“I’m the men who can”: Wonder Woman as a First World War heroine

I’m almost 8 months pregnant and running out of time and energy, but I knew I had to see Wonder Woman. I dragged myself off the tube one stop early, visions of the icy-cool movie theatres and unlimited buttery popcorn of my youth dancing through my head, only to discover that my local cinema’s version of air-con was “we’ve turned off all the heating.” £7 bought me a box of popcorn that was empty before the ads stopped and a Fanta that made me have to pee in the middle of the film. Never mind. (I went halfway through the boat scene. Other than double-speak about sexual norms of the early twentieth century, what did I miss?)

What a delightful film! How refreshing to see such a kick-ass female character on screen! I was there as a historian but I wasn’t there for historical accuracy and I suspect anyone who was isn’t in the target audience. With a film so blatantly fantastical, who needs historical accuracy? I thought it was wonderful to see the FWW setting used in such a creative way — something I hope we’ll see more of, hopefully if Wonder Women inspires.

We get WWII films all the time. WWII is easy. Nazis are evil — everyone can agree to that. It makes the story straightforward. But WWI is more complicated. No wonder the futility narrative has taken hold of the public imagination so unflinchingly. What’s a story without, as Captain Steve Trevor calls them, “the bad guys”? But are the Germans the bad guys — doesn’t that play into an overly simplistic nationalistic viewpoint which downplays or outright rejects the other nations’ complicity in warmongering? Are the warmongers the bad guys, with the average citizen a helpless pawn as evil  or incompetent generals lead them to their deaths? One is what most people believed at the time (I’m generalising here, I know) and the other is what most believe now. The problem with the futility narrative is that is robs the war of its meaning, and it was full of so much meaning, everyday, for the people who fought and lived it. This was something I thought the film showed well — a moment of levity, smiles and laughter amongst friends on the docks, which quickly turned to shocked silence as the wounded appeared and Diana realised the horrible results of the war. All the more powerful because of the context. But meaningless? I don’t think so.

I watched the “bad guy” idea ping back and forth throughout the film, wondering how it would be resolved. There was a moment where I thought it might land on “it’s complicated” which is where I end up most of the time, but narratively unsatisfying. And there’s the rub. How do you have a blockbuster film without a climatic battle where good triumphs over evil? You don’t. After the decidedly good Diana defeated the decided evil (SPOILER ALERT who, in a stereotype busting twist, at least wasn’t German) Ares, the conclusion of the film settled on “it’s complicated” again. Some people are good, some people are evil, but most people are somewhere in between and capable of both. It felt a bit incongruous, but there are worse (and less accurate) conclusions.

Diana wanted to free people of their obsession with war, a noble if naive ambition. She rejected the “Germans are the bad guys” narrative but clung tightly to the “Ares is to blame for all of this” idea, which allowed her to maintain her faith in humanity. She is fearless, full of empathy, willing to risk her life to save others and unwilling to let a man (handsome, flirtatious and forward-thinking though he may be) tell her to stay behind when there’s work to be done. She reminds me of someone — a FWW heroine. She is not dissimilar from the thousands of dedicated, brave, unconventional and naive women who left their homes for the frontline to serve, work, and yes — to fight. How wonderful to see her portrayed on the big screen.


“Is there anything more cheering than a new hat?”

I have a hero — or a heroine, since we’re talking about the early 20th century, and that was how they rolled. She’s responsible for a lot. When I first read her memoir, I wasn’t particularly interested in the First World War and I’d never heard of Salonika. But Isabel Emslie Hutton was more than an amazing woman with an incredible record of service, who tore down barriers for professional medical women and made great strides in advancing treatment for mental health. She was also a good writer. Even now, thirteen years after I first read them, her words evoke an experience I could never otherwise imagine.
Is there anything more cheering than a new hat? There is no tonic to equal it, as every woman knows, and the confidence it brings is indeed great. Mine had a pink ostrich feather, the only one I have ever had, and I wore it on this one occasion, for I was in uniform a few days later. I saw it again though, when in bedraggled uniform I came home in 1921, and found that my parent had given away every stitch of my clothing except that now very demodé and most unbecoming hat. How could I ever had chosen it, and what a sight for the gods I was as it perched precariously on my short hair over a lean, weather-beaten face!
– Isabel Emslie Hutton, Memories of a Doctor in War and Peace
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. “Women Wearing Various Styles Of Hats, 1910s.The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1917.

