Tour Guides’ Tricks vs Historians’ Hang-ups: Lessons for Teaching History

Recently, I’ve started working as a tour guide on Edinburgh’s beautiful Royal Mile. For two hours, come rain or shine, I escort random tourists down the narrow alleyways, onto cobblestoned streets, across graveyards, and into medieval courtyards, regaling them with (hi)stories about Edinburgh’s colourful past. It’s entertaining and challenging work.  Guides must be on-the-ball with funny jokes, vibrant vocabulary, and accurate answers to a wide variety of questions for the whole two hours. It’s draining work, but super fun. The time flies by.

Being a tour guide is exciting because of my great love of history, local knowledge of Edinburgh, and previous experiences helping tourists. Also, after spending 10+ years in admin office roles in both Canada and Scotland, I am crystal clear that I’d rather be walking the streets of one of the prettiest cities in Europe than sitting in a stale office staring at spreadsheets. No more spreadsheets, I say! No more!  But my education (ie. PhD in modern history) is dismally underutilised in a position that caters to “just tourists.” Surely after so many years of study, I can “do better” than tour guiding?

Tour guiding might be a “fall from grace” for ambitious academics, but other employment opportunities – especially at universities or in research – are notoriously competitive and outrageously difficult to attain. So, while the rejection letters pour into my inbox (and until I reluctantly decide to give up on my dream of being a university lecturer), I’ve decided to apply my skills elsewhere. Also, those bills don’t pay themselves.

But I’ve learned there is a vast difference between a tour guide and a historian. Like, wow. And some of the differences are totally refreshing. Others are a little disconcerting. And some are just down right hilarious. Despite starting this job with a somewhat cocky attitude (“Surely it can’t be that much harder than when I taught at a university…”), tour guiding has re-opened my eyes to history and history-telling. And, of course, sufficiently humbled my approach.

Historians and tour guides both earn money from the same skill set: the ability to teach history. Although one researches and lectures in a university, the other guides on the streets, often in the exact place where that history took place. While teaching history unites these professions, their approaches greatly differ. This is why I decided to write this blog. Hopefully, my observations will debunk some myths (or prejudices) we may have about both trades.

1) Story-telling vs (Hi)story-telling

Professional historians will vehemently say that teaching history as a story (or narrative) is not good history. But tour guides rely heavily on stories because they are entertaining. And, because one of the chief goals of tour guiding is to entertain, historical events are often conveyed in a narrative structure (setup, conflict, resolution), as it makes history accessible, engaging and much more memorable.

But stories and histories are not interchangeable. History should not be moralised, narrativised, pushed into little boxes of “good” versus “bad.”  As we all know, history is often written by the victors (ie. white, old, wealthy, MEN) and any publication about historiography – the study of writing history – is plagued with lengthy analyses about the inherent bias in historical sources. Today’s students of history undertake meticulous and often painstaking training about how to identify and overcome such biases, so that most contemporary historical research endeavours to be objective, evidence-based and (hopefully) self-aware and self-reflective.

And yet, it is worthwhile noting that some students of history, like Michael Conway, perceptively argue that it is not until a student engages in historiography that they begin to realise that history is not a single overarching description, but instead a conflict-ridden zone of historians/scholars bickering endlessly about all aspects of history. This, Conway argues, is actually more compelling: “History is not indoctrination. It is a wrestling match. For too long, the emphasis has been on pinning the opponent. It is time to shift the focus to the struggle itself”. But let’s get back to tour guiding…

When history is told as a story, the goal is often to promote consumption; it (negates that academic battleground that Conway writes about and instead) allows the reader/audience to easily absorb the information without any moral dilemma, ambiguity, or guesswork. But this does not mean that the story is not meaningful or stimulating. In fact, some of my favourite British public historians (such as Neil Oliver or Lucy Worsley) often present history as narratives. Fortunately, they often simultaneously question whether we should accept such interpretations as accurate.  By doing so, audiences are given a choice: they can blindly accept such portrayals as conveniently memorable stories, or they can wrestle with the ambiguity and interpret the (hi)story in their own way.

Neil Oliver

Neil Oliver is a prominent archeologist and television presenter in Scotland. Criticised as being too Anglo-Centric by some, it did not stop him from being appointed as President of the National Trust of Scotland in 2017. (Photo credit: BBC)

But not all history can be put into a narrative structure. In the event you might disagree, then think of genocide, or slavery, or war. There’s no moral to be learned from the existence of concentration camps. There’s no overarching narrative of tragedy, comedy or redemption within slaves’ experiences. There are no “good” or “bad” soldiers in war. And, because these topics cannot be easily reduced or moralised, they continue to attract revision, debate and controversy among multiple stakeholders: historians, legal and legislative bodies, policy-makers, international organisations, humanitarians, educators, artists, authors, filmmakers, and so many, many more.

