Saturday, 25 October 2014

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Since I came into existence ...

My grandfather always used to say "it's not history if you can remember it".  I was never quite sure what he meant but having turned 44 in the last 24 hours I got thinking about what has happened during my life time.  Some of those events may well have been studied by considerably younger colleagues which is a terrifying thought in its own right.  With that in mind I thought I would catalogue some of the stuff that has happened during my life time so far.

On the day I was born the Vietnam War, "the Troubles" in Northern Ireland, The Black September civil war in Jordan and the Dhofar Rebellion were in full flow.  In fact during my lifetime there have been 191 armed conflicts involving at least one nation state.  The UK has been at war longer during my lifetime than the combined durations of the First and Second World Wars.  I was eleven during the Falklands War and I remember watching the evening "news" reports with my grandfather who would give a running commentary of the meta-text of the reporting.  I remember being at University for the first Gulf War in 1990; it was the only time I ever remember the news getting priority over sport on the common room TV.  When I think about it, conflict, whilst not having a direct impact on me, has been a persistent part of my life.

Politically my first conscious recollection of who was in charge was the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979.  She would dominate the British political scene for for over a decade and indeed her legacy can still be felt today.  I also remember watching the events of the Miner's Strike unfold in 1984 and 85, again, with the meta-commentary of my grandfather. He predicted with enormous clarity the demise of the trade union movement at that time.  He was always at pains to point out that I was watching history unfold.  This event both politicised my thinking and would be decisive in me choosing to do Politics as one of my A levels.

Intriguingly what I am doing right now was not possible for nearly half of my life.  When Tim Berners-Lee activated the first ever website at CERN (you can browse a simulation of it here on 6th August 1991, I was working as an au pair about 20 miles from his lab.  It was just before the start of my second year at University.  Oddly enough I remember the day very well, not for the nascent revolution in communications technology but rather because I had a date with a very intriguing Swiss girl by the name of Lysette which would ultimately turn out to be the worst date of my life.  That is a story for the pub post-New History Lab, however.  More interestingly from a historical point of view is that the industry I have worked in for most of my working life did not exist on that date and would not exist without that seminal moment.  As an industry IT has even managed to create a potential apocalypse.  I spent many months working on solutions to "the Millenium Bug" and indeed spent New Year's Eve of the millenium in a server room making sure the world didn't come to an end in a digital cataclysm.  You're welcome by the way.

To bring my aged ramblings to an end I want to share one last thing with you.  It is the shocking realisation that, over time, you yourself will become historically interesting if only because you were there when events occurred.  About a year ago I was having a conversation with Tom Hulme (of this very blog) and Simon Dixon in the Library.  We were discussing the research Tom had done into the use of old industrial buildings in Leicester for alternative uses over time.  As it turned out I used "go raving" in one of the very locations that Tom had been studying.  Before I knew it I was being quizzed on my experiences.  It felt rather similar to those interviews you see of war veterans describing their experiences of one conflict or another.  In essence, the things I used to do in my youth were no longer cutting edge but rather the subject of historical enquiry.  I can remember it though so it can't be history can it?

Oh ... I get it now ...

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

PhD Life: First Impressions

A new academic year, a new blog post.  I would like to welcome all new-comers to the lab and I hope those of you who are new to Leicester have now settled in.  It was great to see such a large turn-out at our first event of the term.  Like many of you, I have just begun a new phase in my academic career, as I officially commenced my PhD last Monday.  I am one of the very fortunate few to have secured funding, researching nineteenth-century science and print culture as part of the ConSciCom Project.  My first week was something I had anticipated for around five months, after my application for the studentship proved successful.  I have heard so much about the euphoric highs and abysmal lows of doctoral research from my friends in academia, but this was the point at which I began my own three year odyssey.  I would like to share with you my first impressions of life as a PhD student.

I completed both my BA and MA at Leicester, and spent seven months of my year out working in the university library, so my first week in many respects did not feel like a hugely different experience.  Although I'm incredibly happy to be here, I do sometimes wonder if I will ever leave.  In 500 years time, archaeologists will probably unearth my skeleton in a local car park, my spine crooked from far too many hours spent hunched in front of a computer.

As I sat down at my desk on Monday morning, there was the overwhelming sense of 'Where to start?'  I cannot emphasise the weirdness of beginning what is essentially a full-time job, yet the time being almost entirely your own, to do with as you please.  In the absence of any better ideas, I read a book (one relevant to my research, I should add).  In fact, I spent a large amount of my time during the week just sitting and reading.  I admit it doesn't make for the most exciting narrative, but I happen to enjoy it.  Occasionally, I went to the library to borrow some more books, then immediately regretted this decision when I came face to face with the Fresher hordes.  I would then retreat, feeling old and untrendy.

