Socks for the Boys!

My Great Aunt Norah's wartime diaries, 1938-1948

Distance and desire

So I’ve had a break, a bloody big break. I didn’t expect to be away for TWO WHOLE YEARS. But that’s how it’s turned out. Major life changes and a spot of ill health and all.

And now I am back, I am finding that other things have changed too. I’m viewing this whole project a little differently.

Distance and movement can be grand for a creative project. Sometimes movement alone can do it. A walk in the country or even through the city streets, somehow works to move writing on, especially at night and in fine rain. Whether a story or an argument or just the cadence of a passage, it is like your brain is motored by your stride.  (The same is true of train journeys. Those through France, from Lille to Lyon, are especially excellent for this, even more so when pegged out by transport strikes. You can finish a whole book on one of those.)

Distance is different from movement. Distance requires that you put your manuscript aside for a while and pick it up again in an unfamilar place, like the new house you’ve moved to after your major life events. The new house with the patio doors that the morning sun pours through; the view across the veranda, past the yukka (this is 1930s semi ville), and down into the gardens, gives a welcome new vantage point.

In that space, connections can be made and you can become alert to your own vision. So a PSHE Advisor read my manscript and immediately saw a resource for secondary sex and relationships education, using the sailor’s letters. That clarified something for me. And Carol Dyhouse’s fabulous new book, Heart Throbs: A History of Female Desire, felt to be all about Norah and her crushes, even though she isn’t mentioned, not even once.


And so it turns out that my thing – in this book and the next – is desire and the lives of women on the margins of respectability. I understand it now. It has probably ever been thus.

Distance also means you can read with freshness. You’re less embroiled in the detail of the story. You find yourself less attached to some pieces of writing; you might even kill some darlings along the way. You’re not locked on your text, in that way Stephen Pyne describes as ‘glaring at a crossword puzzle that has us stumped and obsessively recycling the same failed entries.’ (1)

In my time away, I’ve even concluded that the poets and novelists on the MA Writing who very vociferously didn’t like my title were right all along. Socks for the Boys! is just too darned jaunty.

‘That exclamation mark!’ Jane Rogers said, with a despairing air.

I need a title that is darker, more about undercurrents than surface glaze. I’m playing at the moment. That which her own body told her is currently top of my list.

But the biggest change is this: I seem to be happier with being a historian. One of the readers of my manuscript – a friend from school and an ex-Royal Navy man – said to me early on: don’t apologise for being a historian, Alison.

I didn’t realise at the time, but I see with hindsight that this is a longstanding battle.

‘You sound too much like a historian ‘, my poet-supervisor would say. ‘Scratch that bit.’

Now the Masters is long-finished and the poet-dictator is out of earshot, I find myself sneaking stuff back in. Like telling. Sometimes I just want to tell, not show. Like sometimes, I just want to be told (cf Carol Dyhouse and her glorious telling, above). (It is bigger than that of course. It is all about class and elitism and academic practice. Those old chestnuts! That’s where my shame lies.)

And this is what interests me at present: ways of combining solid research with creative approaches that speak to an audience beyond that small group of specialists.

It is possible I’ve said all of this before, but if I have, it was more than two years ago, and that seems a lifetime away.

NB Some of these issues of creative history and life-writing will be discussed today (27th April) in the virtual reading group on Twitter at the #storypast hashtag, 3-4pm. Our focus is Matt Houlbrook’s brilliant new book, The Prince of Tricksters – see www.

  1. Stephen Pyne, Voice & Vision: A Guide to Writing History and Other Serious Nonfiction (Harvard University Press, 2009), p. 122.

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This entry was posted on April 27, 2017 by in diaries.


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