I’ve been largely maintaining ‘radio silence’ on both the blogging and social media fronts for the last few weeks. This is due to a combination of factors: wanting to concentrate on finishing my new Tudor naval novel (hunky dory, since you ask); what Harold Macmillan might have termed ‘domestics, dear boy, domestics’ (although in his case, of course, he’d have been referring to the servants); and partly a growing sense of disillusionment with Facetwit et al. In the case of the latter, I’m particularly fed up with the endless…
(* which, now I come to think of it, could be a neat shorthand for the extinction of the dinosaurs)
But last week, I made the mistake of thinking ‘I really ought to check what’s happening on Twitter’. This was a triumph of hope over experience if ever there was one – I thought maybe, just maybe, there was some jolly exchange I could engage with, or one of my friends had got married to minor European royalty, or there was information about some really interesting event that I absolutely had to go to, preferably somewhere like Monte Carlo.
Instead there was… selfpromotionBREXITnarc – yes, you get the idea.
But my folly in even looking at said thief of time for more than 30 seconds is demonstrated by the fact that I came across one tweet which struck me as so utterly bonkers that I knew I had to take up the blogging equivalent of my quill pen once again, thus wasting countless hours when I could be writing the finest passage of purple prose about Tudor England since Hilary Wotsit (and now, of course, I’ve forgotten what it was).
Said tweet was from, of all places, the eminent Royal United Services Institute, quoting a speaker at one of its conferences, Allan Mallinson, historical novelist and former soldier, some of whose work I’ve read and liked. The text was, simply, ‘military history has been colonised by young academics with no experience of soldiering’.
Cue mass outrage on Twitter, generally from young academics with no experience of, well, anything much, apart from being young academics. Being young academics, though, and thus quite good with words, these were swiftly deploying bitingly witty replies – my favourite was the one about how historians of the Spanish Inquisition no longer had experience of torturing and burning – and even I jumped on the bandwagon, despite being neither [a] young [b] an out and out academic. (My effort, for what it’s worth, pointed out that in the UK, naval history had been colonised by young academics with no experience of the navy because there’s almost nobody left in the navy.)
But when I decided to blog about the subject, ready to vent my spleen against a fellow scribbler, I thought I’d better dig a little deeper – and lo and behold, Allan Mallinson’s own Twitter feed makes it clear that he wasn’t actually making the statement in a disparaging way, and that he amply recognises the perspective academics bring to the study of military history. So on one level, the story demonstrates one of the innate dangers of Twitter, namely its almost complete elimination of that most invaluable of concepts and most endangered of words, ‘context’ (not to mention the perils of trying to live tweet from a conference, as I know from my own experience). Hence a very large part of all the selfpromotionBREXITnarc – No, let’s not start that again.
Still, the premise behind the original tweet, no matter how far removed from its proper context, got me thinking. It’s certainly true that naval personnel, or former naval personnel, hardly ever write naval history any more. (Having said that, there are some absolutely terrific exceptions, and I’m not denigrating their work in any way.) There are many reasons for this, and my pretty feeble tweet hints at perhaps the most important of them. In October 2017, the Royal Navy and Royal Marines combined had a total strength of 28,930 personnel, a figure that would be well below half the capacity of most major football stadia, and just about enough to man the fleet that fought in the Four Days’ Battle of 1666. Compare this with, say, a total of about 115,000 in 1900, 139,000 in 1950, or 71,900 in 1980. Even in 1997, the navy had a strength of 41,700. Yes, modern warships require fewer people to man them, and so on and so forth, but the fact remains that there are simply far fewer people with direct experience of naval service than there used to be; far fewer people who are related to, or know somebody who serves in, or has served in, the navy (see my previous blog about the implications of this); and in consequence, of course, far fewer people with direct experience of naval service to actually write about it.
(Slight digression – an eminent colleague of mine, a distinguished professor of naval history well known as a ‘talking head’ on TV, recently recounted a story of his being accosted in the street by a young man of indeterminate ferality, who demanded to know what the anchor badge in my colleague’s lapel signified. On being told its naval associations, the youth in question replied, ‘what’s a navy?’)
Contrast that with the situation among ‘young’ (or even not so young) academics. The number of these has mushroomed, particularly within the last thirty years, despite the odd reverse when a university has occasionally pulled its naval history courses. When I was working for my doctorate in the early 1980s, I was one of only one naval historians at the University of Oxford – and no, that’s not a typo. I don’t know exactly how many there are now, but it’s certainly rather more than that, and the numbers in such institutions as the universities of Exeter and Portsmouth, and at King’s College, London, are encouragingly high. So with far fewer actual sailors to man the navy, let alone to write about it, there’s no surprise that naval history is being written in many cases by those whose seagoing experience might not extend very far beyond the odd trip on a cross-channel ferry.
