Rochester and Borstal in the First World War – reflections

My last post on this blog bemoaned not having enough time to do any blogging.  Over the last six months, I have done a lot of blogging – or rather, editing up other people’s blog posts – but it has been over on the blog for Rochester and Borstal in the First World War and also, in 2017, on Royal Tunbridge Wells Belgian Refugees 1914-18.   Both blogs are the [partial] fruits of AHRC/Gateways to the First World War projects, which are about enabling community engagement with the history of the First World War.  I’ve really enjoyed my involvement with both projects, from getting stuck in on the research to working with volunteers.  But – I think these projects have also had a transformative impact on the way I think about the experience of the war, and also of doing research.  Not really one of the aims of the Gateways work, but an outcome nonetheless.

Before 2016, I never really saw myself as being an historian of the First World War.  Of course, it was something I taught as part of being a teacher of modern British history, and it has always been an important element of my research on the settlement movement, juvenile delinquency and legal advice.  From these angles, the war existed as a disruptive force, taking away many of the dramatis personae of settlements, boys’ clubs, juvenile courts and Poor Man’s Lawyer groups, and returning them in a different state, if at all.  One of the most poignant things I researched for my PhD was the Toynbee Hall scout group and their network, who pretty much marched up to the Whitechapel Recruitment Office together, with few returning.  War was a stressor, putting strains on people who were trying to change the status quo in their particular way.

What the Rochester & Borstal project has done for me is to bring alive the experience of leaving home for a conflict that, on the outset, looked like it would be over by Christmas, would provide lots of excitement and a chance to see the world beyond the Medway valley.  For many of them, it would be an escape or at least a change from a hard-pressed life. However, all too soon it would apparent that many of the young men would not be back by Christmas – or at all.  One street in particular – Sidney Road in Borstal – lost many of its young men to the war.  I shudder to think what it must have been like to see the telegram boy coming down that street.  In addition to writing the biographies, as far as we can, of these men and their families, I’ve also been pin-pointing the places they lived or were associated with on a Google map.  In this way, you see the neighbours who at different times, and in different services, go off to war; or ‘see’ the ghosts that you might pass every day.  I regularly drive (or rather, queue in traffic) along a stretch of road where several men lived.  The homes of others have disappeared, demolished for what would become the car parks for two supermarkets in Strood.  For others, I wonder what it must have been like to lose a brother, father, uncle, cousin, colleague, friend or son who volunteered in the first years of the war, and what it must have meant to receive your call-up papers after conscription was introduced in 1916.  Would you be afraid?  Would you be angry?  Would you be pleased to serve your country?  I don’t know.  We might know about those who were able to leave those thoughts behind on paper or in art, but for the specific men I encountered on this project… we may never know.

How have we found these stories, these places?  Through using the richness of digitised family history sources, such as and  These sites are more geared up for the researchers who are building up a family tree, and are not without their limitations – machine-transcription for starters.  It’s also difficult to search by street, though not impossible.  But it makes a lot of the slog of archival research and particularly record linkage far more accessible – and also easier for people who are new to archival research to get stuck in.  And the ability to connect with family members who have dug up things or made links is priceless.  My dabbling in geohumanities really is just sticking pins on a Google map with a link to the person’s biography, but this visualisation is incredibly powerful in linking these pasts to one’s experience of the present.

So I will keep thinking about these men as I drive or walk past their homes, because I now know where they lived and I know what their lives were like.  And I would not have done, had it not been for this project.

On blogging (or not)

I’ve really not done a lot of blogging – certainly on this blog – since my son was born almost three years ago.  Whilst some parents are able to blog all the time, indeed some make a full-time career out of blogging about being a parent, for me blogging about anything that is somewhat personal is something that lags waaaaaayyy behind all the other things that I have to do in the mere 24 hours in a day.  It’s never been enough of a priority, and there are hundreds of blog ideas and drafts that have come to life in my head, only to fizzle out by the time I’ve got downstairs from putting my son to bed.

So why does it come so far behind the many other things I have to do?

As mentioned in my last post, back in July, I’m stuck in the world of having a child who thinks sleep is for wimps.  He gets up at a relatively civilised time, but this means I’m up at ridiculous o’clock in order to get myself ready for the day ahead before he gets up and starts causing havoc.  Touch wood, he’s stopped napping at nursery, but if he has had a kip, he will be up until my bedtime.  Even if he hasn’t napped, an early bedtime is no guarantee.  And the clocks go back next month – who knows what new variants on sleep deprivation he will concoct.  I’d love to do the sort of swing shifts with picking up work once he’d gone to bed that I did about a year ago, but nah… why do that when I can veg out in front of #GBBO?

