Thursday, 27 November 2014

Podcast 2: Dan, Jennie, Matt and Sam discuss World War One

Following Adam Prime's lab 'One Hundred Years of the First World War', some committee members gathered to discuss the issues. And the Sainsbury's advert!

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

A prelude to Friday's Lab: Up An' At 'Em!

The visual has the capacity to be incredibly powerful. We have recently seen how much so at the Tower of London: 888,246 ceramic poppies were planted to commemorate the outbreak of the First World War, each poppy representing a British military fatality. Images of the installation have spread across the world - it is, after all, a striking sight.

The importance of this installation extends beyond London and indeed, beyond the First World War. It demonstrates how and why we need the visual in our approach to history. A textbook can be plonked onto a desk full of dates, names and numbers. But can we really expect children of any age to fully appreciate what the textbook is attempting to convey without any effort to bring it to life for them? The effect of the poppy installation lies in its ability to represent a vast number of military fatalities; to generate the shock of realisation that the sea of red is also a sea of individual human experience. It has been instrumental in igniting interest in the First World War amongst children and adults alike.

I find it difficult to stray from the theme of the First World War. On a trip to the First World War battlefields of northern France and Belgium my history teacher single-handedly put me on the path to becoming a historian. He marched us out of the trenches at the Somme; he read a soldier's poem to us by his grave; he said the Exhortation under the arch of the Menin Gate. The Last Post is imprinted in my mind. It may also be simple coincidence that one of the most memorable theatrical performances I have seen was R. C. Sheriff's Journey's End. The aural - as well as the visual - feeds our imagination.

The impact of the visual is not limited to the twentieth century - it transcends all time and place. I have recently written a blog for the New History Lab on the current BBC2 documentary series Secrets of the Castle. I discussed how the construction of a thirteenth-century castle - Guédelon - can spark our interest (see the blog for further details!) Being able to see (and hear) a modern interpretation of how a medieval scene may have looked and sounded takes us one step closer to understanding it.

But with projects such as Guédelon, it is the human element which makes it so compelling. How else can history - effectively a study of human experience - be brought to life? This Friday 28th November, the New History Lab will be hosting a talk given by Jed Jaggard. Jed is a professional historical re-enactor (of all periods!) and founded Up an' At 'Em History! (, an organisation which, quite literally, provides hands-on history for everyone. He will be discussing the importance of the visual in heritage and education, both being an integral part of history beyond (and including) the academic discipline. Jed is a great believer in the representation of the past, as long as it's as accurate as possible.

People in Jed's profession play an incredibly important role in our understanding of history; they encourage the younger and older generations alike and nurture a love of the subject. They are living history. As we all know, history is not - and never should be - confined to academia or a dusty old textbook at school. Its tales are for everyone to enjoy. I am so looking forward to welcoming Jed to Friday's Lab, and I hope to see you there!

The Babadook: A Lesson in Mental Health

Last night I went to see a scary Australian film called “The Babadook”. Not exactly a normal topic for a history blog but I thought the deeper message of the film deserved to be put out there. On the surface it’s a standard scary film with a child that can see ‘monsters’ and is ignored by the adults in the film; the child in this case being Samuel, an unusual child who has never known his father and speaks his mind. Amelia, his mother, is racked with guilt about the circumstances of her son’s birth and is struggling to provide the adequate care required of a mother for her child. The father figure in this film is missing which provides a lot of tension throughout between the main characters of Amelia, Samuel and Claire, Amelia’s sister. Samuel’s father, Oscar, we learn was killed in a car crash bringing Amelia to the hospital while she was in labour. Despite his death taking place seven years earlier, Amelia still dreams of that night and still has his belongings, although they are kept in the basement.

The babadook, or creature, that the film is named after initially takes form in a book. No one knows how the book came into the home of Amelia and Sam but we can imagine supernatural forces had some part to play. The initial reading of the book spooks Amelia and takes hold in the imagination of Sam. The natural thing for Amelia to do is to hide the book but somehow ends up back in Sam’s room, thus playing to the scary film stereotype. The figure of the babadook is not really explained but the general idea is that he hides in the shadows and demands to be let in.

As with other films of this genre, the adult is understandably disturbed by their child’s behaviour and attempts to deny the existence of a supernatural presence in their home and surrounds. Any attempts to get rid of the babadook are rebuffed by the mysterious force including tearing up the book, only for it to turn up on the doorstep glued back together with additional threats against the reader. Ultimately the book is burnt by Amelia which only makes matters worse with the babadook’s presence becoming evident outside the home. Without giving away too much of the storyline, everything comes to a head including visions of Oscar, Samuel’s dead father and bulbs smashing. Standard scary film stuff, really.