Is there anything more powerful than the erasure of an entire century? Good writing is akin to time travel. One of the things that always strikes me how relatable historical subjects were, how similar they are to us today, how little things have changed. Here, Isabel is writing about her decision to resign her civilian post and take up war work. Her account of the snide misogyny of the stranger on the street, the “kind” patronising official made me a bit sad, and exhausted. Plus ça change! But who hasn’t cheered themselves up with a new hat, or dress? My own talisman is nail polish. I like the idea that, some years from now, I’ll be able to look back at all I’ll have accomplished since that first set-back that sent me running to the beauty aisle at Boots.

My War Gone By: I Miss it So 

Not much to report here. I’ve been occupying my spare time with various summer projects, and reading. Sarah Waters is one of my favourite novelists; I just love the way she uses history as a setting, and I’ve finally gotten around to reading her most recent book, The Paying Guests. I was struck by a few passages where the main character Frances and some of her contemporaries are discussing the war:

It was every kind of hell, at the time. It was real, stinking hell. But the queer thing is, I sometimes find myself missing those days. There were things to do, you see, and one did them. That counts for a lot, I’ve discovered. Back here, now it’s all over — well, there isn’t a great deal for one. Lots of one’s friends dead and so on….

Eventually, Frances (the protagonist) responds to her fellow dinner-party guest:

I miss the war too. You’ve no idea, Mr Crowther, waht it costs me to admit that. But we can’t succumb to the feeling, can we? We’ll fade away like ghosts if we do. We have to change our expectations. The big things don’t count anymore. I mean the capital-letter notions that got so many of our generation killed. But that makes the small things count more than ever, doesn’t it?

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters, 137-8.

Photo 09-08-2016, 20 14 59This is an idea that rarely crops up in popular culture portrayals of the First World War. The war was terrible, the idea that it might have had some good aspects, that there might be some people who enjoyed their wartime experiences, is something almost unrecognized  in the cultural narrative about the war. And yet here it is. The war, so wide sweeping, it’s affects in every part of society and every aspect of culture, can hardly be reduced to one narrative. If it seems that’s what’s happened over the course of the twentieth century, I’m pleased to say that tide is reversing in the twenty first. Of course there were some who found pleasant, even pleasurable experiences during the war. There were some for whom the war provided purpose, and structure.

But wait, there’s more! Frances was a pacifist activist, Mr Crowther was in Mesopotamia (“Generally when ladies learn that one was anywhere out east of Suez they rather lose interest. They want the romance of the trenches and all that.”) No predictable VAD or NCO as lazy backstory; thanks, Sarah Waters, for as ever broadening our horizons.


Belgrade Ghosts

While the UK was imploding, I was enjoying a very sunny weekend in Belgrade and trying not to think about the political situation. I’ve often wondered what it felt like to be a member of the public during such a momentous, disastrous occasion as a declaration of war. In the course of little over a week, the world as you know it seems to crumble, and yet everyday life carries on very much the same. Okay, so hopefully (I’m not ruling anything out here) Brexit (or the threat thereof) doesn’t precipitate total war in Europe. But uncertainty over the political situation has me paralyzed with anxiety, and the news from distant climes (many of which places I’ve never heard of) is almost unbearably tragic. I feel helpless; I want to do something, but I don’t know what. And I’m a historian, so I see parallels everywhere.

It’s been ten years since I first heard the call and made my way to Serbia, following the footsteps of my heroines from ninety years earlier. A lot has changed over those ten years. The hipsters have arrived, and more tourists, too. Belgrade looks cleaner, tidier, more commercial. Memories of the “NATO aggression” seem more firmly relegated to the past, less a part of the living memories of the city. But I can’t be the only one seeing ghosts of European wars everywhere I go. Walking beside me through the streets of Belgrade are not only figures from history but characters of my own imagination, as they lived, loved, and (some of them) died. And a lot of things feel the same to me. I love the monument to France in the Kalemegdan fortress, though it’s looking a bit worse for the wear. Whatever else has changed, I’m drawn to it every time I go to Belgrade.