Them’s the breaks of having small children.  He’ll not do this forever.  He’ll do something else.  And then something else.  To paraphrase Alan Bennett, parenthood is just one fucking phase after another.

There are plenty of other things that have fallen by the wayside of having a small child.  Academic seminars have to be really worth it.  And I probably can’t stay for drinks: driving once I get off the train, but also the real possibility of an over-tired child waiting up for me.  I still go to conferences, but again, it has to be really worth it.  Weekend ones are ace, because no negotiations over nursery pick-ups are required.  The last time I went to a conference, nursery called as I was somewhere north of Birmingham to tell me that he had a temperature and needed to come home.  Cue feeling guilty, particularly when seeing a forlorn little creature on Facetime wanting to know when I would be home.


What of the things that are prioritised in all this?  For one, the REF-able stuff.  I had visions last September when I was on sabbatical of blogging about how my second monograph was going, but the reality has been more about writing the monograph.  Those blog posts have remained in my head.  Second, consultancy work and a community project have been occupying my time, because they are time-limited and there are things to deliver (if the community project has a blog that I’m already enjoying working on).  Third, there are the demands of work.  That’s not to say that the first two are not part of my job – they very much are – but they are less rooted in the physical and virtual world of the campus.  And rooted is the operative word here.  It is the being anchored in your classes and PhD supervisions, and in the needs of your students, which vary wildly from the easy-to-answer questions at one end of the spectrum to the problems that take you back.  It is in the things that need to be done to keep the machine moving, and the contentions and consensuses around that.

And so blogging drops down the agenda, despite the way in which it pops up in my mind as something good to do.  Perhaps I’ll feel differently about it when this series of Bake Off is over.


The sporadic blogger

A friend mentioning someone looking at my post on historians and NVivo reminded me that this blog has been in abeyance for the best part of two years, posts on the Rebus novels notwithstanding.  It’s not that I’ve lost my love of blogging or have run out of things to say – I’ve had a thousand blog posts composed in my head.  But I have a son who thinks having a nap at nursery means that he can stay up until past my bedtime, on top of all the things that I need to do at work and at home.  Blogging is one of those things that has fallen by the wayside.  The thousand posts will remain in my head.

Or, given that the Tiny Terror has decided that he might just drop his nap, perhaps I might get a bit of a chance to sneak a few blog posts out there…


So I read every Rebus novel out there…

As challenges go, setting myself the task of reading every John Rebus novel by Ian Rankin was hardly the worst one out there.  Some people set themselves challenges that require some kind of sacrifice or tough physical effort.  This involved sitting down and reading a series of books, sometimes on the sofa with a cup of tea to hand, but more often than not, whilst waiting for the Tiny Terror to lie down in his cot and go to sleep.

So what did I learn?  I already knew that Ian Rankin was one of my favourite authors, and John Rebus remains one of my favourite protagonists.  However, as I’d tended to dip into the series in and out since the late 1990s, depending on what books were available when I happened to be in a bookshop or library or hanging around at my parents’ house,  I’d not read the novels in sequence or at regular intervals.  I suspect that this is a fairly common way of reading series if you come to them once the series is in full swing and you are reliant on the vagaries of library and bookshop ordering.  Therefore, whilst I knew the characters, I’d not fully appreciated the development of character and plot over time.

Rebus is one of my favourite characters because he isn’t handsome, cool or thin; he is overweight, scruffy for most of the time, and drives an ancient Saab.   With the series running in ‘real time’, these qualities become more entrenched over the years.  Whilst there are intertextual nods to Life on Mars in Saints of the Shadow Bible, Rebus’ status as an older police officer who will not or cannot retire means that as he ages, he stands out more as the Gene Hunt of Edinburgh.  But if Gene Hunt is rooted in the 1970s and 1980s, Rebus is a time traveller.