On Edinburgh’s Cowgate, I tell the story of Joseph Smith (“Bowed Joseph”), a poor, disabled 18thcentury cobbler who notoriously roused Edinburgh’s poorest segments of society into a frenzied mob (up to 10,000 people) whenever it suited him. The town officials were so wary of Bowed Joseph that they would often consult him before enacting local policies (such as increasing the price of ale). The “story” goes that when Joseph heard that a poor father-of-six had committed suicide after being evicted by an unconcerned landlord, Joseph beat his drum down the street to provoke thousands to storm the landlord’s house, stripping it of all possessions and piling the furniture into a nearby park. As the helpless town guard looked on, Bowed Joseph himself lit the match. The pyre reportedly burnt for hours.

Bowed Joseph

Bowed Joseph’s malformed skeleton (on display at the University of Edinburgh’s Anatomical Museum) shows us the devastating effects of childhood malnutrition in the 18th Century.

Historically speaking, we know very little about Joseph Smith. Born into abject poverty sometime in the mid 1700s on Edinburgh’s Cowgate, he developed rickets at a young age. He had strong, massive arms and short, bowed legs. We know this because upon his death in 1780 (falling from a coach after gambling at the race track in Leith), the University of Edinburgh’s prestigious Medical School acquired his deformed skeleton. Today, it’s displayed at the Anatomical Museum, which coincidentally was the only reason that I knew that Joseph Smith existed at all!

What the points of telling you all this? This is bad history, but a great story; the tale of an underdog who used his power for social justice. But – I would argue – stories like these teaches elements of history without the tourist even realising it. For example, the audience learns about Edinburgh’s brutal poverty, childhood diseases of the 1700s, the strength (and fear) of the mob to provoke political change, rioting as a commonplace practise of 18thC Scottish culture, existing class tensions between landowners and tenants – these are all historical themes that this story illustrates.

But I’ve practically sold my academic soul. I have compromised my formal objective, evidence-based study of history with an engaging narrative chiefly devoid of tangible facts, in order to achieve my manager’ goal: to entertain tourists about Edinburgh’s “history.”

2) Telling Entertaining (Hi)stories

Training for this job was mostly self-directed. I was not given a script, but simply told the appointed “audition date” I would give a two-hour tour of the Old Town to my manager. I was allowed to speak about anything, and was invited onto other guides’ tours to see their routes and topics. Considering this company is one of the highest rated on Trip Advisor (the chief reason I applied with them), I was surprised at this somewhat laissez-faire, trusting approach.

Although studying “all” of Scottish and Edinburgh’s history was slightly daunting, this worked perfectly for me. I have learned that both historians and tour guides are only as good as the knowledge they possess. Breadth and nuance of historical insight is entirely dependent upon that person’s work ethic and willingness to learn. Taaa-daaa – maybe tour guides and historians aren’t so different after all!

After my audition, my manager’s feedback was hilarious (…well, in retrospect): “Chelsea, you must use less dates. Tourists do not care if it happened in 1861, just say ‘mid-1800s.’ Of course, always know your dates in case anyone asks, but stop being so precise! Your groups don’t want a history lesson!”

My inner pedantic academic and pride as a “proper educated historian” shrivelled into a little lifeless ball of death. I laughed but was disconcerted. How can years of pushing for flawless historical accuracy (including memorising dates) be considered a weakness? I walked away from my audition a little bruised. My ego a little weakened. But then, it dawned on me. Could it be that imprecise teaching (the greatest faux pas of any educator) could be considered a strength here?! Could it be that extraneous pedantic detail was actually not necessary in guiding? Could it be that just the interesting, engaging, enjoyable parts of history are actually the focus?

A great relief settled inside me and that lifeless ball of death sprung alive again. Of course, tour guiding is about entertainment, and formal history is about education. Both can go hand-in-hand but are not identical. While History with a big H is important, we all know that aspects of it are tediously boring, even to historians: Economic history of immediate post-Confederation Canada? Not interested. Technical capabilities of British naval vessels in the Napoleonic Wars? Sorry, don’t care. Another biography of Winston Churchill? Please dear God, no.

Thus, I’ve learned that tour guiding isn’t just about using stories to tell history, but instead, to tell entertaining history. It’s like being given cream for your coffee, instead of weak milk. It’s like getting a filet mignon instead of rump steak. It’s like eating the centre of the cinnamon bun first, rather than the crusty outer edges. (ps. I like food analogies).

3) Questioning Impact and Legacy Without All the Pedantic Detail

As you’ve noticed, telling Edinburgh’s and Scottish history in entertaining, bite-size pieces are the trick of the two-hour tour guiding trade. But when I asked my manager if I could end with a question, instead of an amusing anecdote, he considerately listened and nodded his head. He simply said that so long as it was concise and clear, there’s no reason it wouldn’t work.

The need to understand and interrogate the legacy or impact of history details/facts/events/persons is a cornerstone of every good historical study. History conferences are full of scholars squabbling over the minutiae of history.  Even if it’s very technical details (i.e. the Spitfire only had 14-18 seconds of ammunition), those details can have significant impact upon larger events (pilot performance, casualty rates, future combat airplane design, and so on). That’s why details are so very important to historians, even if it makes them look like pedantic, over-obsessed nerds. If those details are inaccurate, misinterpreted, or false, then the larger context and the enduring legacy can also be questioned.