(I don’t want to stir up a hornet’s nest here – oh, alright then – but there’s also the inescapable fact that a fair amount of naval history written by those who’ve served simply isn’t very good. Lower deck memoirs of the Second World War are still being published, but often they’re being self-published or ‘vanity published’, perhaps because of rejections by mainstream publishers; by definition, such books may be excellent at giving the ‘feel’ of what it was like for the individual author – although quite a few, unfortunately, turn what could and should be exciting narratives into turgid yomps through treacle – but they may well struggle with the bigger picture, even the not-much-bigger picture that was happening on the bridge of their own ship. Among higher ranks, of course, memoirs have often suffered from the great shortcoming of the entire genre, from Julius Caesar to Julian Clary: the inevitable, even if partly subconscious, imperative for self-justification. In that respect, let’s face it, Beatty and Jellicoe weren’t necessarily the best people to attempt to write definitive accounts of the Battle of Jutland.)
So yes, things have changed. I have in front of me a list of the Council of that august body, the Navy Records Society, for 1895-6. Leaving aside the two patrons – a reigning monarch and a future reigning monarch, no less – there are a total of 31 names. Of these, eight were naval officers (six of them being of flag rank, none being below the rank of Commander); two were aristocrats; one was a cleric; and only two were listed as professors, although a third would soon be the Regius Professor of History at Oxford. Most strikingly, though, there were also three army officers, including a general. Compare that with the most recent listing I have on my shelves, for 2016-17. This has 34 names in the equivalent positions: of these, no fewer than 25 are shown with doctorates, of whom seven are listed as professors. There are only two former naval officers, and two former army officers. Perhaps ten or eleven of those listed could be classed as ‘young academics’. So yes, things have indeed changed, but as I’ve suggested above, that was entirely inevitable – and it’s surely only a good thing that so many heavyweight academics (and, yes, so many young ones too) are studying naval history.
The interesting thing about both sets of numbers, though, is the existence of that small and previously ignored sub-set, the serving or former army officer with a real interest in naval history. I know perhaps half a dozen of the kind, and while their fellow pongos might shun them at mess dinners, they surely provide an example to us all; because the real problem, I’d suggest, isn’t so much who studies, and writes about, military or naval history, but that military and naval historians don’t sufficiently study, write about, and, in a nutshell, simply have a half-decent awareness of, each other’s disciplines. If I had a fiver for every book or article (and, come to that, novel) about military history I’ve read which displayed a woeful or non-existent grasp of naval matters, and vice-versa, I certainly wouldn’t be typing this blog at this moment. (I refer my honourable friends to my earlier point about Monte Carlo.)
Finally, though, I ought to point out that a similar sense of quasi-snobbery about who should be writing what (‘authorial correctness’, perhaps, or ‘genre privilege’?) also pervades the small, genteel, self-contained world of writers of naval historical fiction. When people come up to me after I’ve given a talk about my work, I’m often asked the question, ‘do you sail?’ I’m always tempted to reply that if one extended that thought process to its logical conclusion, crime fiction should only be written by police officers or serial killers.
Ian Yeates says
Interesting discussion on the question of ‘subject matter experts’ writing about their subject. I happen to be an ex-RCN officer, retired mid-career, and is now finishing up his dissertation for an MA on naval history via distance, quite the distance actually, learning at the U of Portsmouth (I live in Regina). I have thoroughly enjoyed getting back into research and history writing after a gap of nearly forty years. The one thing an ex-serviceperson (I have learned to avoid a couple of minefields over the years) brings to the table is a grasp of what is going on behind the scenes of various documents by simple familiarity with the environment. Certainly there are pitfalls with this, but if one is reasonably self-aware they are avoidable. But knowledge of the naval environment, how a headquarters work, and how individuals behave under stress at sea, even if not in combat, is extremely useful. Also, while there are obvious cautions, naval personnel tend to have a way of thinking and behaving that is instinctively understandable if you ever served. It does not make you a better historian as there is much more to the craft than simple familiarity with the scene, but it is helpful.
As for the blight that is Twitter, I, no doubt alone, wish the platform ill and its demise. In the wrong hands, it is a menace. In the hands of most it is a recipe for mischief and miscommunication. I see almost nothing useful about it. The head of state in the republic to the south of Canada is really all the evidence needed.
J D Davies says
Concur wholeheartedly with everything you say – especially your final sentence!