Wednesday was a big day, as it involved induction events for the School of English (for reasons I won't bore you with, and despite being a historian, I'm based in the English Department).  I attended the events relevant to new PhDs, including the inevitable round-table session in which each student introduces themselves and their research, much in the manner of an addiction support group: 'Hi, I'm Matthew Wale and I study nineteenth-century science periodicals'.  This was followed by a welcome reception, complete with free wine and food, which are obligatory wherever academics gather en masse.  As a new PhD student attending social events of this kind, you very quickly learn to condense the explanation of your research into as short a summary as possible.  Everybody you meet will at some point ask the question: 'So, what are you working on'.  No matter how passionate you are about your chosen subject, repeatedly explaining it over the course of a few days encourages you to be succinct, as you begin to tire of your own voice.  It is, however, always genuinely fascinating to hear about everyone else's research and a joy to meet so many people who are unapologetically enthusiastic about their particular fields of study.

I have been repeatedly informed by both fellow students and academics that a PhD is lonely endeavour.  My first week, by contrast, has been very sociable.  Long may this continue!  Despite this, I have come to the conclusion that regularly working from home is a dangerous thing.  I am currently living entirely alone for the first time in my life, which has both benefits and potential problems.  Whilst I am never disturbed by parents or housemates, there is always the risk that I could go an unhealthy length of time without any form of human interaction.  After some consideration, I came up with two possible solutions to this.  I could, like Tom Hanks' character in Cast Away, draw a face on a football and speak to it whenever I felt the need for conversation ('Wilson!').  Alternatively, I could try and get out the house more.  I have decided the latter option is probably the best and consequently I have resolved to spend more time working on campus (unfortunately, English research students don't get designated offices).  I hope this will give at least the illusion of a 9-5ish job and go some way to maintaining my grip on sanity (a tenuous thing amongst postgraduates).

Although I got a fair amount of reading done, I admit that very little actual primary research occurred in my first week.  I like to imagine this is fairly typical, but I have been seeking to remedy this in my second week.  I did, however, find time to join Twitter.  You can follow the continued adventures of a doctoral research student at, though I have yet to master the art of the Twitterati.

Good luck everyone, whatever it is you're working on.  I look forward to seeing you all at future labs.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

A walk in the park, or over hot coals? Surviving postgraduate study, Friday October 3rd

New term is almost upon us! Our first event will be an introduction to postgraduate study from the student's point of view. We'll be sharing our various experiences to help prepare new students for what lies ahead. Come along to meet your fellow postgrads from across the School of History and elsewhere. We look forward to meeting as many of you as possible!

[I can also now announce our new home in Attenborough 002 in the heart of campus]

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Nations and self-determination

As a historian you should avoid divination.  To quote Hegel "The owl of Minerva, takes its flight only when the shades of night are gathering."  That said, as a historian, one is also aware that today's news will be tomorrow's history.  With that in mind I wanted to write about a couple of instances of nationalism that will be very familiar to anyone who has followed current affairs over the last six months.  My aim isn't to comment on either in terms of the rights or wrongs of the causes in question.  I simply aim to highlight and challenge ideas that, to our western democratic minds, probably underpin our understanding of each; namely that the idea of a nation is self evident and that self-determination is a good thing.

The two cases I wanted to look at are the imminent vote on Scottish independence and the simmering conflict in Eastern Ukraine and Crimea.  On initial consideration one might think of these as being at opposite ends of a scale; one is a clear and open democratic process and the other cynical opportunism in reaction to an unfavourable change in ruling ideals.  My first question then is which description fits which situation?

As an ethnic Russian living in Eastern Ukraine or Crimea should I not have the right to self-determination as enshrined in the UN Charter?  Was the secession of Crimea not a valid expression of the will of the people?  There was a referendum at which every citizen had the right to vote; the fact that some chose not to vote shouldn't and indeed doesn't invalidate the fact that the majority voted for secession.  As for Scotland the SNP are cynically manipulating the dislike of an elected government in Westminster to drive a call for independence.  Thirty years ago they were a fringe party of irrelevant extremists but, through the alienation of Scotland by the policies of Thatcher's Conservatives in the 1980s, they were able to push through an otherwise unpalatable agenda.  The nature of democracy however is that the government that is elected is the government that the majority of the population voted for; if you accept the principles of democracy shouldn't you accept the results it gives you?  Now the Scottish population are being herded towards independence using the goad of dislike of Westminster rather than a positive vision of the future of Scotland.

