Don’t admit weakness to Marie Stopes: Eugenicist, not Feminist

Marie Stopes

Marie Stopes

I have spent many happy hours researching my book Shell Shocked Britain, and have learned many things that turned my long-held beliefs about the war and inter-war period on their head. Not only has this made BBC Drama The Crimson Field impossible to watch without the desire to throw things at the screen and shout ‘it wasn’t like that!’, but it has required me to reassess my views about certain important 20th century historical figures, some of whom I had previously thought admirable.

The greatest surprise came during my work on post war attitudes to those men who came back from the war with psychiatric, rather than physical, wounds. Eugenics, and the discussions about the impact of the war on the ‘breeding’ of the next generation, threw up incidents in the life of Marie Stopes that have changed my views on the woman I had previously thought of as one of the great pioneers for women’s rights in the 20th century.

I was recommended to read a book called Dear Dr Stopes, edited 170px-Married_Love_Coverby Ruth Hall. It is a collection of letters to, and from, Stopes during the 1920s, when many of the questions referred to her from readers of her book Married Love, published in 1918. It is a fascinating look at attitudes to sex and contraception that is by turns quaint, funny and deeply disturbing.

After the war ended and it was clear that many men had returned from the Front traumatised by their experiences, there was a concern expressed – quite openly in high office – that the British Empire would be placed at risked should the ‘C3′ population be allowed to procreate at a reckless rate. What was described for the first time as the ‘A1′ class of man (the officer class) has been disproportionately devastated by the conflict so what could be done, at a time when contraceptive advice was not to be widely available for another decade?  Stopes was one of a number of intellectuals of the period to support a eugenicist view of the future – Havelock Ellis, John Maynard Keynes, Cyril Burt and George Bernard Shaw were expounding similar views, and army psychiatrists readily discussed the possible, negative, impact of allowing many of the traumatised men in their care to reproduce.

But it was Marie Stopes, as a pioneer of birth control, who adopted a high profile campaign. She supported compulsory sterilisation of parents who were “totally unfit for parenthood” and in 1921 she advocated “Joyful and Deliberate Motherhood, A Safe Light in our Racial Darkness.” and criticized a society that “allows the diseased, the racially negligent, the thriftless, the careless, the feeble-minded, the very lowest and worst members of the community to produce innumerable tens of thousands of stunted, warped and inferior infants”.

Just before the 1922 general election,  Stopes circulated a questionnaire to every parliamentary candidate to be returned to ‘The Society for Constructive Birth Control and Racial Progress’, which she founded. The statement candidates were required to sign up to said:

I agree that the present position of breeding chiefly from the C3 populations and burdening and discouraging the A1 is nationally deplorable, and if I am elected to Parliament I will press the Ministry of Health to give such scientific information through the Ante-natal clinics, Welfare centres and other institutions in its control as will curtail the C3 and increase the A1.

Ruth Hall offers some of the replies she received, including those that took issue with the implications of her proposal:

...how any institution is going to tell millions of people that they must not breed, or how you are going to get physical or mental deficients, who are sometimes returned to Parliament, to vote for the extinction of their rights, and to reflect on their parents by passing an Act of Parliament I do not know…’

What is striking in many of the replies – positive and negative – is the acceptance of the term ‘deficients’, amongst whom were included many of the men who had but recently been fighting for their country. Such language had been included in the Mental Deficiency Act of 1913 and an awareness of the importance of terminology would be many years coming.

eugenicsMarie Stopes was a woman who fought to get birth control on the political agenda, and wanted it available to women of all classes. She was always happy to answer questions, very warmly, from any woman who wrote to her. But why she was so forceful in her argument is not as altruistic as I had previously thought. She even disapproved of her only son’s choice of partner and tried to dissuade him from marrying her on the basis of her short-sightedness. When her son refused to bow to her pressure, she cut him from her will. She wanted a world where only the physical and mentally perfect survived and at the end of my researches I was not surprised to learn that she had sent a book of poetry to Hitler, and wrote anti-Semititic poems, including the lines “Catholics, Prussians, the Jews and the Russians, all are a curse, or something worse.”

