Excuse Me, is This the Talk about Postmodern Naval Masculinity or the One about Sodomy and National Identity?

My original plan for this week’s blog was to post Part 3 of my personal ‘top twenty’ castles. However, I spent the last three days of last week at the big ‘Navy and Nation’ conference at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, and thought I’d share some thoughts about that; the castles will be back next week!

When I was a keen, up-and-coming doctoral student, and in the years after I completed my doctorate, I used to go to quite a lot of academic history conferences. These days, I go to far fewer, partly because my primary focus has switched to writing fiction, but it’s still nice to keep one’s hand in from time to time, and also to keep up with the latest developments in the field. And what developments they are! Naval history is a very different world to what it was when I started work on it, over thirty years ago. For example, the Navy and Nation conference was spread over eight sessions, with three or four papers per session, plus several keynote lectures. Not one of the talks – not one  – was about a battle; only one was explicitly about ships, and then only indirectly. Yes, there was a session on Nelson, but it was entirely concerned with representations of the great man, including a talk about Barry Unsworth’s Losing Nelson as an example of the postmodern novel. (I read the book years ago and had some issues with it, notably with its unsympathetic – and ultimately quite mad – first person narrator and its unsatisfactory ending, but it did at least include the ingenious fictional device of a London bar that’s open only to naval historians. If only…) Instead, we had lots of talks about masculinities, sodomy, national identity, the navy and the media, the navy and industry, the navy in international and global contexts… Don’t get me wrong, I think this is all tremendous, especially as it integrates naval history properly into all other branches of historical study. But historians do have a habit of throwing babies out with bathwater, and historical trends do tend to reverse after a while. For example, one wonders just how long it’ll be before some bright-eyed young doctoral student stands up and scandalises a conference by talking exclusively about Admiral Byng’s lasking manoeuvre during the Battle of Minorca. (‘But…but…this isn’t what naval history is meant to be about! It’s about whether navies are gendered spaces! Burn the heretic!!’)

The nature of conferences has also changed to a considerable extent. No longer do we get interminable 45-60 minute talks, often overrunning, from a single speaker; now talks are usually capped at 20 or 30 minutes, so speakers have to keep to the point, and virtually everybody uses Powerpoint. One might wish that many postgrad students in particular are given lessons in public speaking, and that many speakers of all vintages could do with looking at some of the business manuals on how to create an effective Powerpoint presentation, but at least the rapid turnover and the presence of nice pictures on a screen means that there’s much less opportunity to get bored out of one’s mind. (Of course, the increased number of talks is due to some degree to the highly gratifying fact that far more people are now studying naval history at postgraduate level and are clamouring to present talks at conferences, partly so that they and their university departments can add credits to their CVs, government assessments, etc.) Even so, this does lead to some fairly heterodox panels being assembled, with three or four papers on wildly differing themes or periods tied together by the most tenuous of threads. (‘OK, we’ve got papers on the use of the coracle in Welsh naval warfare, 600-850 AD; naval logistics in the works of Jane Austen; and Russian naval strategy on the Lake of Baku, 1910-14. Let’s call the session ‘Imperial Identities and the Thalassographical Precepts of Naval Gender Relations’.)

Probably the most marked and welcome change, though, has been the remarkable shift in the gender balance. Back in, say, the 1980s, sightings of women at naval history conferences were about as rare as those of BMW drivers obeying the speed limit. Nowadays, though, large numbers of female historians are studying aspects of naval history, often from new and fascinating angles. There were certainly plenty in evidence at the Navy and Nation conference, and several panels had either an equal gender balance or a female majority. Would that the same could be said for the racial mix, though, where naval history still has a very, very long way to go. And yet, some aspects of the academic historical conference remain eternal. Here, in no particular order, are some of the constants that were in evidence again last week:

  1. Purpose. Conference organisers usually assume that they are creating something which will be an intellectually stimulating exchange of challenging ideas between world class minds. The general public probably assumes that academic historical conferences consist of old men in tweed jackets muttering unintelligibly about impenetrably obscure topics. (In other words, something along the lines of the utterly brilliant Newman and Baddiel ‘History Today’ sketches.) Alas, neither of these perceptions is true. Academic historical conferences exist solely so that delegates can meet up again with people they met at previous conferences, and to bitch about the people who haven’t turned up to this one.
  2. The conference programme. One of the most abiding laws of conferences is that the programme is never, ever, right. Perhaps it isn’t right in a literal sense, i.e. it sends people off to non-existent rooms, or the talks delivered bear no resemblance to the titles provided by the speakers six months ago, which they then decided to change completely five months ago, which they then forgot to inform the organisers about four months ago, as a result of which the original title still appears on the programme; or it won’t be right in a more subjective sense. Many big conferences, like the Navy and Nation, schedule parallel sessions. In some cases, one’s choice will be clear cut. (‘Patronage of Gender-neutral Midshipmen on the Mauritius Station in 1811’? Non. ‘Conceptual Shortcomings in J D Davies’ Analysis of the 1673 Campaign’? I’ll be in the front row, and the speaker’s toast.) Often, though, conferences will put on two equally interesting sessions at the same time (criteria for choice: who do I owe, or who owes me?) or two sessions that are equally mind-numbingly boring. The latter are preferable to the former, as they allow the delegate the opportunity to go out and investigate the local area, to get the all-important gift for one’s significant other, or to head for the nearest bar with like-minded others.
  3. The graveyard shift. Regardless of the programme, the first session in the morning is always known as the graveyard shift, because everyone is hung over or arrives late. (Or, in the case of a memorable conference at Aberdeen many moons ago which culminated in an all-night whisky binge, some of the most distinguished historians of the seventeenth century simply didn’t manage to arrive at all.) However, the session before lunch is also known as the graveyard shift, because people are now looking forward to eating. (See below.) The session after lunch is clearly also known as the graveyard shift, because everybody’s eaten and they now want to have a nice nap. And so it goes on. As for those conferences that are foolish enough to schedule talks in the evening, after dinner, when everyone’s been quaffing wine…don’t even go there.
  4. Sleep. Because of the frequency of graveyard shifts, sleep is a constant danger, both for the audience and, in some cases, for the speaker. (There was a memorable Anglo-French history conference some 25 years ago where a very ancient and distinguished French naval historian slowly tilted forward until his head dropped suddenly and he banged it loudly on the table.) This is particularly true when one is speaking to audiences, such as the memberships of certain naval-orientated societies, where the average age is, shall we say, somewhere pre-Baby Boom. From personal experience, I can testify to the fact that one of the ultimate tests of one’s ability to keep going as a public speaker is when loud snores are emanating from the seats in front of you.
  5. Victuals. No matter where the conference is being held, lunch is invariably awful; caterers seem to work on the principle of providing the sandwiches that most people like the least. The success of the conference dinner, on the other hand, doesn’t depend on the quality of the food at all, but on the amount of drink consumed. This is the fundamental flaw in the Higher Education league tables: it makes no reference to the most important criterion that academics use to compare institutions, namely the quality and quantity of their conference plonk. The Navy and Nation dinner had the additional subplot of cramming too many people into the tiny cellar of a Greenwich wine bar on one of the hottest nights of the year. Several diners at the far end of the tables were said to have lost several pounds in weight during the course of the evening, those in the middle were so tightly packed that they effectively had to synchronise their elevation of knives and forks, and everybody had to shout even to speak to one’s immediate neighbour, thus exacerbating the already critical noise problem. (However, one individual cunningly installed himself right at the end of one table, immediately adjacent to the only fans in the cellar and the route to both the bar and the loo, and with adequate leg and arm room to boot. Who was this ingenious master of strategy, you ask? Modesty forbids…)
  6. That Guy. You know the one I mean. He’s the one who always asks a question, whatever the topic is. He usually sits at or near the front. The question will be very, very long, and will often bear no relationship to the topic. Or else it won’t be a question at all, and will be an extremely long-winded anecdote based on the individual’s own experience, which, again, usually has no relevance whatsoever to the topic under discussion.
  7. That Other Guy. Again, you know who I mean: in this case, I mean The Demigod. (British naval historians will definitely know who I mean – but no names, no pack drill.*) He usually sits at or near the back. He knows absolutely everything about every topic under discussion. If he’s feeling benign, he will merely nod benevolently during talks, and will provide a deeply pertinent comment at the end which supports and adds to the speaker’s argument. If he’s not feeling benign, he will shake his head and will provide a deeply pertinent comment at the end which entirely demolishes the speaker’s argument and leads to the latter spending the rest of his/her life as, say, an ice cream salesman in Lapland.

But all good things come to an end, and like teenage wizards at the end of a term at Hogwarts, conference delegates eventually disperse back to their humdrum lives, several business cards and new Twitter/Facebook/Linkedin connections to the good. But then, one day soon, it all starts again – in my case, with a conference at the National Museum of the Royal Navy, Portsmouth, on 6-7 September, the difference being that I’m speaking at this one. I shall report back in due course!!

(* Every generation has a demigod, and if it’s really blessed or cursed, it has several at the same time. Back in the 1980s, when I was starting out, the demigod of Restoration naval studies was Richard Ollard, who disagreed completely with my view on Pepys, but thankfully he tended not to come to conferences. General seventeenth century conferences were another matter, though: the thick cloud of full-strength cigarette smoke that heralded the arrival of Professor Conrad Russell, aka son of Bertrand, aka the fifth Earl Russell, was sufficient in itself to reduce many a bushy-tailed young postgrad to a gibbering wreck.)


  1. Hi Linda, no talks directly on that – but there’s also a new ‘Port Towns’ project which was holding its conference in Portsmouth at the same time, unfortunately, and I think some of those sorts of themes might have been discussed there. Will contact my spies who were at it!! And I must admit, the talk on Losing Nelson made me want to re-read it to see if I’d misjudged it the first time. On the other hand, the to-read pile of new books is enormous enough as it is without starting to re-read things too…


  2. linda collison says:

    I read Losing Nelson too, and had a similar reaction. But the main character was really interesting to me. I like psychological novels.


  3. linda collison says:

    Thanks for the re-cap. I’m working on a project about the women of the lower decks, including warrant wives, seamen’s girlfriends, prostitutes, nurses, and women passing as men. Any talks relating to that?


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