Rebus grapples with the new technologies that emerge over time:  pecking out text messages with his fingers sticks in my mind from the later novels.  One of the things I have enjoyed the most about the work I have done on juvenile crime is the ways in which technological change impacts on the things that we value and the way that we behave.  I was fascinated by the attraction getting things for free from outdoor vending machines held for interwar teens, or their interest in jumping into the back of grocery delivery vans for goodies.  There’s much to unpick here about the history of consumption, transport etc and how it impacts not only on our ‘social’ behaviours (the convenience of shopping and the ability to afford chocolate, toys etc) but also on our ‘antisocial’ behaviours, in terms of acquiring these things if we don’t have the money to do so (or don’t want to spend it).  Rebus is more concerned with violent crimes, but the acquisitive society shapes much of this.  As the novels progress, and Scottish devolution and independence become ever more pressing ‘real life’ themes, so Rankin explores the ways in which this impacts on the opportunities for both the under- and overworlds to make a profit from the changing political world of Scotland.  And then there are the ways in which those who don’t have the resources fare in this world.  Rebus also notes the ways in which the internet and social media have changed some aspects of our behaviour – the younger generation of police and criminals go about their business through computers, tablets and phones.  Yet there remains a place for the shoe leather and contacts form of policing that Rebus is more at home with – though even he knows how to use Google…

Given that there’s still some time before Even Dogs in the Wild comes out, I may well start again with Knots and Crosses and 1990s Rebus.  These are novels that stand multiple reads largely because they are not just about crime.  They are about Edinburgh; they are about the state of modern Scotland, but also its place in the United Kingdom.  They are novels about how linked in we are with the world around us, virtually as much as in the ways in which people move or are moved through the criminal underground, either for nefarious ends or because they are desperate and it is the criminals who offer them the glimmer of hope for a better life.  Anyway: that’s enough fangirling from me.  If you’ve not read any Rebus, why not start soon?





The imperfect parent-scholar

Being a parent and an academic is not particularly different from being a member of any other profession or trade and being a parent. Shit[ty nappies] happen, if you will. Small people wake you up at inconvenient times. Child care is expensive. And the rest.

However, both academia and parenthood share an emphasis on “perfection”: or, rather, the spinning of things to look perfect. In academia, it is the people who apparently never wish a thousand paper cuts on a reviewer, because they get their articles in “good” journals without any hassle and people throw money at them, all the time; the people who walk into plum jobs; the people who effortlessly churn out journal articles; the people… You get the picture. In parenting, it is the people who can breastfeed with ease, the people whose children sleep through, the people who are immaculately dressed after getting their toddler to nursery on time. In both scenarios, a lot depends on who your mates are. You could either get a post-seminar drinks in which you listen to how wonderful other people are, how they are doing the right things and you are not, or you could be drinking your wine with people who are open about the trials and tribulations. You could go to a baby/toddler group where everyone is doing everything “perfectly” in terms of feeding, routines and developmental activities, and you leave feeling anxious about why you haven’t started potty training yet; or you could have a laugh with other parents about whatever gross outrage your child has got up to recently. One option is more rewarding than the other.

Sometimes this presentation of perfection is indeed someone masking their own fears by painting them away, and trying to make someone doing something differently second-guess themselves. Sometimes, though, we make the mistake of painting perfection on others, because we assume that we are doing it wrong, and they are doing it right. Whatever the way to it, it’s not a helpful way of seeing the world.

I very much like Kirsty Rolfe’s idea of the “imperfect academic”. The “perfect academic” is a fluid ideal, ever being pulled in different directions as to what one should do. Same with our “perfect parents”. Teach more! Write more articles! Take on three admin roles! Always reply to emails as quickly as you can! Start a blog – no, make it five blogs! Agree to do everything! Make perfect cupcakes with your offspring! Never leave them in front of CBeebies! No sugar ever!

Thing is, there’s nothing “wrong” with any of these activities or ambitions. What there is wrong is assuming that all are equally important at all times, that one has to do them all at the same time and be good at all of them. Hence the importance of the imperfect scholar/parent. Nobody said anything about not being perfect as equalling crap: on the contrary, worrying less means there is more time for other stuff. Being good through to magnificent is possible. And meh is ok, too. Never mind aiming for perfection, just getting on with everyday working life is hard with a new little person, especially if, on your return to work after parental leave, you try and work at the same pace as before. It takes time to get used to a different way of working, which involves getting home at specific times and a set of compromises about what you can do. In 2015, I am going to be spending more time enjoying myself, and less time worrying about what I should be doing.

Back at work…

I began this current academic year by giving birth on the first day of the autumn term.  I went back to work when my son was three and a half months old, leaving him in the care each day of my husband.  The Tiny Terror, as he’s known round these parts for good reason, if he’s more toddler-sized these days, is now eight months old.