But would your average holidaying tourist be interested in such details?

No, let’s get real. Tour guides do not have the time to meticulously analyse every detail of Scottish history. For tourists, this would be the opposite of entertaining. Their holidays would be ruined by my tedious obsession with overwhelming empirical details.

Instead, I discovered that tour guides, similar to public historians, can approach it backwards – by deconstructing the legacy as a way to question details. For example, I deliberately end my tour beside the Writer’s Museum (with a view of the Royal Mile and the Scott Monument).

Scott Monment

The largest monument in the world dedicated to an author, the Scott Monument, was built in 1844.  (Photo Credit)

There I discuss Sir Walter Scott, arguably the most influential Scottish citizen to impact modern Scottish identity.  But because Scott’s writings showcased Scottish identity in a certain way – Highlands, stags, romance, the wilds of the north – it often failed to include other portions of Scottish society and culture.

This came to a climax (notice my narrative structure!) in 1822 when King George IV visited Scotland, the first official state visit in almost 200 years. Scott, a national celebrity, had been commissioned to plan the festivities and he did not fail to deliver. Notably, Polish conmen (Sobieski Stuarts) sought to benefit from the celebrations, publishing a famous book that claimed that specific tartan denoted a specific Highland Clan.  Scottish nobles raced to find their Highland ancestry so they could purchase their kilts in time for the King’s visit.  And Scott’s prolific writings (and explicit instructions for the festivities) had impacted locals and foreigners so much that when the King arrived, only a certain type of Scottish person was showcased – the “Highlander”. Bedecked in colourful tartan, this robust, whisky-swilling, haggis-eating, masculine, bearded and kilted “Highlander” came to represent all the Scots.

HIGHLANDER_QUAD_FINAL

Various cultural representations of Scotland have perpetuated the identity (myth?) of the “Highlander,” including films such as Highlander (1986), Braveheart (1995) and TV series Outlander (2014+). Perhaps it’s no wonder this image of Scotland still prevails today.

I thus conclude my tour with a question: Was Scott’s interpretation of the Scots actually an accurate reflection of Scotland’s identity? Or is he responsible for creating a redundant, overused, exploited image of the Highlands? I then humorously remind them to think twice about purchasing tartan scarves on the Royal Mile. Or watching Braveheart.

4) The Irrefutable Power of Location

The most formidable tool in the tour guide’s arsenal is not actually her/his ability to research history (the realm of professors) or to seamlessly present history in a convenient package (the realm of television programs), or even to repurpose history (the realm of public historians). Instead, it is the power of the physical location of historical events and legacies that allow tour guides to instil, showcase, mobilise, present, investigate, question, and explore history. By walking the same street that Bowed Joseph roused his mob, or by seeing the same views that JK Rowling saw when she wrote the first Harry Potter book, or by tasting haggis as Robert Burns would have tasted when he wrote “Ode to a Haggis,” the tourist is imprinted with so much more than just a history lesson. They themselves smell, taste, see, hear and thus participate in history in a way that no book, no TV show and no lecture can equal. It’s exponentially more powerful, more visceral and more resonant.

To my surprise, tour guides are often the only educational resource for tourists following a tight travel itinerary (I’ve checked with the tourists on my tours!). This means that tour guides are as vital to teaching history to the public as any other formally trained historian, curator or television educator. Although I travel a great deal, and have experienced amazing tours in places where history unfolded (the rise of the Third Reich in Munich, or discussing the Battle of Berlin steps from the Reichstag), I’m not sure I fully appreciated the role of tour guides in orchestrating and teaching history until now. Tour guides have an invaluable role in researching, selecting and presenting the physical locations of historical events, legacies and people to retell history. And by refocusing the audiences’ attention upon the location, tour guides revive history more authentically than can be created even in the most competent lectures, or among the most vibrant imaginations.

In 1774, one of my favourite Enlightenment authors, Voltaire, was dissatisfied with how scholars studied and wrote history:

“People are very careful to report what day a certain battle took place… They print treaties, they describe the pomp of a coronation, the ceremony of receiving the Cardinal’s hat, and even the entrance of an ambassador, forgetting neither his Swiss soldiers nor his lackeys. It is a good thing to have archives on everything that one might consult them when necessary… But after I have read three or four thousand descriptions of battles, and the terms of some hundreds of treaties, I have found the fundamentally I am scarcely better instructed than I was before.”

Voltaire proposed a solution that was rather innovative, especially for his time. Instead, he suggested that we should focus on location, artefacts, art and theatre to learn history:

“A lock on the canal that joins two seas, a painting by Poussin, a fine tragedy, are things a thousand times more precious than all the court annals and all the campaign reports put together.”