Shell Shocked Britain looks at the legacy of the Great War for Britain’s mental health. With leading figures of the day regularly making eugenicist arguments in the national press, and army psychiatrists giving evidence to committees in terms that were eugenicist in nature, why would anyone feel confident that a plea for support at a time of fragility would be met with a positive response?

Posted in Book, Books, First World War, History, Mental health, Parenting, Reading, Shell Shocked Britain, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Talking Books goes walkabout with The Real Sherlock Holmes…..

A13cI-0avRL._SL1500_Talking Books, my show on 10Radio.org,  went national last week when I was lucky enough to be invited to the launch of Angela Buckley’s great new book ‘The Real Sherlock Holmes: The Hidden Story of Jerome Caminada‘. The launch took place in the Sherlock Holmes Hotel on Baker Street in the heart of London and Angela was good enough to allow me to wander around the room with my radio mike, John Motson style, putting her many guests on the spot, and grabbing some great interviews.

‘The Real Sherlock Holmes’ is wonderful ride through crime fighting in Victorian Manchester. Jerome Caminada was not the dashing and flawed character of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novels but he was a resourceful and committed ‘super sleuth’ in his own right, utilising all manner of disguises and subterfuge to solve the many high-profile cases that made him a national figure in the late 19th century. More recently overshadowed by his fictional contemporary, Angela has brought him to the fore once more in a book that takes you through the poverty-stricken streets of Manchester, and further afield, on Caminada’s coat tails. One can only admire the audacity of his methods; disguises, undercover operations (including the duping and schmoozing of domestic servants) and determined chases that brought some remarkable criminals to justice. He even had his own equivalent of Moriarty, a criminal who threatened to be his nemesis.

mcGHow marvellous it would be to see him on-screen, perhaps interacting with Holmes and Watson. I have been thinking about who might play the role of Jerome, a more solid and less flamboyant man than Holmes but just as dashing. Aiming for big box office – how about George Clooney, Russell Crowe or Hugh Jackman? All look good with a beard after all. If Paddy Consadine hadn’t already played the eponymous Mr Whicher, of Suspicions of fame I would suggest him. But I am nominating Ewen McGregor. About the right age with just the right about of gravitas. Find his agent’s details Angela!

download (1)Anyway, do listen to the recording of the event below. It was great fun and you will hear snippets from writers and historians Emma Jolly and Rosemary Morgan, Essie Fox, Kate Mayfield and Mel Backe Hansen as well as the lovely Rachel Hale, author of the fabulous History Magpie blog and Angela’s writing buddy who came along with her husband Steve who is an accountant and a jolly good sport. I was determined to find out who was the on-screen favourite Sherlock Homes. I think Jeremy Brett and Benedict Cumberbatch will have to settle for a draw. Angela and I had a good long chat about Jerome and I also got a great interview with Nick Barratt of ‘Who Do You Think You Are’  fame, who, it appears, also has a great-uncle of dubious fame…..

Angela’s children Ella and Ethan were stars. I was quickly reminded by Ethan that the Buckley household never ran out of cornflakes whilst Angela was writing because they ‘only have Shreddies’. One day he will be a challenge for Paxman…….

So grab a copy of Angela’s book and enjoy. It is published by Pen & Sword History (Angela and I share a lovely editor, Jen Newby) and is selling like the proverbial. Many thanks to Angela for allowing me to piggy back her launch to cut my outside broadcast teeth. I had a great time and as you can tell from the recording, so did everyone else there.

angelaThe Real Sherlock Holmes: The Hidden Story of Jerome Caminada by Angela Buckley is published by Pen and Sword Books. For more details see her blog, http://victoriansupersleuth.com

Posted in Author interviews, Book, Books, Family History, History, London, Radio Show, Reading, Talking Books, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Speaking to the dead: spiritualism, secularism & seeing the ghosts of the Great War

 

Mina Crandon  known as Margery) one of the most controversial mediums of the 1920s

Mina Crandon known as Margery) one of the most controversial mediums of the 1920s

Do you believe in ghosts? Can you trust in mediums who claim to commune with the dead? In Shell Shocked Britain I look at the rise of spiritualism during and after the First World War, examining why it experienced an explosion in interest and what it offered a nation traumatised by loss and grief. It is a fascinating subject that encompasses not just the supernatural, but issues of gender, the role of religion and the psychological need for both certainty and succour.

