Of Babies and Bathwater
Two blogs for the price of one this week – my latest, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, observations on the Carmarthenshire Archives affair/scandal/fiasco (please select favourite apocalyptic noun), and this one, some thoughts on last week’s conference at the National Maritime Museum about ‘the emergence of a maritime nation’ in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
In all essential respects, the conference was a tremendous success, and hugely enjoyable from my viewpoint as a common-or-garden delegate. Long time readers of this blog will recall that I’ve provided a checklist by which such events can be assessed, and this one measured up well:
Purpose – box ticked, i.e. 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. And, one might add, it was great to meet the real live incarnations of various Twitter avatars with whom I interact a lot.
The conference programme – lots of sex and pirates; well, you can’t go wrong, can you? But see my qualifying remarks below.
The graveyard shift – Given added spice by the biblical weather on day 1, which led to slight concerns that the entire conference might be washed away, perhaps turning pirate itself as it swept past Southend on the ebb – rather like Monty Python’s Crimson Permanent Assurance.
Sleep – Not a problem, thanks to some nifty scheduling that ensured consistenly high levels of interest.
Victuals – Excellent; the National Maritime Museum was markedly generous with its sandwiches, and, perhaps more surprisingly, with egg custard tarts, too.
That guy – He wasn’t there.
That other guy – He was there.
So all in all, a very successful event, which also emphatically ticked another two boxes in my case – quantity of notes taken, and number of ideas hatched. But the conference also raised another issue, and actually fulfilled a prediction I made a couple of years ago: …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!!’)
No, we didn’t get Admiral Byng, but we did get the odd situation that out of twenty papers, precisely one and a half – debatably one and two halves – were about the Royal Navy. Now, to some extent conference organisers are slaves to the papers they get offered,* and as I’ve said before in this blog, it’s great that historians are now exploring all sorts of new themes and connections. It’s terrific, too, that such occasions now reach out beyond the discipline of history, as witnessed by the several papers from literary scholars looking at maritime writing in the early modern period. But I have a feeling we’ve reached that tipping point where the baby is about to disappear down the proverbial plughole: perhaps young postgraduate students and early career academics have become so keen to branch out into new and exciting territories that a degree of balance is being lost. Old-fashioned naval history – administration, operations, battles and, yes, dead admirals – may be just that, old-fashioned and thus unfashionable, but at the end of the day, it’s still absolutely central to our understanding of national and global history, and it still fires the interest of that elusive constituency which many of the speakers at the Maritime Nation conference didn’t address at all, namely the proverbial ‘man [and woman] in the street’. Academics in general have a tendency only to talk to, and write for, each other, and it would be a sad day indeed if maritime history ever became a self-congratulatory navel-gazing little world of its own, ignoring both the broader public and superficially less ‘politically correct’ areas of study.
Or to put it another way: less navel-gazing, more naval gazing, please.
* And yes, before anyone raises the obvious point – I could and perhaps should have offered a paper myself, but didn’t due to pressure of work. Of which more next week.