 

 

 

 

“Wars Are Not Won by Evacuation”: Untangling the Truth from the Evolving Dunkirk Myth

This month, Christopher Nolan’s long-awaited war epic “Dunkirk” hit screens worldwide. Critics have praised it as Nolan’s best film yet: a “powerful, superbly crafted film” and “a visceral, suspenseful, at times jaw-dropping historical war movie.” With a formidable British cast, a massive budget, the largest marine unit in movie history (60+ boats), and authentic filming actually occurring in the English Channel, “Dunkirk” will invariably be added to the list of war epics including Saving Private Ryan, Schindler’s List, the Great Escape and Das Boot.

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Dunkirk (2017) already as a spot in the top 30 war movies ever made

My thoughts just moments after watching the film? You get a real sense of urgency. The unwavering and intense anticipation was steadily increased throughout every scene by a soft, but perpetual tick-tock in the background. Every action sequence becomes a catharsis from the tick-tock only to return again, bringing with it this heavy feeling of apprehension that Britain’s brief, hopeful window to escape from Dunkirk is coming to an end. Time is truly ‘of the essence’ in this film.

Nolan’s Dunkirk is perhaps better appreciated by clarifying what it is not. This is not a comedy (as in, there’s not a single joke made to lighten the mood, even briefly). This is not a commentary about the highest-level political decisions of the period (there is no scene that shows Churchill furrowing his brow or naval/army/air force commanders bickering in Westminster). This is not a romance film (in fact, other than a few nurses, there was no female cast, nor insinuation to homosexual love). This is not a transnational film that attempts to bond enemies (there is no scene that shows German soldiers, except a rare glimpse at a Messerschmitt 109E and a few bombers, but even that is from a distance). This is not a documentary (despite a small amount of text after the opening credits, this film does not provide historical facts, nor interviews with survivors).

So what is it?

Perhaps this is best answered by you, the audience. For me, it was a story of survival. Well, a story of British survival. I really enjoyed it. I cringed, I cried, I squirmed, I begged, and I felt the greatest sense of hope when I saw the RAF Spitfires doing their intricate dances in the sky. (Which, coincidentally, is an excellent foreshadow to what would follow the Dunkirk evacuations – the Battle of Britain).

Walking out of the theatre on a Tuesday afternoon in July in Scotland, I followed a mother with her teenage sons. They were enthralled by the movie, but bursting with questions: “Did Grandddad fight in that? How come there weren’t more fighter planes to help the lads on the beaches? I’d shoot every German plane. The RAF were pretty incredible, can you imagine landing a plane like that on the water? Too bad they ran out of fuel. God, I’d be proper scared landing like that.”

Nolan’s film provides a fresh starting point for discussing the war, and Dunkirk particularly. Films are some of our greatest resources to access history. Of course, they must be taken with a grain of salt. According to a study by Dr. Peter Seixas, Professor of Education at the University of British Columbia, the more engaging the film, the less likely audiences were to criticize its historical merit.

Dunkrik Movie Poster (2017)  Dunkrik 1958

Instead, filmic devices, such as realistic violence and use of blood, boosted the perceived authenticity of the historical event. Older films depicting the same event, despite being limited by 1950s or 1960s censorship, were seen as less historically genuine. Interesting, no?

But if Dr. Seixas’ observation is true – that the more engaging the film, the less likely audiences are to question its historical accuracy – then Nolan is stuck between a rock and hard place. Is it possible for Nolan (or any director) to create a film that is both highly entertaining and historically accurate?

No. Let’s get real. It’s impossible to exactly mirror history into any medium, film included. But, we can give credit to Nolan for attempting to gain authenticity in other ways. Nolan wanted to make his Dunkirk epic as British as he could, despite the need for American-sized film budgets to achieve his vision. After all, Dunkirk was a British failure. And depending on your perspective, a British success. Nolan chose only British actors and emphasized the Britishness of this endeavor. Ironically, the film is expected to be more lucrative with American audiences than British. But, whereas the British are educated about the failure of Dunkirk from a young age, many Americans will be introduced to Dunkirk for the very first time through this blockbuster film.

But, importantly, Nolan’s Dunkirk is also contributing to Dunkirk’s ongoing cultural legacy.

The “Dunkirk Myth” might be defined as a Britain’s ability to embrace defeat as a platform for eventual victory; the humanity and compassion of the British people to help one other created the perception of a strong community and an enduring nation. It was the marriage of the home front with the battle front, the defeat with the victory. Since 1940, the Dunkirk Myth has been influenced by various novels, speeches, poetry, and, importantly, films.

This is why is it so very important not to lose sight of the historical facts within this national myth – now reintroduced to new generations through a super visceral, action-packed CGI-enhanced, American-budget British war movie, right?

So what was Dunkirk?

Simply put, it was evacuation of 338,000 Allied soldiers (chiefly from the British Expeditionary Force and French Army) from the beaches of Dunkirk, France from 26 May to 4 June 1940.