To go back to my initial point about the deeper message of “The Babadook”, there is one. I didn’t actually understand the conclusion of the film until it was helpfully pointed out by my film companion because I was annoyed at the ‘happy ending’ aspect presented to me as a conclusion. Ultimately the film is about a young, widowed mother’s battle with depression. The babadook is the demon that she engages with when she thinks about her beloved Oscar and the life she has to lead without him. At certain points self-harm is considered, a suicide attempted and an overdose hinted at all through the intervention of the babadook or Amelia’s battle with the babadook. On knowing that the film is actually about mental illness, it is a completely different beast. Lack of sexual libido is addressed, rejection of potential suitors (and happiness) occurs along with cutting off ties with those who have offered help. In the case of the film, this is literally done by Amelia cutting up the telephone wires.

My main point here is that mental illness is a common ‘side-effect’ of postgraduate research and study. Long hours locked away by yourself, lack of a real sense of community and even less opportunities to meet people all affect postgrads. While there are medications and counselling available, sometimes it is difficult to diagnose yourself with mental illness. The beast of the babadook so easily creeps up on a person, often without any warning signs to those around them. For so long Samuel was the only one to see the babadook within the house and it was almost too late before Amelia acknowledged its existence.

This time of year is also quite a difficult period as many people suffer from SAD as well as highlighted tensions with family that other times of the year don’t usually rear their ugly head. Within the postgrad community as well, the deadlines are piling up and many friendship groups have been established. Personally, I don’t think I would have survived a PhD this long if it had not been for the friendships I have formed in Leicester. Sometimes I am asked about the ‘point’ of New History Lab by those who perhaps don’t understand the lab aspect of the name or general curiosity and my honest answer (depending on my mood) is that it makes me go and meet people at least twice a month and have conversations about anything from the establishment of the Irish Free State to why we plump up cushions (the patriarchy in case you’re wondering). It is very easy to fall into the trap of not bothering to leave the house because it gets dark too early and its cold outside. I am guilty of that and almost didn’t go see the film last night because of these excuses. But I am glad I did, as I often am. If not, I would have written this blog post on my first international conference in Rome which just depresses me if nothing else!

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Up an' at 'em! Bringing history to life through professional re-enactment

Next week's lab! Usual time and place

Exercises in Greenwich Mean Time Confluence: PhD from a Distance

About once a month, I wake up at 04:00, make myself a terrifically strong cup of coffee, and settle down at my desk. This is not out of a misguided form of self-flagellation, but rather, for the privilege of academic work with which presumably all New History Lab readers and attendees are familiar. I’m enrolled as an overseas PhD student in American history at Leicester, based in the United States, working full time as an historical researcher for the State of Pennsylvania. While I have the tremendous boon of close proximity to archival sources in my favour, I also have a 5 hour time difference between myself and the university, and most importantly, my supervisors, with whom I regularly schedule 06:00 Skype meetings. While this situation is certainly unique when compared with how most postgraduate students pursue their degrees, it’s also a method that’s becoming increasingly common, thanks largely to readily-available social technologies.

This May, I was able to attend and give a paper at the School’s Postgraduate Conference, while another overseas-based student delivered her research via projection of a Skype call in the conference room. While I was there, and since, many people have asked me about what it is like to conduct degree work from afar. Truthfully, most of the time, my work as an off campus student is conducted likely in much the same fashion as most campus-based students. I communicate with my supervisors via email, I visit archives, compile research, read articles, and write. During the day, where the activities for my day job are not all that different from what I pursue outside of the office, I spend most of my time conducting biographical research on individuals who have served as Representatives or Speakers of the House throughout Pennsylvania’s long and storied history. The most significant difference in my own attempts at postgraduate historical research is that supervision meetings are conducted via Skype, but, when possible, I visit the campus for brief full-immersion academic ‘retreats’, as I did this May, further diminishing the distance distinction. Even when seminars and workshops cannot be attended due to distance, I’ve found the staff in the School of History to be tremendously helpful in accommodating students like me by linking to Powerpoint presentations and uploading webinars.