Also relatively unchanged in the military museum, a dungeon full of relics in Kalemegdan. Though some parts of the museum have been updated here and there (a poorly functioning app invites us to step inside Serbian military history for ourselves), it begins with a dusty, practically indecipherable display on Belgrade in pre-historic times and stops rather abruptly after the Second World War, with an added, modern bit on the so-called “aggression” (offset by a section on Serbia’s military contributions to the UN; passive-aggression at its best).  So much to read into, with the museum’s communist undertones showing through the more modern “lick of paint” interpretations and spotty English translations. Excellent value at 150 RSD.

Photo 25-06-2016, 12 41 54Photo 25-06-2016, 12 42 24Photo 25-06-2016, 12 43 10

I can’t help but love the museum. Studying such an obscure part of history, it’s rare to find someone else who cares as much as I do, and the First World War galleries of full of interest. Here are some of my favourites:

Ooh, what’s that, in the far right of the last picture? American flags? Could this be the US diplomatic mission, in Belgrade 1919?

Photo 25-06-2016, 12 55 03

The story goes on, as ever, and I wonder what will happen next.

Sixes and Sevens: the forgotten history of Bre-entrance

‘Tis the season for heated political debates in pubs and, after a couple of glasses of prosecco*, I got to chatting animatedly with a couple of my colleagues about the EU referendum. One, somewhat younger than me, complained about the lack of facts in the campaigner’s rhetoric, and that she felt she didn’t have enough information to make an informed decision.

Screen Shot 2016-06-15 at 12.54.27Fair enough. Not everyone has made lifelong study of Britain’s historical in Europe, politically, culturally, and militarily. When I was at UCLA (which seems like an unbelievably long time ago) I wrote my undergrad thesis on Britain joining the EC, a painful process full of false starts. Recently, with EU referendum looming closer and larger on people’s minds (least of all my own), the optimism of those years and my own idealism seems like a joke.

In retrospect, 2004 was, perhaps, a mistake. But at the time, it seemed like the beginning of a wonderful future to me. Recently returned from a study abroad semester in London, I was frustrated with LA and disillusioned with American politics. My political coming-of-age could not have had worse timing (and is, incidentally the reason why I can’t rule out the possibility of a Trump presidency even though my European friends desperately want to hear it – my first taste of a presidential election left a bitter taste of crushing disappointment in my mouth. I know now that, in America, anything can happen).

But in Europe, things were going well, hatchets were buried, and the prosperous countries wanted to share their good fortune with their neighbours. “Stamping out the embers of the Cold War” is a more cynical phrase that was recently on my lips, but in 2004, my roommates and I had a party. We thought we were pretty classing, chugging ‘two buck chuck’ and eating cheese from the counter at Whole Foods. If only we’d known about Eurovision then. I memorised the names of the 10 joining countries and recited them to impress fellow area-studies students. At the time I didn’t think to question the wisdom of expanding EU membership so drastically and with such vastly different countries. Nothing seemed impossible. This was before the global recession, before Islamic extremism because such a threat, before a lot of things.

I spent my senior year reading about Britain declining to join the fledgling European Coal and Steel Community (in a nutshell, France, Germany, and a few others pooling their resources to make another European war impossible), only to change its mind in the 1960s, only then to be vetoed, twice, by Charles de Gaulle. Britain joining the EU was anything but easy, and I can’t comprehend why anyone would think leaving it is desirable. What happens if Brexits? No one knows for certain, but I’ll tell you this for free: it won’t be easy. Britain leaving the EU is bad for Britain, but it’s also bad for Europe, and is therefore doubly bad for Britain. Britain – and the world – needs a stable Europe.

And what about me? I need Britain in Europe. I make my living on British trade with Europe. I make my holidays in Europe. My backup plan is that, if London becomes too expensive, I can live in dreamy Amsterdam on my husband’s EU (British) passport. After graduation I abandoned studying political Europe in favour of the First World War, and I can’t forget that the EU was founded to stop exactly those horrors from happening again. I imagine that most people don’t even consider the possibility of another European war, but (just like a Trump presidency) one thing I’ve learned from history is that anything can happen.