A few weeks earlier, Germany had launched a surprise Blitzkrieg (lightening war) on the Allied forces in western Europe. This same German maneuver had epically failed in the First World War (resulting in stagnant trench warfare). But in May 1940, Germany was incredibly successful due to the element of surprise, wireless communications, anti-aircraft guns (called flak), the tight coordination of land and air forces, and stronger tanks.

2.WK., Frankreichfeldzug 1940: Deutsche Militaerkolonnen

This German motorised column secretly advanced through the Ardennes in May 1940. This was no easy feat with 134,000 soldiers, 1,222 tanks, and nearly 40,000 lorries and cars that had to narrowly navigate heavily wooded areas.  Even “Traffic Managers” flew up and down the columns to alleviate any deadlock. But it was a stunning success. Historian Richard J. Evans claims that Germany achieved the greatest encirclement in history with 1.5 million prisoners taken with less than 50,000 German casualties.

Over 66,000 British soldiers died from mid-May until the end of the evacuations on 4 June. A combined total of 360,000 British, French, Belgian and other Allied forces died during the Battle of France, which ended with its surrender on 22 June 1940.

(For more further reading, seen Richard J Evans’ (2009) Third Reich at War, Julian Jacksons’s (2003) The Fall of France: The Nazi Invasion of 1940, Ian Kershaw’s (2008) Fateful Choices: Ten Decisions That Changed the World 1940–1941 or Ronald Atkin’s (1990) Pillar of Fire: Dunkirk 1940).

Time Map 1940

This map from Time Magazine from 10 June 1940 shows the “Nazi Trap” enclosing in on the British and French forces.

Fleeing the German advance, nearly 400,000 Allied soldiers were pushed as far west as possible, until they reached the English Channel at the beaches of Dunkirk. Churchill called it the greatest military disaster in British history. This was also the last time any Allied Forces would be in France, Belgium, the Netherlands or Luxembourg until the famous D-Day landings nearly four years later. This evacuation also meant that all of western Europe was left alone to suffer German occupation for four long years.

Why is this disaster considered a success?

Due to the mobilization of over 800 boats, ships, yachts and other private holiday vessels, 338,000 men who were standing helplessly on the beaches of Dunkirk (as many naval ships could not dock to collect them) were successfully evacuated within just 10 days. From a humanitarian perspective, this is obviously impressive.

But it also meant that commanders made impossible choices, such as leaving behind the sick and wounded, and destroying Allied vehicles, equipment and resources, lest they fall into enemy hands. It was truly a fight for survival against overwhelming enemy forces, low morale, and very few resources. It was also a fight against time. Tick-tock, indeed.

Kenneth Branagh.jpg

Kenneth Branagh’s role as a Naval Commander (with a changed name from the original) reflects  the impossible choices that British commanders faced. All army materials and vehicles were destroyed. Also,  the BEF was the top priority for evacuation. Although some 140,000 French soldiers were evacuated, nearly 40,000 were left behind.

What happened after Dunkirk? (And yes, there is a point for asking this)

Dunkirk ended the “Phoney War,” the 7-month lull on the Western Front following Hitler’s invasion of Poland in September 1939. This shocked the world and brought international attention to the fact that Germany was a formidable force. Hitler’s fiery promises to conquer Europe were not just hot air, but had legitimate merit.

HItler 19 July 1940.jpg

The conquest of France marked the highest point in Hitler’s popularity for the entire war. As the Battle of Britain began raging overhead, Hitler called for peace on 19 July 1940: “A great world empire will be destroyed […] In this hour I feel compelled, standing before my conscience, to direct yet another appeal to reason in England. I believe I can do this as I am not asking for something as the vanquished, but rather, as the victor, I am speaking in the name of reason. I see no compelling reason which could force the continuation of this war.”

Immediately after Dunkirk, the war took to the skies in a fierce combat for air superiority called the “Battle of Britain.” Why? So that Hitler’s forces could invade Britain without constant aerial bombardment in the autumn of 1940 – before winter made it impossible to invade. German Luftwaffe planes initially attacked British air bases in southern England. Royal Air Force pilots (including Commonwealth and Polish pilots) were vicious competition for the vastly superior and better equipped Luftwaffe. Daily “dogfights” were witnessed by civilians. RAF planes and pilots dropped like flies. Churchill’s famous observation that “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few” reflected the fact that these tireless pilots had become the last line of defense.

RAF Pilots

The average age of a RAF pilot in the Battle of Britain, such as these handsome men above, was just 20 years old. The average life expectancy for a Spitfire pilot was just four weeks. Over 20% of pilots were from Commonwealth nations, or were Polish or Czech. Despite having a much better equipped air force, Germany suffered 2,600 pilot casualties. Britain lost just over 500 RAF pilots.

By late August 1940, a small bomb was dropped on London (German command alleged it was an error). Error or not, this expanded the range of targets to now include civilian centers. The RAF then bombed Berlin. The Luftwaffe again bombed London. The “Blitz” of British cities shadowed the same quick, surprise tactics that the German Luftwaffe had recently used so successfully against infantry forces in western Europe. Night bombings and devastating daily air raids on homes, factories, ports, lasted until May 1941, killing an estimated 40,000 Brits and making hundreds of thousands homeless.

