Daily Archives: 3 March, 2012

Why we write

I spent 28 years of my life dreaming about writing a book. It’s something that not many people ever manage, let alone many 28 year olds. Unless you’re Justin Bieber, in which case someone writes your autobiography for you when you’re 16. But – thankfully – I’m not Justin Beiber.

Having written my first book, naturally I’ve been thinking about the future. When you dream about something for so long, and finally achieve it, what do you do next? Well, the obvious answer is write more books. But on a more philosophical level, the whole experience has got me thinking about why exactly we write.

As far as I can see, there are seven reasons to write:

  • To make money. Or, at least, cover your costs
  • To inform, educate, and entertain
  • To boost your CV
  • To write a wrong, or clear up a mystery
  • To argue, persuade or convince
  • To massage your ego
  • To win yourself brownie points with other academics

Of course, some authors are motivated by any combination of the above.

Unless you are in the fortunate situation of not having to worry about money – ie, you work for an institution and writing comes as part of the job, or you are simply minted – basic economics mean that you have to at least cover your costs. Unless you write the next Birdsong, you’re not going to make a fortune from writing history. Of course, it’s no good writing something that nobody wants to read, whether it is too niche, too boring, or simply, crap. No publisher will touch a book that doesn’t have the prospect of selling well. Which can be a double edged sword – some authors, clearly, end up writing books that sell, but don’t have much historical merit.

I must admit, ‘Portsmouth’s World War Two Heroes’ would not win me any academic awards. I doubt it would even do very well as a PhD thesis. But, after being on sale for a month it has probably sold more copies than many of my erstwhile lecturers ever will with of some of their books. And I think that’s a very important point – historians tend to write just for each other. No wonder much popular history ends up being rubbish – gifted historians tend to concentrate too much on academic journals, that only academics read. Is anything you write in a journal article really likely to change the world? Is it going to convince a 15 year old to choose a career as a historian? No, I don’t think so either. I know of more than one critically acclaimed history book that has actually sold pitifully few numbers. Whatever you write, or how important you think it is, if no-one reads it, what difference does it make?

I guess its similar to music. The Bay City Rollers sold more records in the 70′s than anyone else, but did they have any effect on music? Not really. Black Sabbath didn’t sell many records in the 70′s, but their musical legacy inspired a whole genre. There are probably hundreds of bands out there who are cult heroes to many geeky musos – you know, the arty types – who didn’t sell any records, hardly anyone heard of them at the time, and no-one can remember them now.

Historically, I guess I’m trying to plot a course somewhere between Bay City Rollers and Black Sabbath territory – credible, but appealing to normal people. I want people to actually be able to read it, but then I think it is very important to have things like a bibliography, and endnotes, so your work stands up to scrutiny and is useful to people.

I’m trying to think of a way of concluding this post, that makes sense. But having realised that I have basically described myself as a historical cross between the Bay City Rollers and Black Sabbath, I think I will simply leave it there.

Any other historians have any thoughts on the subject?

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ERA 2nd Class William Shaw DSM

As a general rule, Great War sailors from Portsmouth don’t seem to have won as many medals as their counterparts in the Second World War. I’m intruiged as to why this might be. But in the meantime, I have found one sailor who had a pretty interesting career.

William Fleetwood Shaw was born in Portsmouth on 8 July 1889.He was the son of Mr W.F. and Mrs. E. Shaw, of 46 Cleveland Road, Southsea. Shaw was an Engine Room Artificer 2nd Class when he was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal on 28 September 1917, for ‘service with the Royal Naval Air Service on patrol duties and submarine searching in Home Waters’. Quite what an Engine Room Artificer was doing serving with the RNAS is anybody’s guess.

William Shaw was killed on HM Submarine L55 when she was sunk in the Baltic on 4 June 1919. L55 had been targeting two Soviet warships – the Gavril and the Azard. It is unclear whether the submarine was sunk by soviet gunfire, or from straying into a British-laid minefield.

The wreck remained on the Batlic seabed for eight years, until L55 was raised from the seabed by the Soviets on 11 August 1928. The remains of her 34 crewmembers were transferred from a British trawler to HMS Champion – a Light Cruiser. Their remains were buried in Haslar Royal Naval Cemetery in Gosport in a joint grave. My grandad’s birth certificate states that his father – my grandfather, Stoker Thomas Daly – was on HMS Champion at the time, so its quite possible that one of my ancestors played a small part in bringing William Shaw home! The photograph above shows some of the 34 coffins on the foredeck of HMS Champion, and her sailors and marines maintaining an honour guard. Interestingly, after being raised L55 was repaired by the Soviets, and used until the Second World War.

Interesting how a young man from Portsmouth – an Engine Room ‘tiffy’ – wins a DSM for service with the RN Air Service, is then killed serving in a submarine during the Russian Civil War, and finally finds his way home to Portsmouth almost a decade later.

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