Even before 1914 church attendance was declining. As now, the majority of the population would classify themselves as Christian, but religious observance was increasingly confined to traditional holidays such as Christmas, Easter, harvest festivals and rites of passage – births, marriages and deaths. Demographic changes had led to the breaking up of small and close knit communities and young people were finding the strictures of the scriptures less relevant to their lives.

The Great War thrust the established church back into the limelight as clergy were called upon to rally people to the cause and offer hope and comfort to combatants and civilians alike. However, many found the support of their local priest wanting.  The church was sometimes viewed as too ready to promote an aggressive patriotism, focusing on fighting the good fight, rather than offering the necessary emotional support to those grieving. Yet if an individual priest were seen to be questioning the war, he would be vilified in local and national press. The church lost its way and a grieving nation sought meaning elsewhere.

Spiritualism as we would recognise it today began in mid-Victorian North America and by the 1870s there were numerous Spiritualist societies and churches throughout Britain and the United States, which in 1891 joined together to form the National Federation of Spiritualists. In 1902 the organisation became the Spiritualists’ National Union (SNU), which still exists today.  Spiritualist mediums, whose influence had declined following the the heyday of the séance in the late nineteenth century, became, for thousands of people during the First World War,  a focal point for grief and hope. Great crowds would attend spiritualist meetings across the country and enthusiasm for the gatherings went across all classes.

espiritus‘Celebrity’ endorsement furthered the cause. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Sir Oliver Lodge were great advocates for the movement, affected as they both were by the loss of sons to the war. In Shell Shocked I look at some of the key reasons why such eminent intellectuals were ‘taken in’, and at Mrs Osborne Leonard, one of the mediums who made such an impression on them. It makes disturbing reading, but in the 21st century there are equally audacious ‘cons’ that draw us in. Many sought to prove spiritualism was a fraud, including illusionist Harry Houdini, but that interest only heightened the public interest.

Gladys Osborne Leonard was born in 1882 and would later say that she had first had commune with spirits whilst still a child. Thwarted in her ambition to become a professional singer by illness, she turned to spiritualism and was giving professional sittings by 1915.  It was when she came into contact with scientist Sir Oliver Lodge that her fame spread. Lodge’s experiences of working with her to communicate with his son, killed in action in 1915, were written up in his book Raymond or Life and Death – a paean to the afterlife and ultimately to his desperate grief at the loss of his son.

Spiritualist medium Mrs Osborne Leonard, who worked with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle & Sir Oliver Lodge

Spiritualist medium Mrs Osborne Leonard, who worked with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle & Sir Oliver Lodge

Leonard worked with the Society for Psychical Research, an organisation established to prevent fraud, which offered a veil of respectability.  However, many later suggested Leonard was a clever charlatan who used auto-suggestion in a similar way to many of the doctors treating shell shocked soldiers, tapping into her client’s unconscious until they believed what she wanted them to believe. Her work may seem feeble by today’s standards, but in the days of early wireless technology it was not difficult for Sir Oliver Lodge to believe that invisible radio waves were acting as a conduit to his dead son’s existence on the other side.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was also a firm believer and said of Leonard: “The greatest trance medium with whom the author is acquainted is Mrs. Osborne Leonard. The outstanding merit of her gift is that it is, as a rule, continuous. It is not broken up by long pauses or irrelevant intervals, but it flows on exactly as if the person alleged to be speaking were actually present. The usual procedure is that Mrs. Leonard, a pleasant, gentle, middle-aged, ladylike woman, sinks into slumber, upon which her voice changes entirely, and what comes through purports to be from her little control, Feda”

It is little wonder that so many were attracted to this contact, and with the ‘Happy Valley’ in which Leonard said dead soldiers lived a comfortable life. They smoked pipes, drank whisky and took springtime walks.