WAR & CONFLICT BOOKERA:  WORLD WAR II/WAR IN THE WEST/BATTLE OF BRITAIN

One of the most iconic photos from the Blitz is St. Pauls Cathedral standing intact after a raid on 29/30 December 1940.

The Blitz, as it would be called, meant that British urbanites had to persist through the most difficult circumstances to continue surviving. Londoners especially “kept going” with daily tasks that came to epitomize the archetype of endurance. If ever there was a time in British history when the national character became so well tested, and so well defined, this was it. (For more reading on this very interesting topic, check out Angus Calder’s (1969) The People’s War: Britain 1939-1945 and (1991) The Myth of the Blitz and Jeremy Crang and Paul Addison’s (2011) Listening to Britain: Home Intelligence Reports on Britain’s Finest Hour, May-September 1940).

Blitz Milkman

Photos, such as this London milkman continuing his deliveries (while firefighters douse a fire in the background), came to typify the resilience and endurance of Londoners to “keep on” despite the war unfolding around them.

What about the Dunkirk Myth?

Although “The Dunkirk Myth” preceded the Blitz, it also developed alongside the Blitz spirit through various culturally-important products (for those who want the pure academic stuff, see Nicolas Harman’s 1980 Dunkirk: The Necessary Myth or an excellent review by my old supervisor, Prof. Paul Addison):

Broadcasts from JB Priestly in May 1940 reporting on the flotilla of “little ships” in the English Channel. Priestly’s depictions of ordinary Englishmen coming to the rescue of the helpless troops transformed this war from a military affair to one which required the entire mobilization of the home front. (But, to be historically accurate on this point, Englishmen weren’t voluntarily throwing themselves into the fray, but the British navy normally took charge of their vessels then used them as required to save the troops).

JB Priestly.jpg

Priestly became a formidable voice of calm reporting (and propaganda) for Britain, though he faced criticism in later life.

Churchill’s famous “We shall fight them on the Beaches” speech to the House of Commons. Everyone has heard this speech. It’s epic. But most everyone does not know that the speech was not broadcast. British newspapers printed excerpts of it, but it was not until 1949 when it was recorded.

Churchill we Shall Fight them on teh beaches COMIC.jpg

This comic from Reddit uses Churchill’s historic rhetoric to satirise reactions by today’s British authorities to threats against modern Britain.

Paul Gallaco’s Snow Goose, a short story (and eventually a novella) first published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1940. This tearjerker reveals a growing friendship between a disabled artist and lighthouse keeper and young woman, who discovers a wounded Snow Goose. Loads of symbolism paints the picture of innocence and loyal love dismantled by the tragedies of war. And the evacuations of Dunkirk become a sort of self-sacrifice for humanity, art, and first loves. The Snow Goose novella had a strong impact on British society. It was a favourite for young readers due to its short but eloquent length and even Michael Morpurgo cites it as an influence on his much-loved War Horse. People saw Dunkirk not for what is was in strict military terms – a colossal disaster – but a sort of coming of age story about the enduring spirit of British compassion and humanity.

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Fantasy Book Review claims Snow Goose is a “a tribute to the indomitable human spirit”

Dunkirk (1958). Starring Richard Attenborough, John Mills and Bernard Lee, it became the second largest grossing film in Britain of that year. By following an English civilian and a British soldier, the film unfolds from two key perspectives, again cementing the myth that Dunkirk united the home and battle front in one great national rescue mission.

Richard Attenborough Dunkirk

Richard Attenborough starred in Dunkirk (1958) but did not receive an Oscar nod

Ian McEwan’s Atonement (novel) and Atonement (2007) film. Atonement follows the blossoming love of a young couple interrupted by the shocking and criminal accusations of a younger sister. Soon enough, the war unfolds and both sisters become nurses in London while the protagonist is sent to France to fight. Dunkirk (again) is used as a historical event that binds together the home front and battle front, becoming both a barrier and vehicle for unity. Director Jo Wright’s incredible scene of the Dunkirk beaches is praised as “one of the most extraordinary shots in the history of British film – a merciless ten minutes, panning across an army of bedraggled and bleeding British troops huddled on the beach at Dunkirk, with ruined ships smouldering in the shallows beyond.”

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This 5 and a half minute unbroken sequence in Atonement (2007) was filmed by director Jo Wright with 1,000 extras to emphasise the chaos and disaster of the Dunkirk beaches. See it here.

Finally, Nolan’s Dunkirk (2017). An epic war film that refuses to be classified in all the genres we normally assign. I suspect it will haunt and challenge both critics and audiences for many years to come. But perhaps we should also be wary of a film that is so very one-sided? So singular in its storytelling?

