Monthly Archives: September 2013

Week 1 seminar

Our first seminar speaker of the term is Robert Bickers, professor of history at Bristol and director of the British Inter-University China Centre. Prof Bickers is also one of the people behind the Historical Photographs of China website, and he has a blog of his own, too. The title of his seminar is World in motion: professional circuits through 19th-century China. All details are in the poster below. Please join us!

Bickers poster

Several of the posters for forthcoming seminars will feature equally camp images. This is pure coincidence (images were sent to me individually by each speaker, not selected by me for the lulz), but it may suggest what I have long suspected: people were just camper in the past. Even old ladies, as you will see in week 5.


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Métier d’historien

Here’s our colleague David Gange giving an open day talk on why you should study history. Watch it and find out why #gange is trending on Twitter.*

*1. People who are very high and want the world to know it. 2. Francophone tweeters who are visiting India. 3. Young women in the third year of a history degree at Birmingham. Must try harder, third-years!

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Ocelots and peacocks


He had a string of spectacular and often scandalous affairs, and there remains a mythos of Chinese whispers concerning his alleged perversions and fetishes. His paramours included theatrical superstars like the tragedienne Eleonora Duse and the modernist Russian dancer Ida Rubinstein, and numerous adventurous aristocrats including the Marchesa Luisa Casati, who satisfied two of his chief criteria by being very tall and very rich. She had huge green eyes heightened with heavy applications of kohl, favoured exotic accessories such as ocelots and peacocks, and her party guests were attended by black servants dressed in costumes copied from Tiepolo. D’Annunzio was fascinated by bisexuality, and in Paris had a high profile affair with Romaine Brooks, a crop-haired lesbian painter. […]

‘In heaven, dear poet,’ Brooks wrote to him when their affair ended, ‘there will be reserved for you an enormous octopus with a thousand women’s legs (and no head).’ It was an acute hit at d’Annunzio’s compulsive, narcissistic womanising. His love life was as meticulously styled as everything else about him: the poetic billets-doux, the trysts in wisteria-choked pergolas, the love nests hung with damask and strewn with rose petals, the silk kimonos and cups of fragrant Chinese tea, the handkerchiefs drenched in a perfume whose recipe he had copied from a medieval manuscript.

Lover, litératteur, and proto-Fascist martinet: Gabriele d’Annunzio, demonstrating that poets have more fun than historians. (‘In his last years d’Annunzio grew shrunken and bandy-legged, living a frugal and contemplative life interspersed with cocaine-fuelled sex with a tubercular Milanese prostitute chauffeured up from her lodgings above a trattoria on the lakeside.’) From Charles Nicholl’s review of Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s new biography of d’Annunzio, The Pike, in the LRB.

Now I’m off to buy myself an ocelot.

Click image for source


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La rentrée

The start of term is nearly upon us, and we have a busy term of activities lined up at the Centre for Modern & Contemporary History. Full details will be announced soon, but here are some dates for the diary:

  • Every Wednesday at 4.15 in the Rodney Hilton library (Arts building, 3rd floor) we have our research seminar, starting in week 1 with Robert Bickers, professor of history at Bristol and director of the British Inter-University China Centre. Prof Bickers is also one of the people behind the Historical Photographs of China website, and he has a blog of his own, too. The title of his seminar is World in motion: professional circuits through 19th-century China.
  • On the afternoon of Friday 6 Dec we will be running our autumn term round table on ‘Histories of the supernatural’. Confirmed speakers so far are Rhodri Hayward (Queen Mary), Isak Niehaus (Brunel), and our own David Gange.
  • We also have a provisional date for our annual lecture, and we’re very pleased to announce that the speaker this year will be Susan Pedersen, professor of history at Columbia University. The lecture will take place on Wed 12 Feb (a bit earlier in the year than usual), and there’ll be a postgraduate event beforehand.

Details of events will be posted here ahead of time, so click on the little tab marked ‘+ Follow’ in the bottom right-hand corner to receive updates by email (if you haven’t already).

Update: among our seminar speakers this term will be three new staff from here at Birmingham, so if you’d like to hear about their work, here are the dates and titles:

  • 16 Oct: Klaus Richter, ‘Self-extermination or self-determination’: the (re-)construction of east central Europe, 1917–23
  • 23 Oct: Matt Houlbrook, Thinking queer/Rethinking the interwar
  • 27 Nov: Su Lin Lewis, Cities of vice: red light districts in Asian ports

We’re also getting some excellent images from our seminar speakers for the posters—here’s one from Ludivine Broch, who’ll be speaking on Wed 20 Nov about theft on the railways in wartime France.

Cheminot Vol

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Picturing refugees

I’m putting together the handouts for one of my classes next term, on the module we use to introduce incoming first-year undergraduates to doing history at university level. I have two groups, and I’m doing a different ‘intensive study topic’ for each of them (so as to avoid fights over scarce library resources…).

