History is about time. That is so obvious that it is easy to take it for granted. While I have been moving I have been pondering what time means for my book.
Some Exciting News marked a new era for Stumbling Through the Past. I finished it on the last day I will be in Australia for some months. I hit the ‘publish’ button, then shut down my computer ready for the drive to Tullamarine Airport in Melbourne. I had finally reached the day I was going to Singapore.
Suitcases deposited, exorbitant overweight luggage charge paid, I zoomed away into the sky through the sunset and beyond, heading backwards in time.
I travelled further back than most.
Ensconced in my seat I opened my laptop and went back to the evacuation of Gallipoli in World War I. Captain Wiltshire was marshalling his troops in their final march to the beach and the waiting ships. It was a dangerous time. If the Turks realised what was happening the Allied troops would have suffered massive casualties. Wiltshire described in his diary how the troops deadened the sound of their boots by wrapping torn blankets around them for their final march on the peninsula. The evacuation was a triumph snatched from the debacle that was Gallipoli. The soldiers reached the island of Lemnos safely.
We have been brought up with heroic tales from Gallipoli, with the image of tanned, fit men displaying their physical prowess. Yet at the end of the campaign the soldiers looked and smelled very ordinary.
“Some of our men have not had a bath since we went into the trenches four months ago and most of us have not had our boots off for a few weeks”, wrote Wiltshire on the island after the evacuation. The men had brought some passengers with them. Wiltshire records men sitting around removing louse from their bodies. “Since coming here I have become desperately lousy again and am itchy from head to foot. My horse is lousy too. The itch is intolerable at times.”
Anyone who has read Kitty’s War by Janet Butler knows about the life of the nurses working at the various tent hospitals erected as an evacuation point for injured and sick soldiers from Gallipoli. Living conditions were deplorable for the nurses. The Australian nurses did not have enough warm clothes or food. Some Canadian nurses died.
Wiltshire visited 3rd General Hospital to visit a sick friend. “Very muddy and cheerless place, the nurses wearing gumboots and putties. Their quarters are wooden huts, but lack privacy and the life is very rough for any girl.”
It is Christmas 1915. “The whole camp is overdosed with parcels, food sweets &c and nobody wants them much – in the trenches we’d have given anything for them.” I felt like crying when reading this passage. The Australian nurses did not have enough food and were reliant on the goodwill of some of the men to share their food with them.
I could not immerse myself in Wiltshire’s WWI world in the way I would have liked. The music I had selected to banish the loud drone of the plane was not right. Glen A. Baker’s choice of music is good but it was incongruous in a World War I setting. The narrative of the songs was too strong. It competed with Wiltshire’s journal. I changed to wordless orchestral music and resumed reading.
Music was important for Wiltshire’s soldiers. On Lemnos Wiltshire wrote that they made up for the lack of singing on Gallipoli by much singing on Lemnos. Hymns were popular. The soldiers also devised new lyrics which they sang to familiar hymnal tunes.
I imagine the sound of lusty male voices, full of enthusiasm but not all properly in tune. Yet I was listening to the preciseness of von Karajan’s orchestra playing complex music. It just wasn’t right. We live in an era when our ears are constantly indulged with musical perfection, so different to the sounds most people heard one hundred years ago.
A few weeks later the troops had returned to the Middle-East. Other music played a role in the soldiers’ lives. “Plenty of rag time music down the lines with the harmonium Peart brought out”, wrote Wiltshire.
I didn’t bother checking to see if Qantas played ragtime on the inflight radio. I can’t go back in time completely.
From the day I arrived in Singapore we have been looking for a place to live. How can you choose when you have never lived in a city before? I had the same experience when we moved to Sydney. The answer to this problem is get to know the place fast!
So all day every day I have been walking, catching buses and trains and… walking. On Sunday we walked eight kilometres in five hours in between catching buses and trains. On the sixth day we decided on an apartment on the twenty-third floor of a building.
I have been writing this post on and off over the last week. It has changed greatly from the first draft. Despite the frenetic activity I have been pondering the question of time in relation to the book I am planning to write.
Heat, tiredness, one foot, then the other, plod, plod, plod… think.
History is a dialogue between the present and the past. My experience on the plane and writing this post has made me realise that I will need to foreground the connection between now and the past at some point in my book. My research methodology is part of the story. My primary research will use the transcriptions of WWI soldier diaries which have been created by volunteers for the State Library of NSW. I have written a simple program that searches the transcriptions of the WWI diaries.
The crucial link between the past and the present is the object itself. In the video at the end of this article Judy Hassall, the daughter of Australian WWI soldier, Archie Barwick, describes how her father was transported back to the war when he touched a diary he wrote years after. For a researcher there is important information in the words crossed out, added emphasis conveyed through pressing the pen or pencil on the page harder than normal, the signs of dirt, torn or creased pages etc.
At some stage I will have to return to Sydney to see the diaries. For all the technology in the world the physical diary is important for my work. Yet the link between present and past for my book is more than a connection to a physical object.
The method I am using to access the information in those diaries is very different to the methods used by researchers in the past. Through my program I have an index that has never been available to historians before. I can find the needles in the haystacks that would not have been found by historians in the past despite months of close reading of the diaries.
Many people over the last one hundred years have shaped the information that I am relying on in my research. The authors of the diaries of course are of the greatest import, but the State Librarian,W H Ifould, who collected the diaries after the Great War was also an important shaper of this information. More recently the hours and hours of work by many volunteers in transcribing the diaries has been a significant contribution.
This is more than recognising and acknowledging previous work. Readers of my book need to know how I have researched it and understand how the collection I have relied on has been shaped. But they need more than a dry description of how I did the research and how the collection was constructed.
Most of the time when I have been pondering this book, I have been thinking about how to write it. I know how to research it. I have a good idea of the many ways I could analyse my research. The crucial element that makes all the difference is how I will write it.
I want to write something you will enjoy reading.
At the beginning of this post I said that Stumbling Through the Past is entering a new era. I plan to share some of the book writing process with you on this blog. This is the first post in a new category I have called ‘Book Writing Journal’. This category is about sharing the writing process, not the content of the book. I want to keep the book as a surprise for you.
I hope that these posts will not only be interesting to you but will also be useful to me. Already I have found that writing my thoughts in this post has helped me to clarify some ideas.
Thank you for all your good wishes on this blog and social media for the book and our life in Singapore. I look forward to sharing some more with you over the coming months and hearing your comments.
Other relevant posts and articles
- Read my post ‘Beyond the Church Parade: Religious beliefs in the front line during WWI‘ for a synopsis of the research which I’m developing into a book.
- ABC TV in Australia is currently broadcasting a documentary series about WWI. The War That Changed Us is shown on Tuesdays at 8:30pm on ABC1. The first in the series was broadcast last Tuesday so I would think it would be available on iview. It includes the stories of soldier Archie Barwick and nurse Kit McNaughton. I haven’t had a chance to see it.
- You can read Wiltshire’s diary yourself and many other Australian WWI diaries through the State Library of NSW website. Click on the ‘Collection Hierarchy’ tab to find the list of transcribed diaries available.
- Digitisation is great but it is still important to keep the original article as it can have important information that is not digitised. This short article explains the significance of dirt on the pages of books.