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One-Dimension’s Harry Stiles may have taken all the limelight, but Tom Hardy’s performance as an sharp shooting RAF pilot definitely won my vote. Swoon.

So what?

Historically, Dunkirk was the rude awakening that not only shocked the British Expeditionary Force, but also the British home front. As Churchill said solemnly “Wars are not won by evacuation.” People began to fear for their sovereignty, their homes and their country in a way that they had never before. How they reacted was a real testament to their national character, and how they survived was a real testament to their national legacy.

Culturally, Dunkirk planted the seeds of a national myth that developed, grew and transformed as the war unfolded. Initially it was highly propagandistic with Priestly’s broadcasts or Snow Goose love stories, but as time has passed, Dunkirk’s legacy appears to still enthral the imaginations of a new generation. It was a paradox that such a defeat could be transformed into a stunning success. Now, 77 years later, we are still discussing Dunkirk’s historical relevance and cultural impact on British national identity in the face of overwhelming odds and great uncertainty.

Which begs the question – the same question others have already asked: What about Brexit?

 

 

From a Land of Immigrants to a Land of Colonisers: A Lesson in Canadian Diversity for British Policymakers

This is a big year for Canada. After 150 years of explosively entertaining hockey, igloo-icy winters, and deliciously decadent Timbits, people around the world will celebrate Canada’s sesquicentennial. Happy birthday, Canada.

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For those who have ever travelled, studied or lived abroad, you begin to appreciate your homeland in an entirely new way. As American philanthropist Cliff Borgen said “When overseas you learn more about your own country than you do the place you’re visiting.”  The novelty of other cultures is endearing and even helpfully distracting from the monotony of your normal life. But it’s when we are forced into new cultures when we are confronted with the reality that our own customs, traditions and protocols are sometimes arbitrary, bizarre and inefficient.

In this sense, travelling is not just gazing into the porthole of another new place, but actually a much more inverted and introspective experience. You begin to realise the ways you are fortunate, and the ways you are deprived. This even makes you think differently, apparently. According to one study, “People who have international experience or identify with more than one nationality are better problem solvers and display more creativity.” But, crucially, this depends on openness, an ability to embrace other people, cultures and ideas, which also means you’re happy to accept ambiguity and a lack of closure.

But what happens if you already hail from a country that values inclusivity, openness, diversity? How does that change your experience abroad?

As a Canadian, I think I am already “open” to others. It’s part of my “culture,” eh? Just under 40% of Canadians are immigrants or second-generation immigrants, and that is expected to rise to half the population by 2036. Canada is about as diverse a country as you can experience. A true land of immigrants. Canada is not a melting pot. Unlike the USA, newcomers to Canada are not expected to shed their cultural cloaks, assimilate and promptly adopt the “Canadian Dream.” Instead, Canada’s strength is its diversity. We embrace others.

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Happy Photo of Canadian Diversity from candiversity.com

It wasn’t always like that. In 1970, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau faced a major domestic crisis due to rising French nationalism in Quebec. Separatists wanted quicker political process and to expedite their demands they kidnapped a cabinet minister and British diplomat, resulting in the FLQ or October Crisis. Trudeau enacted the War Measures Act and tanks rolled into Montreal. Martial law was controversial and when asked by a reporter how far he would take such policing, Trudeau famously replied: “Just watch me.”

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Watch Pierre Trudeau’s steely reaction to reporters here

In the background of this domestic upheaval was the introduction in the late 1960s of a new points-based system for immigration. Applicants were awarded points for age, education, ability to speak English or French, and demand for that particular applicant’s job skills. If an applicant scored enough points, he or she was granted admission together with their spouse and dependent children.

These “landed immigrants” were given all the same rights as Canadian-born citizens. A new sponsorship system also meant that immigrants could also sponsor relatives abroad for settlement. This allowed naturalized Canadians to engage in the immigration process. And, importantly for Trudeau, immigrants were given the right to vote.

By opening the doors and flooding the country with immigrants, while espousing a strong multiculturalist ideology, Trudeau and his Liberals diluted the Anglophone vs Francophone tensions. The Liberals, predictably, courted the newly arrived voters and sought policies that would appeal to them. Politically speaking, it was superior “checkmate” move against the radical separatists. Decades later, the same maneuver was used again by Conservative PM Stephen Harper, who needed to win a coalition in order to stay in power. The newly arrived minority voters were wined and dined which, in turn, meant that anti-immigrant groups were kept on the edges of politics. In the 2011 and 2015 elections, the Conservatives won a higher share of the vote among immigrants than it did among native-born citizens.

If it wasn’t already clear from centuries of Canadian history, then such politics firmly cemented the immigrants’ place in Canada’s national identity.

Right-wing, anti-immigrant political agendas are rare in Canada. Of course, there are always exceptions. Canada still has anti-Semites and people shooting up mosques out of fear of “the other.” One study recently claimed that anti-immigration sentiment was rising in Canada, although the same study claimed that over half of Canadians still agree to allow immigrants from poor countries. (Sweden’s 75% approval for immigration is the highest of all nations studied).