As worrying as the fraud on the recently bereaved was the exploitation within spritualism itself. In the 19th century, the formal spiritualist movement had been dominated by female mediums, such as the Fox sisters. It was closely allied to women’s suffrage and offered an opportunity for women to make their views known. However,  some of these women were preyed upon by male confidence tricksters who, to all intents and purposes, ‘pimped’ them around meetings and informal gatherings. A movement that had originally given women subject to the restrictive social mores of Victorian and Edwardian society a ‘voice’ now became another way to subjugate them.

In the inter-war years spiritualism was the only way many could make sense of loss and cling to the belief that their loved ones were in a ‘better place’. It stepped in where the Anglican church, along with other denominations, seemed muddled and without a lead, unable even to agree on what was meant by an ‘afterlife’.

In Shell Shocked Britain I look at this subject in  more detail, to assess how hundreds of thousands came to rely on the voices of the dead to keep them in the land of the living. It is a fascinating aspect of the emotional turmoil the whole country experienced during and after the Great War, and one that is rarely discussed.

Posted in Book, Books, Family, History, Mental health, Reading, Religion, Shell Shocked Britain, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The ‘First Blitz’ – Terror Comes To The Home Front

220px-It_is_far_better_to_face_the_bulletsHow many people know anything of the ‘First Blitz’ – war waged by Germany from the air between 1915 and 1918?

As I researched Shell Shocked Britain : the First World Wars’s Legacy for Britain’s Mental Health I was surprised that so few of the stories from that time were well-known. I discussed the subject with a number of people and they had little or no knowledge of the horrors perpetrated by first the Zeppelin airships and then enormous fixed wing aircraft.

By 1914 Germany had several Zeppelins at the disposal of the armed forces. They could fly at speeds up to 85 m.p.h. with the capacity to carry approximately two tons of bombs. The first raid was on Great Yarmouth and King’s Lynn in January 1915 and continued across areas in the Midlands and along the East coast, including Hull where raids in June 1915 caused devastation.  I was lucky to discover letters describing these raids in the Liddle Collection held by Leeds University Library, and those from Mrs Nell Hague to her husband George, who had remained in London whilst she visited her mother, offer a fascinating insight into the mix of horror and excitement many felt:

“The Zeps are here! And from mother’s bedroom window the whole town seems on
fire…..

It is no exaggeration to say that there were thousands of people in and around the fields and houses… the dear little children -the cripples, the aged – oh my dear it must be seen to be realised…”

The raids became a tool to boost recruitment; many men so disgusted  that the enemy had brought war to the homes of Britain that they felt compelled to join up in response to official posters, such as the one illustrating this post, above.

Gotha_RG_im_FlugBy 1917 Zeppelins had been replaced by fixed wing aircraft – the Gotha, and, shortly afterwards, the ‘Giant’, with a wing span of 42 metres (138 feet) and tail roughly the same size as a Sopwith Pup. It is hardly surprising that British planes had such difficulty countering these fearsome attacks.

In his recent series Britain’s Great War Jeremy Paxman briefly touched on the physical and emotional trauma experienced by the populations of towns along the East and South East coasts of England and in London, the target of many of the raids. He focused on the first daylight raid of June 1917 during which (amongst a total of 162 people) eighteen pupils of Upper North Street School, Poplar, in East London were killed. Sixteen of them were aged from 4 to 6 years old. In Shell Shocked Britain I develop the story of that day, and others, to consider some of the lasting mental scars of the air raids.

In total, around 1,500 civilians were killed by air raids over the period of the war.