So, how has it gone?

I returned to work with the intention of just doing what I absolutely needed to.  This turned out to be a good idea, particularly as by the end of my first week back, the four month sleep regression had arrived at Bradley Towers.  I had read things about babies starting to wake again in the night around about the age of four months, but didn’t think much of it.  Ha.  Without wanting to terrify any newer parents or prospective ones, I discovered that ‘wake again’ is not just a little light stirring because a dummy has been lost, but wake up at 3am and refuse to go to sleep again until 6am, regardless of how much milk drunk/white noise played/hours of gentle rocking.

This lasted about a fortnight.  Longest fortnight of my life.

Returning to work was certainly physically different to anything I had experienced before at work – but then, I’ve never been simultaneously sleep-deprived and recovering from major surgery (I had an emergency section).  These physical constraints meant a change in the way I worked.  Prior to the arrival of the Tiny Terror, the working day would extend to about 7pm, whether I had been in the office or not; at this point, I would start making dinner, and then chances were I would start working in the evening later on.  This just doesn’t happen any more.  This term, I would get up just before my son, make a strong coffee, have a shower, throw some clothes on, make a bottle up, throw the cooled coffee down my neck (‘drink’ implies this was a pleasurable activity), attend to the now-rolling-about-in-his-cot Tiny Terror whilst my partner got up, make sure they were all set for the day and head out of the house, hopefully before the entire population of the Medway towns also tried to cross the Rochester bridge on four wheels at the same time as me.  I would be in the office by 8ish, and would then get on with my day until my batteries ran out about 3ish.  Would I work in the evening?  Maybe.  Probably not.  Even if I’d got home ‘early’ (still a seven hour day, no lunch break!), hours would disappear in saying hello to Tiny Terror, making dinner, either allowing the Tiny Terror to test out Archimedes’ principle (pre-solids bath)/remove risotto from his (sparse) hair (post-solids bath) or cleaning up the devastation of dinner, getting him into his sleeping bag, providing the last bottle, reading a story and – latterly – cleaning his four teeth.  By which point, the only appealing prospect is slumping on the sofa in front of Rev.

So the physical, embodied side of being at work was dictated by the shared management of a small person and what energy I had left.  But, like the days get longer, the scar healed, my stamina came back, the Tiny Terror’s sleep patterns ‘improved’ (i.e. became more adult-like again), and we have a less-labour intensive highchair.  I don’t have as many hours in the day to work on work stuff, and this is no bad thing at all.  I used to enjoy multi-tasking, juggling lots of things at once; now, I have to set aside time to work on one thing at a time.  It’s the only way to get things done without forgetting something.  Scheduling is king.  My spontaneous days are over.  As time has gone by, so just focussing on the key stuff ceased to just be the order of the day, and I’ve done some of the fun stuff.   I found that having had the best part of four months off, KIT days aside, had allowed me to finally see the wood for the trees on a few things that had otherwise been lost in the white noise of term time and the round of things to do.  I even made it to three conferences.  Never has a single bed in a halls of residence been such a treat.  I wouldn’t say there has been any noticeable disruption to my career, which may be more of a reflection of my situation to the extreme north of early career, bordering on mid-career, and the fact that many projects I have been working on have come to fruit this year.

Going back to work has been more of a challenge in a social sense.  For us, it made perfect sense for me to return to work at the earliest point, and for my partner to take care of our son, as he was at an appropriate juncture in his career.  There have been a few faces pulled at our arrangement, as if it is anyone else’s business how we organise our lives.  I’ve also found it hard to meet people in the same boat – if there are other families in our situation, then the women are at work and the men are not hanging out at the playgroups etc.   The majority of other new(ish) mothers I know are just about starting to think about going back to work.  I don’t think there is anything special about being a parent and an academic, but that there is something that can be lonely about going back to work as a mother ‘early’, and I’m not sure what the solutions to that are.  It’s one phase amongst the many that make up the experience of contemporary parenthood, and you never really know what you are going to get until you get it.

I wouldn’t want anyone reading this to think that I have had a bad time of it since going back to work.  Far from it.  I could have lived without the sleep deprivation and scar pain at the beginning.  It would be nice to have been in touch with someone going through something similar.  But I wasn’t exactly expecting it to be all flowers, rainbows, and lambs frolicking in the meadow, so I’m pleasantly surprised that I got through it all, happy that I could phone home whenever I want for an update on whatever I wanted an update on.  And there’s nothing quite like walking in the door to a Tiny Terror being excited to see you…












Three months in to the brave new world of motherhood

It has now been three months since the Tiny Terror made his entrance into the world, and two weeks remain until I have to get up and out of the house to go work on a daily basis.  So, how has it gone?