Christian refugees from Asia Minor, LoC ggb2006010957

Although I’m a Middle East historian by background, finding topics in Middle East history that have a substantial body of secondary literature is a bit tricky, and finding ones where the literature isn’t highly politicized is even trickier. So I’m turning to my other teaching area, refugee history, instead, with one class on the Greek-Turkish population exchange (admittedly a not unpolarized body of literature, but the worst of it is in Greek and Turkish; in English there’s a fair range of less tendentious material) and another on German Jewish refugees.

Now, one problem with teaching refugee history is the tendency to reduce the people you’re supposedly concerned with—the refugees—to a passive and nameless crowd, huddled in camps or crammed into transit vehicles like the ones above. (That image shows refugees from Samsun, Turkey in train cars at Patras, Greece, after the population exchange; it’s part of the Bain collection at the Library of Congress.) It’s always easier to approach the history of the stateless and uprooted from the perspective of the states that displaced, refused, or assisted them; the international forums where diplomats talked about them; or the NGOs—in my period more usually referred to as private voluntary organizations or PVOs—that tried to keep them alive.

But refugees aren’t a passive mass: we need to get at the experiences of individual refugees, and we need to remember that refugees are active: from the point of view of host states, they have an awkward tendency to want to control their own lives, and their own political destinies. The very image of the passive, destitute refugee is a powerful ideological construct that plays a part in states’ attempts to control refugees—which often involve forcing refugees into a more passive and destitute state. The Spanish Republican refugees who fled into France at the end of the Civil War had to be disarmed as they arrived, to make them easier to control: the picture to the left shows a stack of rifles taken from refugees at Le Perthus. Families were split up, women and children sent to camps of their own, while once the men had been disarmed they were housed in dreadful conditions, in makeshift camps made of little more than barbed wire on the beach. (If being stuck on a Mediterranean beach sounds nice, remember that it was late winter—and that you can’t dig a latrine trench in sand.) Look at this aerial picture of the camp at Argelès-sur-mer and you start to realize that encampment was a preemptive act of violence against the refugees:

14. Argeles(Want to know why states are so scared of refugees? Do my third-year advanced option module on refugee history and you’ll find out.)

So, when I thought about what pictures I could use for the front page of my module handouts, I was trying to find things that would communicate individual experiences, and refugees’ ability to control their own lives.

Markiewicz passport

It didn’t really work. For the class on the Greek-Turkish population exchange I went with the first picture, above. Class handouts are often done in a bit of a hurry, when they’re overdue—mine are, anyway—and finding good images takes a while. Most of the photos I looked at on the Library of Congress website just weren’t very good: this one is, at least, a clear and striking image. It’s a cliched one, but some of the others were worse.

For the class on Jewish refugees, the range of available photos is greater, partly because of an active, ‘collecting’ interest by major museums. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is one of the most important, and that’s where I found the picture to the right: a page from Ellen ‘Sara’ Markiewicz’s child passport, issued by the Berlin chief of police in April 1939. It allowed her to join a Kindertransport to Britain—on another page there’s a stamp from her landing port at Southampton, giving her leave to enter the country ‘on condition that the holder does not enter any employment paid or unpaid while in the United Kingdom’. So she’s not part of a nameless mass any more, even if one of her names was imposed on her by the Nazis. (All Jewish males were given the middle name Israel; all Jewish females, Sara.)

Moritz Schoenberger at Les MillesAlso from the USHMM is this picture of Moritz Schoenberger, in the internment camp at Les Milles, France, in 1941. Schoenberger had already crossed the Atlantic once in flight from the Nazis, unsuccessfully, on the famous refugee ship the MS St. Louis, which was refused entry by Cuba, the US, and Canada before returning to Europe. It docked at Antwerp, from where its 900 or so passengers dispersed to several European countries; about a quarter of them later died in the Holocaust.

Not Schoenberger, though: his wife Helene was already in the USA with their daughter, and successfully managed to get him a visa. But that didn’t come through until November 1941, by which time Schoenberger was interned in a French camp: he had travelled to France from Antwerp, and been interned as an enemy alien. After another eleven months—putting him into a fearful time for foreign Jews in France—the Vichy government allowed him to leave France, and he travelled to the US via Marseille and Lisbon. But here, he’s pictured in front of some of his artwork at Les Milles: Schoenberger, in his mid-50s by this time, was a commercial artist and window-dresser.

And here, seated second from left on the deck of the Lafayette, is Hildegard Wolff, on her way to the USA in September 1937. She looks cheerful—and who wouldn’t, as a Jew escaping Nazi Germany. Her parents weren’t so lucky.

