People, home movies and their ordinary histories

I spent my afternoon watching Christmas family home movies from the British Film Institute’s newly expanded archive player.

1937Not much happens in any of the films and the absence of sound adds a rather surreal feel. The people featured are not named. We can only guess at their ages and what they are saying. They are all clearly aware of the camera but they are also carrying on pretty much as normal.

Everyone gives and receive presents, they eat meals and play games and most people laugh and mess around a bit. There are some nice shots of living spaces, furniture and seasonal decorations and some touching hugs and thank you kisses. It’s all very ordinary. Although Christmas is the most unusual day of the year, some of what makes it special is just doing everyday things with the people you love.

Some of the films come from the same family and watching them in order allows you to see fashions in dress and furnishings evolve, adults age and lose their hair, and their young children grow into teenagers. A slightly grumpy looking grandfather appears in the first of the sequence but not in any of the subsequent ones. By the last one, his wife is in a wheelchair and looking frail. Christmas always reminds people of the passage of time but these films actually chart it, in all it sadness and joys.

There has been much talk online recently about the need for radical histories that challenge and confront the present. That is, of course, important but so too is history that is more mundane because, for most people throughout history, daily life has been just that.

People eat, drink, sleep, travel, work and play. They love and they lose. Histories of such things do not have to have a political relevance, a challenge or a lesson for the present. But they can remind us that the past, like the present, is about real people. As historians we make people into numbers, categories and classifications but they are still are individuals too and watching them celebrate Christmas is a vivid reminder of that.

My favourite of the home movies can be watched here: http://player.bfi.org.uk/film/watch-family-christmas-1952/

My book Christmas and the British: A Modern History will be published by Bloomsbury Academic in 2016.

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Goodbye, Mr Chips, modern education and the REF

Last night I watched a lovely 1939 film called Goodbye, Mr Chips.  In it, an elderly teacher rallies against the Headmaster of the public school he has spent his career at:

I’ve seen the old traditions dying one by one. Grace, dignity, feeling for the past. All that matters here today is a fat banking account. You’re trying to run the school like a factory for turning out moneymaking machine-made snobs! You’ve raised the fees, and in the end the boys who really belong to Brookfield will be frozen out, frozen out. Modern methods, intensive training, poppycock! Give a boy a sense of humor and a sense of proportion and he’ll stand up to anything.

Historians more than anyone should be aware of the dangers of nostalgia but as universities spend the next few days pondering, proclaiming and panicking over the results of the Research Excellence Framework, it will be difficult not to think this is not what education should be about.

The Victorian public school system is hardly a model for what universities should be doing in the 21st century but Mr Chips understood that education is about far more than things that can be quantified, monetized and put into boxes or league tables.

On publishing an academic book

My new book is out. When I say out I mean there are a pile of them sitting in my office next to other piles of stuff. The official publication date is the start of March, although Amazon says it’s out in May for some reason. Academic books tend to creep out rather than get released in a blaze of glory.

Publishing an academic book is a strange experience. You think about the book for a long time before starting it. You do some research and then you write.  You mess around with the structure. You work and rework individual sentences.  You move bits of text around. You delete things and then put them back, sometimes in the exact place where you first had them. You think about it at night, in the shower, in the middle of films.

Somewhere along the line you find a publisher, which may or may not be straightforward. Eventually, some years later, you finish the book.  You’re still not quite happy with it but you send it off.

Months and months later you get the proofs which you read and wish you’d done things differently. But, even though it isn’t quite what you thought it might be, you’re still quite proud. You send them back. You wait a long time. You get some more proofs. You do an index or you pay someone to do one.

More months pass and then a box suddenly and usually unexpectedly arrives. It’s your book with your name on the front. You show your mum, your wife and your kids. They’re quite proud but none of them will ever read it.

Then not much happens. It takes months for reviews to arrive.  If they’re nice you tell people about them; if they’re not  nice it’s because the reviewer hasn’t properly read or understood the book.

You check it on Amazon every now and then (i.e. every day initially) and you get excited when you see it’s climbed 200,000 places in the bestseller list. Then you realize this just means you sold a single copy.

You might see it in a shop.  This is also quite exciting and you may move it to the front of the shelf, cover facing out so the world can see.

Some people do buy the book, some of them even read it, but you have no idea what most people think of it.

In today’s world of instant interaction this lack of interaction is a bit frustrating and a bit odd. But it’s no different to publishing in an academic journal where the feedback is even less and the readership can sometimes be counted on not many hands. Moreover, most blogs don’t, I imagine, have very high readerships either. Publishing on an interactive forum does not guarantee interaction.

Perhaps this new book will be different. It is reasonably priced (only £15.64 at Amazon) and it has a very broad topic. I’m plugging it where I can and various media have promised some coverage.  It will be in a few newspapers and on the radio. Some people may tell me what they think of the argument rather than the cover.

Doing this self-publicity (like this blog) feels a little odd to academics who spent their time buried in an introspective world of teaching, research and paperwork. It certainly draws some sniggering.

For academics, finishing writing is too often seen as the end of a project rather than a stage in the whole research experience.  If we don’t  want people to read our work, why write it at all? Why go through all that frustration and agonizing? Surely not just so we have another publication for our CV?

Perhaps most academics’ reluctance to engage too closely with publicizing their work is down to a knowledge of just how few people are interested.

In case you missed the subtle link above, you can buy Wales since 1939 from Amazon here. Other online booksellers are available too.  If you live in Wales you might even see it in a shop.

The above is not a literal description of publishing an academic book. There are other parts to the process, not least the publisher’s peer reviewing. There you do get told what others think of either the idea of the book or the book itself. They are not always right.