The last time I updated this blog I was still in the final throes of finishing work. There was no reason to assume that there would be anything special needed in liberating Tiny Terror.  As his due date came and went, the Tiny Terror became sufficiently impatient and distressed to require an emergency caesarean (impatience with lateness?  He truly is my son).  We discovered this when I went to the hospital for blood and blood pressure checks.  Two hours after arriving at hospital in a very heavily pregnant and not feeling very well at all state, the Tiny Terror was here.

I bumped into one of my students on the street recently, and we compared notes on newborn parenthood.  I agree with her that absolutely nothing prepares you for the reality of having a newborn.  Or rather, there is the preparation you can do, and then there is what you find yourself with.  I had half-paid attention to caesarean sections during our antenatal classes and whilst reading about labour (oh – and watching Call the Midwife), but not that much as, well, all indications until the very last minute went in other directions.  Trying to do anything with a newborn when you have had major abdominal surgery is not much fun, not that I expect that it is a barrel of laughs otherwise.  Given that I was going to be unable to do much physically for the following month, and the Big Terror was going back to work for a fortnight until his contract ended, we had to call 999 Grandmothers To The Rescue from the recovery area.  Sleep deprivation, a pain medication schedule and the inability to lift/bend/reach made for an interesting first week of ‘what the hell do we do now???’

Things have since settled down.  Thus far, the Tiny Terror has settled on the sleeping side of things, but is a twerp with his bottle.  The latest thing is squirting milk for kicks.  I understand this is something to do with learning to talk.  In the meantime, I’m covering up the furniture with muslins and throws.  The Tiny Terror seems to be desperate to sit up and start talking so that he can join in with us.  It is wonderful to see his enthusiasm for life and his curiosity about the world around him.  I find myself looking back on the last three months and laughing at my callow self.  Watching my newborn sleep?  Ha.  Awesome as it is, you should never watch a newborn sleep because you should be having some damn kip yourself.  Or rushing to get some laundry done/food eaten/phone calls made whilst there is some peace and quiet.

Being an historian is and is not a consolation in the early stages of mother/parenthood.  I feel absolutely no qualms about formula feeding my son.  I feel very lucky that, as a mother in the twenty-first century in the West, when breast feeding didn’t work out, I have access to high quality formula and a decent water supply.  Not for him the spoiled milk that upset the tummies of the babies of women working in the factories of West Ham in the First World War.   But other things seem very fragile: such as the NHS and Sure Start Children’s Centres.  My son’s grandfather was one of the first babies to be born courtesy of the NHS in 1948.  I wonder if my son will be one of the last.  I went to an absolutely ace postnatal course run by the local health visiting team at my local Children’s Centre, and through that, it’s really made me aware of how much excellent stuff goes on under the auspices of the Children’s Centre network.  Women’s settlements were providing similar stuff from the 1880s onwards, but such work depended on there being funding for it… and of course, settlements were to be found in the poorest areas.  The beauty of Sure Start is its universality… for now, anyway.  Insights go the other way, too: it has made me think afresh about the mixed economy of welfare, how communities appreciate (or not) the services on offer to them, and how people get to articulate what they want to see happening around them.  And it is in the arena of parenthood that one sees research having a massive impact on people’s everyday lives: I can safely say that whoever came up with the research that says that bottles of formula have to be made up fresh each time may have saved lots of babies tummy ache or worse, but has caused many parents a lot of angst about safe night feeding and increased sales of ready mixed milk, flasks and Perfect Prep machines…

I will miss seeing my son discover the world when I go back to work, but I’m not sorry to be going back to the grindstone.  My husband will be staying at home to look after him: on balance, it’s better for him to take a sabbatical to look after the Tiny Terror.  Although more men are staying at home to look after their offspring, it has still caused some raised eyebrows these last few months.  People keep asking me how I feel about going back to work.  Err… well, given I could write a weekly blog just on Shit My Son Has Grown Out Of Alfrickenready, someone has to bring the moolah in.  And I am looking forward to going back to work.  I love history, teaching it, researching it.  I love my son.  It is possible to love both simultaneously.  Whether it is possible to remain sane whilst trying to balance the two is what I will find out in about two weeks’ time…