Passengers on the deck of the LafayetteSo not all refugees are nameless and destitute. I hope I manage to communicate some of the variety of their experiences in my classes this term—especially the ones on subjects that aren’t as well served by the scholarship as Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany.

All images: click for source.
Ellen Markiewicz’s passport: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Ellen Gerber
Moritz Schoenberger: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Julie Klein
Passengers on the deck of the Lafayette: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Ruth Nadelman Lynn
This is ‘fair use’ of these images under the Museum’s policy on terms of use.
Images from the Bain collection at the Library of Congress are not known to be under any copyright restrictions.

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CCCS50 update

Stuart Hall, interviewed for CCCS50 project by Kieran Connell, picture by Alicia Field

Another update on our current research project on the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, from our colleague Kieran Connell:

The project to mark next year’s 50th anniversary of the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies is gathering pace. The other week I went down to London to interview Stuart Hall, who was of course a founding member of the Centre and its director for more than ten years. Stuart reflected on his time at the Centre, the politics of the original cultural studies project and where he thinks cultural studies is at today. We filmed the interview, but you’ll have to wait to see it in full – we’re going to show it at the conference  we’re organising to mark the 50th anniversary of the Centre this June (more information about which can be found here). If you can’t wait until then, though, you can listen to the other interviews I’ve conducted with key players here, as well as download PDFs of the Centre’s Stencilled Occasional Papers here. Tickets for the conference will go on sale very soon!

You can follow the project on twitter @cccs50

Picture © Alicia Field Photography


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Gieves and Hawkes strides, cropped

Dear Sir—No doubt you are wondering what has happened to your two suits, I had them well in hand last week and the coats and waistcoats are ready for fitting, but the two pairs of trousers are somewhere in a heap of rubble, the remains of my trousermaker’s workshop. The result of a Hun Souvenir which arrived last Saturday morning. The workman and his helpers escaped by a miracle with not bad injuries but are all in hospital.

Part of my trouble is that there is not enough material now available for another pair of trousers for either of the suits. There is just a chance that the trousers may be saved. I hope also that you will be indulgent for the delay, your obedient servant, William Briston Dodson.

Edmund Knox, editor of Punch and a pretty snappy dresser, gets a letter from his tailor, October 1940. ‘The suits, with two pairs of trousers each, were ready by November.’

Penelope Fitzgerald, The Knox Brothers (paperback edition, London, 2002), p. 245
Click image for source

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Many Storks

Number 13, image from MR James podcast

Among the towns of Jutland, Viborg justly holds a high place. It is the seat of a bishopric; it has a handsome but almost entirely new cathedral, a charming garden, a lake of great beauty, and many storks. Near it is Hald, accounted one of the prettiest things in Denmark; and hard by is Finderup, where Marsk Stig murdered King Erik Glipping on St Cecilia’s Day, in the year 1286. Fifty-six blows of square-headed iron maces were counted on Erik’s skull when his tomb was opened in the seventeenth century. But I am not writing a guide book.

It is my ambition to write a history book with an opening paragraph as good as that one, from the MR James story Number 13.

Click image for source, which is the relevant episode of the MR James podcast, A podcast to the curious, whose existence I’ve just discovered while doing an image search for a suitably creepy number 13.

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New Research in Military History

IWM image of soldiers from King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry during the Malayan Emergency

Our PhD student Aimée Fox-Godden is co-organizing a British Commission for Military History conference at the University of Kent in November. Details:

New Research in Military History:
A Conference for Postgraduate and Early Career Historians

Canterbury, 22 November 2013

This conference, organised by the British Commission for Military History in association with the School of History, University of Kent, intends to highlight current research being undertaken by postgraduate and early career scholars in the field of military history and related disciplines.

This is the British Commission for Military History’s fourth annual New Research conference giving postgraduate and early career scholars an excellent opportunity to meet, share new ideas and discuss the latest research. Papers on any aspect or period of military history are welcome. Proposals (c. 300 words) for papers of 20 minutes should be submitted, along with an academic CV, to the organisers at by Friday 27 September 2013.

The British Commission for Military History is the pre-eminent association for professional military historians in the UK, dedicated to the promotion and discussion of military history in its broadest sense. Participants at New Research in Military History will also be welcome to attend the Commission’s autumn conference ‘Engineers in Command’ on Saturday 23 November 2013 at the Royal Engineers Museum, Gillingham.

Details of the conference have been posted on the IHR’s events pages, where you can also download the call for papers.

Click image for source.

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Avoiding the bears

PhD students!

Feeling bad about your dissertation?

Struggling to get your introduction written?

You are not alone:

Avoiding the bears, Critical intervention

Avoiding the Bears asks “Have you ever thrown your draft introduction in the air and gone ‘aargh’?” (Answer: Yes.) Plenty more good things elsewhere on the blog. I hope she remembers to put some jokes in her PhD too.

Click image for source.

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