives and fun are things that happen totally separately from our work. This is stupid. It’s not morally better to be boring.