My Great Uncle Alfred Hardiman was a conscript into the 31st Battalion Middlesex Regiment, a works battalion, and spent his short service in the army in London. At some point in 1917 he was involved in the aftermath of one of the Gotha raids on London and his experience marked him so deeply that he spent several months in hospital. He was eventually discharged ‘unfit for service’ due to enuresis – he had become,at the age of 27, incontinent. In 1922 he would finally break down, killing his ex-girlfriend and himself. By all accounts a previously gentle man, he was not alone in finding the terrible sights of war on the Home Front impossible to forget.

wwi-british-policeAs always, one has to be wary of imposing present day values and responses on those living 100 years ago. When the bombs of July 2005 went off in London we were given minute by minute accounts of the situation by all media outlets. In the First World War, coverage of raids was actively suppressed, ostensibly to avoid panic. When we look back just the few years to the terrorist attacks, we can recall fears of further attacks, utterly unpredictable and our lives endangered simply by virtue of the train or bus we boarded. In the war, the suppression of news reports had the undesired consequence of heightening rumour and suspicion. No accurate reports resulted in a population constantly on the alert and the continued official resistance to proper air raid warnings (even to the point where policemen could only warn people by wearing a placard around their necks) resulted in more disruption rather than less.

In Shell Shocked Britain I discuss the ensuing ‘collective trauma’ in more detail, looking behind the reports of calm responses and stoical public at the deeper, personal terrors. On the Kent coast, particularly in the town of Folkestone, severely battered by Gotha raids in 1917, doctors had already begun to describe a form of shell shock amongst the families involved. I found reports of suicides both during and after the war due at least in part to continuing air raid shock.

Of course many were left unmarked by such events; some even found them exciting. But others, such as Alfred Hardiman, were left so traumatised that the anxiety became impossible to bear.

I have not yet been made aware of many planned events to mark those lost in the air raids of the First World War. Discussions on twitter suggest that thus far these horrors have so far been neglected. I hope that, in the next four years, places affected will take time to remember the horrors of the days when death first came from the skies..

Posted in Book, Books, First World War, History, London, Mental health, Reading, Shell Shocked Britain, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

‘Mental Cases’ by Wilfred Owen: Writing the horror of shell shock in poetry

Wilfred_Owen_plate_from_Poems_(1920)

Wilfred Owen

On Friday 21st March it was World Poetry Day. It is often one of those ‘days’ that passes people by, especially if they do not consider themselves a poetry lover. (I don’t think anyone truly dislikes poetry; they just haven’t found the right poet…) The UN states that World Poetry Day reminds us that:

‘Poetry reaffirms our common humanity by revealing to us that individuals, everywhere in the world, share the same questions and feelings’.

As anyone who follows this blog regularly knows, I would agree wholeheartedly with that statement. I adore poetry and like nothing better than a couple of hours browsing an anthology or looking at the Poetry Archive online and discovering someone new; or a poem that expresses just how I am feeling at that time.

Shell Shocked jacket high res jpegA common humanity and a recognition of kinship is something I have been working through in my book, Shell Shocked Britain, which has been occupying a lot of my time recently. My editor is sending me her final edits and I am adding a few, last paragraphs that I have thought of since the manuscript was first presented in December. I have also started a twitter feed for the book and given it a Facebook page to ensure I can follow as many interesting First World War sites and projects as I can and offer tantalising snippets from the book and the research I have done for it. If you feel like following either then do ‘like’ or ‘follow’ for more details.

Anyway, as it was World Poetry Day on Friday, and because I was unable to post anything whilst in London for the day (and at the launch of Angela Buckley’s fabulous book ‘The Real Sherlock Holmes’) I thought I would offer here a poetic tribute to the shell shocked men of the Great War in the words of the wonderful Wilfred Owen. Owen was himself hospitalised at Craiglockart in 1917 to recover from neurasthenia (another term for shell shock). A chapter in Shell Shocked Britain uses line 15 as its title – Always they must see these things and hear them. It sums up the enduring trauma the men experienced, during and after the war, and indeed the whole poem expresses vividly the horrors that haunted the men that broke down, unable to articulate their pain.

shellshcokIn my book I do recognise that many men came through the war and lived happy and fulfilled lives, safe with families and able to leave the war behind them. Some trod a path between the past and the futures they wanted – a narrow way that held dangers should life decide to deny them the support they needed to maintain their sanity. Others could never recover and spent the rest of their lives dismantled emotionally and physically – ‘set-smiling corpses’ that woke each day to face new torments. Ten years after the war 65,000 men were still receiving treatment and many broke down many years after the conflict ended.