But let’s also remember the difference between immigrants and refugees. In 1978, Canada instituted the Canadian Immigration Act, whereby refugees – persons fleeing armed conflict or persecution – would no longer be an exception to Canadian immigration regulations. Although there were some problems, it remains a cornerstone of Canadian immigration policy and law.

For example, the Syrian Refugee Crisis caused the United Nations High Commissioners for Refugees to call on western nations to resettle 130,000 refugees. Canada has carefully focused on selecting families, children and members of the LGBT community, while single men will be processed only if they are accompanied by their parents or identify as LGBT. From 2013 until January 2017, Canada has welcomed over 40,000 refugees, or a staggering 248% of its “share” of refugees.

The United Kingdom? It has welcomed 216 Syrian refugees under the UNHCR scheme. Through another domestic policy called the Vulnerable Person Resettlement Scheme, it has welcomed 5,423 Syrians by March 2017, or just 18% of its “share.”

Prime Minister David Cameron, under severe public pressure in 2015, promised to take on 20,000 Syrian refugees by 2020. Even more mounting pressure caused him to announce the Dubs Amendment, whereby 3,000 lone child refugees from the Middle East were to be welcomed. Due to pressure from Theresa May (who was then Home Secretary), Cameron conceded child refugees should come from Europe, not the Middle East, and the number was lowered to just 350 children.

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Demonstrators in Berlin in November 2015

When Calais’ Jungle Camp was at a breaking point in 2016, and Prime Minister May was securely in control at Downing Street, more public pressure forced to her accept another 750 lone children.  (This was done reluctantly and controversially, as refugee children’s dental records were screened to “verify” their true ages. As Hugh Muir writes, “We want to do right by a handful of children, but it is really a way of shirking our duty to do the right thing”).

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Children in Calais’ “Jungle” Refugee Camp, October 2016

Welcoming 1,000 refugee children by modern day peace-time Britain stands in stark contrast to the 10,000 refugee children resettled via the Kindertransport to Britain in 1938 to 1940. As a historian, I shudder to think what would have happened to those thousands of children if they had stayed under Nazi Germany’s control throughout the war.

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German-Jewish refugee children arrive at Southampton in 1939

Additionally, Theresa May proposes to lower annual net immigration from 273,000 to just 100,000. But it doesn’t stop there. From April 2017 onwards, the Tories implemented a policy whereby British employers must pay £1,000 per year for each skilled migrant they hire. The Tories wish to increase it to £2000/year. That means that if your average Indian IT software engineer or Canadian postgraduate student successfully gets through Theresa May’s restricted immigration net, then they face further fiscal penalization in the pursuit of employment due to being foreign. Thanks, Britain.

As an immigrant in the UK who hails from a country where immigration is a cornerstone of my home culture, I just hang my head in shame. As a historian of refugees and modern warfare, I can say that the same self-serving, nationalist ideologies that caused so many borders to close and so many refugees to flee during the Second World War, are still true today.

So, what are some solutions?  

Political inclusion of minority voters. Enfranchisement of immigrants (including EU nationals). Open (though still selective) immigration policies. Bring back the Dubs Amendment. Invest in affordable housing. Delegate to charities (where possible). Celebrate all forms of Britishness, including minority groups. Delight in globalism and mobility.

But the best solution requires a major attitude shift. 

Britain was once a colonial and imperial superpower. Although this was by no means a peaceful power-dynamic on native populations or settler colonies, British rule also enabled enormous trade of goods, cultures and ideas. Some nations became immensely wealthy, while others were robbed of their natural and human resources. The gap in global living standards today are often a long-term result of colonialism’s exploitation.

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At its height, more than 458 million people and 23% of the world’s population were under British colonial rule

Professor of Sociology at the University of Warwick, Gurminder K Bhambra, claims that when thinking about today’s refugees and immigrants, we must remember that:

The economic motivation that drives poorer people to migrate has been produced and continues to be reproduced by practices emanating from richer countries and their own deficient understandings of their global dominance… The failure to properly understand and account for Europe’s colonial past, cements a political division between ‘legitimate’ citizens with recognized claims upon the state and migrants/refugees without the rights to make such claims.

It would be unfair to claim that Canadian history has been bloodless and peaceful, while Britain’s has been singularly exploitive and war-ridden. But personally moving from a land of immigrants to a land of colonisers has been an eye-opening experience.  

Canada, as a nation of immigrants, has attempted to confront its differences in an ongoing process of renegotiating and re-conceptualizing national identity, bringing immigrants to the fore with policies that directly value and embrace their diversity. Britain may have neglected to engage in such a process on their own soil, but the opportunity to do so is now arriving alongside the refugees and immigrants who greatly wish to be part of the British community. Myself included.

I am an immigrant and I love my new home in Britain.  By learning from my new culture while sharing my own, I am participating in a “very Canadian way” to integrate in society. I hope my British friends don’t mind.

Happy Birthday, Canada.