Mea culpa; I’ve caricatured the issues here for effect but, in both cases, the issues I raise are recognisable.  The concepts of nation and self-determination are at the heart of both situations, at least for a large proportion of the people involved. Equally it could be argued that these ideas are also the levers by which politicians of all stripes and in all cases try to shift the population in one direction or another.  This is only possible because many would see those concepts as absolutes.  Everyone knows what a nation is; everyone accepts self-determination is a right.  Hold those thoughts for a while because I’d like to examine those two concepts in a bit more detail.
The word nation derives from the Latin noun “natio” meaning a group larger than family but smaller than a clan.  It certainly did not mean nation in the sense we might understand it today.  In antiquity the Roman nation was referred to as “Populus Romanus” not “natio romanorum” (apologies for my Latin grammar).  Natio was normally used to refer to communities of foreigners.  By the medieval period the term still did not refer to anything equivalent to the modern understanding of nation.  Medieval universities, for example, were composed of “nations”; the University of Paris divided itself into four “nations” reflecting the language groupings of the attendees.  English speakers were part of “la constante nation de Germanie” along with German speakers for example.  It isn’t until the late 18th and early 19th centuries that the idea of nation starts to take on a form recognisable to our modern understanding and, critically, it comes about not from the articulation of an ancient and objective reality but from a reality constructed for particular political purposes.  This is the view of many writers on the subject of nationalism such as Elie Kedourie, although the debate between ancient roots view of nations against modern invention is ongoing.  In particular see “The Warwick Debate” between Anthony Smith and Ernest Gellner for a thorough discussion of these issues.
The key for me personally is that whilst the acquisition of myths, legends and history to frame the idea of a nation is very powerful and very emotive it doesn’t necessarily reflect a measuarable reality.  Think about a couple of cultural heroes for example; who does CĂș Chulainn belong too?  His statue resides in the Post Office in Dublin and yet he is a hero from Ulster who in legend held off an invasion from the South single handedly.  Similarly Richard I stands proudly outside the House of Parliament as a bastion of Englishness however, in life, he only spoke French, spent most of his rule outside of the British Isles and famously said he would have sold London if he could have found a buyer.  Nations pick and choose the stories they tell about themselves to reflect the contemporary ideals they want to emphasise.  What then is Scotland?  What is Russia and Ukraine?  Are they not just the political/ideological constructs of those who would want them to be one way or another to suit their own agendas?

Self-determination is most famously outlined in Woodrow Wilson’s fourteen points as raised as part of the Paris Peace Settlement following the First World War.  Wilson framed self-determination as a political and legal principle although in reality it was used as a tool to break up the Central Powers.  The Austro-Hungarian Empire, Germany and the Ottoman Empire were all carved up through the principle of self-determination and yet other nascent nations such as Kurdistan were ignored.  Self-determination wasn’t, as it turned out, a universal unalienable right at all; it was a geopolitical tool to be used when it suited.  Self-determination certainly didn’t suit the surviving colonial powers that had no interest in surrendering their colonial territories.  Most critically of all self-determination was used by Hitler and Nazi Germany to justify their early expansion stating that their military action was in support of the right to self-determination of German minorities in neighbouring nations.
Following World War II self-determination was enshrined in the UN Charter.  In that charter it specifically refers to “self-determination of the peoples”.  It doesn’t specify, however, who the people are or indeed who decides what constitutes a people.  In reality the UN Charter is about securing state sovereignty not self-determination.  This casts self determination in a rather different light to how we might otherwise conceive of it.  Elie Kedourie goes as far as to say that self-determination is a resolutely corrosive force in politics in that it drives a wedge between peoples focussing them on their differences rather than on their shared experiences as human beings.

So where does that leave our understanding of the situations in Scotland and Ukraine?  I've probably not caused you to question your fundamental belief in the rights or wrongs or even what you would prefer to be the outcome in either case.  As I said at the start though, that was never my intention.   I hope I have provided something to think about though, especially in regard to your thoughts on the nature of nations and democratic traditions.  Regardless of the outcome of either situation the UK and Ukraine will never be the same.  The push for Scottish independence has started to bring other reductionist arguments to the surface such as those from the English Democrats.  In Ukraine the amount of blood that has been spilt already will not be easily forgotten on either side.  And to think I started out by saying historians should avoid divination.

Sorry about that.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Our World War

Our World War

As the commemorations for the First World War get underway it is easy to become quite disillusioned with the plethora of documentaries and events that dominate our screens and social media platforms. However, BBC3 has developed a new way of bringing an old story into the modern age in a way that will engage younger, more apathetic, audiences who cannot fully realise the atrocities of that war.

Our World War is innovative in using archival sources including first-hand accounts of life in the trenches and a new style of capturing the action which encourages the viewer to feel as if they, too, are a part of the battle. It is as if the soldiers are part of a video game and we are watching the recorded result of a gaming battle. This type of interface is more familiar and relevant to younger generations who participate in online and video gaming regularly, something which is used to great effect in each of the three episodes of this mini-series.

As a person who is not all that interested in the military aspects of WWI, I did find myself drawn into the battle sequences and intriguing mix of personal stories and relationships with the computerized display of troop movements and positions. It is a recommended watch for anyone looking for a refreshing retelling of the Great War.

The link for both the episodes and other interactive sources is here:

Monday, 14 July 2014

The final event of our summer season approaches :(
But it's going to be a cracker!
Please note that, due to unforeseen circumstances, we will be in no.1 Salisbury Road not no.5. Just come in and head to the first floor

Thursday, 26 June 2014


Monday, 9 June 2014

We are pleased to announce three summer labs to break up those long weeks of research :)