Technological advances aside, for humanities researchers, there is one element that could pose a real problem for the distance researcher (aside from lacking access to a computer with an internet connection), and that is a strong library resource. Not all libraries are created equally, and it is crucial to have access to the literature necessary for your research at large and to conduct your historiographical review. It’s best to make arrangements with a nearby Inter-Library Loan department that can request the books you need; this is particularly useful with out of print texts, and in some cases even microfilm can be requested for reading on the library’s machines.  As Matthew Wale mentioned in his recent post, most researchers are quick to tell you that pursuing a PhD is a lonely endeavour. In some senses, for the distance researcher, this makes little difference, when your modus operandi is independent data collection and interpretation. The vicissitudes of research that one must endure to pursue a PhD require much the same temperament whether one resides on the same landmass as their guiding institution, or with the Atlantic Ocean in between. Discipline, organization, time, and dedication are essential no matter the location. And the rewards of shoring up your reserves of those qualities and directing them toward your PhD are no less satisfying when you don’t have a designated office space on the Salisbury Road, lovely as those accommodations may be.

A few weeks ago, while poring over testimonies given by pauper migrants in Philadelphia in the 1820s, I came across the story of one man, an African American who had lived and worked in many locations prior to enduring the destitution that led him to seek alms-house admission in 1827. This man, Samuel Black, listed aloud to the alms-house administrators every job he had held in his adult life. Chief in this list of positions was a year and a half spent as a manservant for someone whose short biography I was scheduled to write for the state’s website the very next day: Speaker of the House for the 1799 session Cadwalader Evans. As far as I can tell, Black left no other records that have survived to the 21st century; Evans, too, is not among the best-remembered of the state’s legislative leaders. But the satisfaction of recognition that comes from two separate research pursuits colliding unexpectedly is one that is not necessarily contingent upon your own location at the moment of discovery. Synchronicities can happen anywhere, and while it can be a challenge not only building detailed work schedules for oneself but sticking to them, or locating the right primary sources and using them to their fullest analytical potential, the intellectual benefits of all of these endeavours are just as palpable regardless of location.

For anyone who is considering basing themselves away from their university for their PhD, it’s definitely worth considering (and I’m happy to answer any questions!). It’s also a great excuse to keep up via Twitter!



Monday, 17 November 2014

Château de Guédelon: Ils bâtissent un château fort…

Deep in the forests of northern France (and in the year of Our Lord one thousand two hundred and forty-six) a small group of people are making history. There is no electricity, no cars and no plastic; men shouting, hooves on stone and the hammer and anvil create the sounds of Guédelon – the site of one of the most incredible archaeological projects of the twenty-first century (sorry, Richard). It is not just a case of test pits or trenches; it’s almost archaeology in reverse. The Guédelon team comprises all members of the castle-building trade: quarrymen, woodturners, stonemasons, carpenters, blacksmiths, tile makers, rope makers… the list goes on. This wonderful bunch began building their medieval castle from scratch in 1997, using those techniques familiar to our thirteenth-century counterparts.

I was lucky enough to visit the site in September 2013 and have included a selection of photographs below. I must admit, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect before our trip. I’ve visited countless castles in various states of grandeur and ruin, but never one literally in the throws of construction. Whilst walking around the city of Leicester I often find it incredibly frustrating that I can’t properly imagine how medieval Leicester would have been – how it would have looked and in particular, how it would have sounded. We can look at drawings, archaeological finds and contemporary accounts, but nothing comes close to actually being able to walk amongst it. Guédelon gives us this opportunity. 

I will be visiting Guédelon at intervals over the next few years. The project is due for completion in 2022, so there’s still time to have a gander! Those who want to take a more ‘hands-on’ approach also have the chance - volunteers are able to actually participate in its construction - different lengths of castle-building courses are available for individuals with no previous experience or students working towards professional heritage skills. I’m already planning to apply. How often can we say we’ve casually nipped across the Channel to build a castle?

Falling marginally short of a time machine, it really is remarkably refreshing to be able to leave our world behind (health and safety regulations do come along for the ride) and to become completely immersed in the atmosphere present at the Guédelon site. There is the most incredible attention to detail here. Everything is sourced locally; cloth is made from wool spun and dyed on site (much to my delight.) The dye itself is created from the landscape: yellow and red ochre, hematite, burnt charcoal dust… it’s all completely natural. Tiles are sourced from clay pits in the forest and pressed with its leaves and stone is quarried from the foot of the castle. Visitors (and those interested in absentia) are welcome to purchase products made onsite to support the project: Wooden bowls, anyone?
The catalyst for my blog post is the discovery that our own BBC Two will be providing Guédelon with some well-deserved publicity – Secrets of the Castle will be broadcast tomorrow (Tuesday 18th November) at 9pm and is the first of a five-part series ( Don’t miss it! I for one am incredibly excited to see the progress made in the last year or so. Further information on l’aventure Guédelon can be found at

New History Lab Podcast

Reading.  It's a difficult task at the best of times and for the most part demands your complete attention.  What if you could hear us though?  What if, through the cutting edge technology of audio recording, you could instead listen to us pontificate on a variety of matters historical?  Well now you can in the our new Podcast!