These truly were ‘the men whose minds the Dead have ravished‘.

Wilfred Owen – Mental Cases

Who are these? Why sit they here in twilight?
Wherefore rock they, purgatorial shadows,
Drooping tongues from jaws that slob their relish,
Baring teeth that leer like skulls’ teeth wicked?
Stroke on stroke of pain, – but what slow panic,
Gouged these chasms round their fretted sockets?
Ever from their hair and through their hands’ palms
Misery swelters. Surely we have perished
Sleeping, and walk hell; but who these hellish?

- These are men whose minds the Dead have ravished.
Memory fingers in their hair of murders,
Multitudinous murders they once witnessed.
Wading sloughs of flesh these helpless wander,
Treading blood from lungs that had loved laughter.
Always they must see these things and hear them, 
Batter of guns and shatter of flying muscles,
Carnage incomparable, and human squander
Rucked too thick for these men’s extrication.

Therefore still their eyeballs shrink tormented
Back into their brains, because on their sense 
Sunlight seems a blood-smear; night comes blood-black;
Dawn breaks open like a wound that bleeds afresh.
- Thus their heads wear this hilarious, hideous,
Awful falseness of set-smiling corpses.
- Thus their hands are plucking at each other; 
Picking at the rope-knouts of their scourging;
Snatching after us who smote them, brother,
Pawing us who dealt them war and madness

The images Owen uses, of nameless men reduced to’slavering’ like animals and suffering an endless purgatory, is surely a metaphor for the de-humanising effects of the war and the resultant retreat inward to a hell these ‘helpless’ men cannot escape from.

Do read this poem through a few times if you can. It is shocking in its graphic description of the men Owen was treated alongside at Craiglockhart, under the enlightened care of psychiatrist William Rivers. It is a vision worthy of Dante and surely berates us should we forget these men who reach out to ‘paw’ and ‘snatch’ at those of us who might live on without giving them a thought….

Posted in Book, Books, First World War, History, Mental health, Poetry, Reading, Shell Shocked Britain, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Talking Books talks Septimus Heap & writing magic with Angie Sage

Septimus_Heap_-_All_Seven_CoversOn the 28th February I was very lucky to have as my guest on Talking Books Angie Sage, an author who has received global success with her series of fantasy novels, featuring Septimus Heap, seventh son of a seventh son with magical powers. Starting with Magyk and ending with the seventh book, Fyre, we gallop through the adventures of Septimus and his friends. Don’t be fooled into thinking this is another Harry Potter wizard-alike however. Septimus is funnier, more intelligent and supported by a cast of characters that can keep anyone aged seven to seventy plus interested and amused.

Angie is also a really inspirational and creative writer, and illustrator, who lives in a fifteenth century house in Somerset that exudes its own mystery and magic, including as it does an old mural that purports to be of Henry VIII, but turns out to have something of the devil in it…

So after rather too many ‘umms’ at the beginning (on my part) we had a wonderful chat; the thirty minutes flew by and I wished I had read more of her work before we met. However, Angie agreed to read a passage from one of the books in the series, which as you can hear on the link below, had us all chuckling. There are ghosts, witches, dragons and human interest aplenty. Yes – even wizards can fall in love and as J.K. Rowling discovered, young readers growing up with their characters long to know who has paired up with whom. We talk about this, along with the joys of writing and developing characters and stories over a long series of books, the ‘Harry Potter’ effect and the pitfalls associated with selling film rights to Warner Brothers. Angie is a hugely successful writer, selling in numbers beyond the hopes of most writing fiction today, but that doesn’t mean a writing life is without complications.