I’m shocked and horrified by the news out of my home country on an increasingly frequent basis. But I also don’t want to raise my children in a xenophobic country that doesn’t know it’s own past. Optimism can only get us so far. But I’m just a (tax-paying, law-abiding, contributing) immigrant. And on 23 June, I can’t vote.

*OMG what will happen to Prosecco prices if Britain leaves the EU?

Not in my name: Hackney’s FWW Conscientious Objectors

On Saturday I went to visit a little exhibition at the Hackney Archives on local Conscientious Objectors. There’s been a lot of interest in COs lately; possibly because the politics motivating many of them are coming into fashion.
Photo 28-05-2016, 16 13 25.jpg

Hackney had a history of radical political and much of the population were Jewish refugees from Russia who refused to be allied with the country that has persecuted them. Others were motivated by their Christian belief in the commandant “thou shalt not kill.” As always at these local history exhibits, I found it fascinating to see the streets and buildings I’m familiar with taking an active role in a history I’ve also studied.

Photo 28-05-2016, 16 21 22.jpg

I was especially pleased to see featured one William Knott, who also pops up in my research! Though this placard doesn’t mention his service in Salonika…
Photo 28-05-2016, 16 23 52.jpg
Photo 28-05-2016, 16 12 22.jpg
“Not in my name” is running until October at Hackney Archives in Dalston. It’s a great little exhibition to pop to during your lunch break if you work nearby, or it’s open on Saturdays for those with a special interest in Hackney history or Conscientious Objectors.

“Not of our type”: hidden histories of immigrants in the East End

Yesterday I went on a guided history walk through an area I normally power straight through on my way home to work. Ayahs and Anarchists, Sailors and Seamstresses: Tracing Migrant Lives in Pre-War Whitechapel was guided by Nadia Valman and Rehana Ahmed of QMUL and being an immigrant and historian living near Whitechapel, naturally I was curious.

Slum clearance of the 1930s, the Blitz, and postwar reconstruction means that Whitechapel has visually changed almost completely in the last 100 years (unlike the area just north, Spitalfields, which was been much more preserved). Whitechapel history is invisible, and you have to use your imagination and know where to look, if you want to find its past. Even the origin of the name Whitechapel is hidden, in a way that aptly reflects the history of the area. It comes from St Mary’s Church, a white church, which was destroyed in the Blitz. St Mary’s Park was built on the spot, and the park was renamed in 1998 after a Bangladeshi teenager who was killed in a race-motivated murder in the 1970s.

Take for example this ornate doorway on an otherwise ordinary building on traffic-chocked and unappealing (though it is just opposite the best curry house in London, IMO) Commercial road. Would you know it used to house a Yiddish theatre?

Photo 23-05-2016, 19 31 08.jpg

And then there’s this synagogue living in the shadow of the East London Mosque (just by another great curry house). When the new mosque building was designed in the 1980s, they added special windows so they wouldn’t block out the light for the synagogue. The synagogue was known as the “great”, not because of its size, but because it was one of many on this one street. Now it’s owned by the mosque, the worshipers at the synagogue having decided to sell it, because they were no longer local and coming from elsewhere for prayers.

Photo 23-05-2016, 19 23 35

Speaking of mosques, apparently the Brick Lane mosque used to be Spitalfields synagogue — and before that, it was originally a French Huguenot church. We didn’t see the building on this walk, but maybe on the next one! While the East End is commonly celebrating for it’s embracing of immigrants who leave their mark on the area, it’s a myth that they came in tides, one replacing the other then the other. This walk showed how Jewish immigrants and Asian immigrants rubbed shoulders, overlapping for centuries.

It’s a familiar story, though, and a depressing example of how history repeats itself. Initial sympathy for Jewish refugees has ebbed away by the 1890s, when immigrant populations were blamed for housing shortages and unemployment, and politics took on a distinctly xenophobic tone. Hmm.