In this episode Sam Grinsell (chair), Matthew Wale, Nicola Blacklaws and Dan Porter discuss The History Manifesto:

History Manifesto Podcast 

You can read 'The History Manifesto' itself here

Other texts that we mention include (in order of reference):

Kuhn, T. S. (2012)  The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (4th Ed.)

Hexter, J. H. (1972) The History Primer

Zeldin, T. (1994) An Intimate History of Humanity

Darnton, R. (1984) The Great Cat massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History
Please let us know what you think of the content and the podcast itself.  As always we're looking for ideas for subjects to discuss and panel members to take part.  Leave your comments on our discussions below and feel free to drop by our Facebook group with ideas and suggestions.

Hope you enjoy it as much as we did making it!

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Once more unto the breach: The dawn of the PhD

So.. Welcome to my first blog, everyone! I’m Katie, and I have just started my first year here at Leicester. As a previous inhabitant of what is increasingly being referred to as The Real World, it is rather strange to be able to finally say, “I am a PhD student”. Since graduating with my MA in January I have been dwelling in a limbo somewhere between being a University member of staff, a member of staff elsewhere, a volunteer, a researcher, a future student, a member of the NHL Committee and all of the above. On my drive home to a small village near the Warwickshire border I have often been able to see the three tallest buildings on campus, wondering if 29th September would ever arrive.
It did indeed arrive and a month has flown past since. The last few weeks have generally consisted of socialising, reading, listening, a vague sense of panic and a series of induction and training events relating to the fundamental basics of study at postgraduate research level (see my fellow first-year Matt’s recent Lab blog instalment for further information!). Now, as an official PhD student in the Centre for English Local History, I have definitely been wondering where the carpet went.  I’m pleased to report, though, that the majority of my short-term PhD-related woes (the long-term woes can sit tight for the moment) have been – happily – placated.
Induction events are unable to solve the various concerns that may (or may not, but probably will) alight on the shoulders of incoming students; the PhD is an alien thing in itself for all disciplines concerned. Whether we are undertaking an MA, MRes, PhD or otherwise, we all have one goal – to complete the degree at hand to the best of our abilities – and hopefully to make the most of it along the way. On so many occasions I’ve had the brilliant opportunity to discover real people who are studying disciplines beyond the realm of the College of Arts and Humanities. I know, I know, it’s insanity gone mad. But in all seriousness, as we move forward through higher education each stage becomes slightly more estranged from the last, and the experiences of each student branch even further apart. This often ripens potential feelings of isolation which, as I have been told, are perfectly normal. (Again, see Matt’s blog - PhDs must try to stay in the world of the living but ensure to bring their books with them).
It might sound a little odd, but I find it reassuring that I don’t know today what I’ll (hopefully) know in days, weeks or months from this moment. I’ve recently discovered that a lot of my ‘tried and tested’ techniques were a little dusty, so the beginning of the PhD isn’t just about familiarisation with your subject. For want of a better paradox, uncertainty is certain; uncertainty is one of those feelings that most people will experience in these first few weeks, and probably beyond. A large majority of the people I’ve spoken to have mentioned the dreaded ‘imposter syndrome’, but seeing as we’re all in the same boat, it doesn’t seem as terrifying – some boats are just painted differently. We all have skills to learn and skills to refine; we all have research to shape and research to test us when we could probably just do with a cup of tea/glass of wine and a nice, dark room.
The first month of my PhD has taught me more than the average induction or training session, and the lesson has been learnt largely from current and previous PhD students and members of staff. The most important piece of advice I could probably give at this point is to write things down, and to make sure it’s written in the same place! I am under no illusion that the journey I have just signed up for will be an easy one and, at this stage, it is difficult to forecast exactly what is ahead. The bottom line is this: it will be hard, but thoroughly enjoyable, and I am looking forward to it immensely. Hope, as always, springs eternal.

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

100 Years of the First World War

Also next week, in our usual Friday slot, we have a talk by Adam Prime exploring a century of perceptions of the Great War

Private Parts in Public Places: Regulating sex in 1970s Toronto

Very pleased to be able to announce a joint event with the Centre for Urban History next Tuesday 11th in our old home 5 Salisbury Road