Good news for Septimus lovers is the planned trilogy, TodHunter Moon, which takes up the story seven years on. Readers  just can’t get enough of the stories and Angie just doesn’t want to leave the world of Magyk….

But back to Septimus. I was given a wonderful copy of the last in the series, Fyre, by Angie after the show and I will treasure it. I just wish my children were still of an age to enjoy them. They will have to come back to them with their own children, should they change their minds and have them….

Posted in Author interviews, Book, Books, Radio Show, Reading, Talking Books, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The BBC, the Great War & being part of the ‘bandwagon’…?

DCER001307

From the jacket of Shell Shocked Britain

First of all, thank you to all those who chatted to me, on and off-line following my Introducing ‘Shell Shocked Britain post. It was really heartening to find out so many are interested in the legacy of the Great War for the mental health of the nation and I have worked hard to do the subject justice; but the next six months are not so much about writing as marketing and I want to approach that properly as well.

However, I am aware of the first rumblings and grumblings about the coverage of the centenary so far. ‘There is SO much on the television’ said one friend ‘that it is hard to see how it can continue’. Another drew attention to the fact, one hundred years ago,  the war had not even started; yet the BBC (and it is almost wholly an issue for the BBC Coverage) is offering television and radio programmes on a daily basis. Radio 4 is awash with adverts not just for its own programming, but for Radio 2 and the television channels too. ‘Every presenter seems to want to jump on the Great War bandwagon…’ they said ‘I am feeling rather ambivalent about the seeming glorification of the war’. This is not really the response one would want for the centenary of one of the great turning points in British history. What we have today, we owe to those who fought in, and lived through, a conflict that sent out those first shoots that grew into ‘modern’ Britain.

I have been gripped by many of the programmes broadcast so far, but I have a lot of sympathy with these concerns, most particularly because it is another six months until Shell Shocked Britain hits the shelves. Although it is hardly possible to comprehend, people may be jaded and less interested in hearing about the First World War by October. And aren’t I doing exactly the same thing as the BBC by publicising the book so far in advance of the launch date? I want to make sure everyone who may be interested in the book knows it is there. But will anyone still be listening?

paxoThe subject matter of Shell Shocked Britain is so different from most of the programmes aired thus far. Jeremy Paxman in Britain’s Great War touched on some of the issues I aim to highlight, but without making some of the links I think are necessary – how the trauma experienced by combatants and civilians, adults and children alike affected the mental health of the nation. How behaviours, responses and attitudes in the post war period resulted in an approach to mental illness that resonates even into the twenty-first century. It is an important subject that I hope will find an audience. I want that audience ready to listen. I want it to be there.

Is anyone out there privy to the workings of the television and radio scheduler’s mind? Has the BBC a formal programme of events across the next four years? Are we to have programmes covering each of the battles? At what point does something become, in a programme maker’s eyes, ‘worthy’ of a documentary? Is the output original, or a re-hash of things we have seen before? Is this deluge of documentaries respecting the history of the period or exploiting it? So many questions.  Can this frenzy of programme making last four years?

Over the next few weeks I am going to be posting some pieces on topics I cover in Shell Shocked. These will include The First Blitz, the outbreak of Spanish influenza, Eugenics, and the fascination with spiritualism that saw a resurgence during and after the conflict. I will also tell you some of the sad stories that have materialised during my long trawls through the newspaper archives – stories that mirror that of my great-uncle Alfred Hardiman, who killed his ex girlfriend and then himself in 1922. They highlight how the strain of dealing with trauma experienced during the war could lead even the gentlest soul to commit shocking acts, often years after the Armistice.

Is it possible to make too much of such an important subject?

So what do you think? Is there too much too soon? Is this early festival of remembrance from the BBC the best way to remember and to honour those that lived through those years?

Posted in Book, Books, Family History, History, Mental health, Reading, Shell Shocked Britain, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments