A Conversation with Historian Simon Ball
Simon Ball is Professor of International History and Politics at Leeds. I was keen to speak to Simon because one of his current projects is a study of the cultural afterlife of the WWII battle of El Alamein (actually a series of battles which lasted from May 1942 to January 1943) for Oxford University Press. El Alamein has been seen as a symbolic turning point in the war and has had (or once had – Simon points out that its status has faded) a profound cultural afterlife: it has been celebrated in popular history, memoirs, novels, poems, newsreels and, of course, in the cinema. Simon suggests that rarely has a battle been more mythologised than El Alamein.On the face of it, at least, this project has a lot in common with the kind of work we do in Modern Languages and I wondered in what ways Simon’s approach might be similar or different to ours. Naturally, I was particularly interested in his treatment of cinema but I began by asking how the project fitted in to his career and other interests. How does a hard-core international historian come to write a cultural history?
Simon Ball (SB): I did my PhD at Cambridge with some attachment to the Centre of International Studies, then part of the History Faculty and at the time a new endeavour (the Centre joined Politics in 2009). International history comes out of WWI, and was initially conceived of as an attempt to ‘make the world better’. The first chairs were established in the interwar period, and the London School of Economics, the earliest of all of them, still has its chair in international history, but international history is still fairly unusual in British academe. The Leeds chair in international history was set up 1966 and the degree in International History & Politics followed in 1969; and there’s the degree at LSE, while King’s has war studies; however international history is usually subsumed in general history departments.
I always emphasise my institutional role as an international historian leading a team of international historians, but I’m also an historian of contemporary Britain – especially the 1950s. I’ve written about other things, WWI, WWII, generational history, but I started with British nuclear strategy in the 1950s (that was my PhD and first book). My other current project is on cultures of military intelligence in Britain between 1918 and 1947. The existence of the Britain’s secret intelligence services was formally acknowledged in 1994 (they were established in 1909), and there have been some fine official histories written since then. My project looks at the services in terms of ‘cultural capital’.
Alan O’Leary (AOL): Cultural capital? That sounds like sociology.
SB: Of course the terminology is from Bourdieu but it’s absolutely pure history inflected by knowledge of and admiration for a sociologist. There’s something of a Bourdieu cottage industry in international history. We like him because he has no time for ‘theoretical theory’; we like his insistence that ideas must be tested empirically. I’m interested in what Bourdieu called ‘doxa’, by which he meant the daily thought world, the taken for granted. I want to study the unspoken assumptions of the intelligence world. But this is a thoroughly established approach in history. James Joll talked in his 1968 inaugural lecture at the LSE of ‘the unspoken assumptions’ around in 1914. As George Kennan said, ‘it is the shadows rather than the substance of the things that move the hearts, and sway the deeds of statesmen’: this is the territory that any decent historian should be dealing with.
Historians deal with what happened, why it happened, why did people say it happened… All of this is at the core of what I and we do as historians, but where do you go then? Do we need a bit more? Yes. This brings me to the El Alamein book. We certainly don’t need another military history of Alamein. Where do we go next? That’s the book I’m writing.
When I was writing my book on the Second World War struggle over the Mediterranean I had a frank discussion with my editor about the brevity of my reference to Alamein. He wanted a longer account, but I felt that to do more than mention the outcome of the battle would have been unnecessary and derivative (I compromised and put a bit more in just to make the book work). I preferred to focus on lesser known conflicts – for instance the Anglo/Vichy-French war in Syria and Lebanon in 1941 – even if these are seen as militarily less important. Of course, the Alamein book is a commission, one of a series on the cultural afterlife of great battles, but after my Mediterranean book I felt there was unfinished business: how would you, how could I, write an original book on El Alamein?
AOL: How did you decide on the sources for your ‘cultural history’ in the book, and how did you decide what to omit? According to the book outline I read you discuss intelligence material, journalistic writings and novels, as well as documentary and dramatic films. Why no comics, for example? I grew up reading about El Alamein in my war comics…
SB: There is a story to be told about comics and Alamein. (I imagine you read The Victor (first published in 1962) or Commando: War Stories for Boys.) But I am interested in high politics and power when it comes to it. And I’m interested in a reasonably definable cultural capital: how definable groups used Alamein. It seemed to me that comics are a ‘secondary effect’, as are television documentaries, like the episode on Alamein of The World at War from 1973. I’m trying to capture the ur-source of the comics and TV documentaries and so I made a decision to limit myself to certain genres (official and popular histories, film, novels and poetry) in order to make the study manageable and because I believe the determining representations were made there.
AOL: What strikes me about this book is that it could come from the tradition I’ve been trained in. So my next question will be the methodological one. I’ve spent years learning to write about films…
SB: Whereas I’ve been trained to read government documents, essentially…
AOL: … and I’m sure that’s a transferable skill! But what strikes me is that this is a book I could imagine myself writing, not as an Italianist maybe but still in a school of modern languages or cultures. I’m surprised to find a book on ‘cultural afterlife’ coming from your tradition.
SB: In one sense it’s an experiment for me. It might be a dead end. But in another sense this project can be seen as ultra-traditional. Thucydides’ history of the Peloponnesian War is still admired by international historians – and what is it explicitly about? It’s about what leads different cultures to go to war with each other and the impact of the war on those civilizations. How does the war change the internal politics and culture? This is a classic question, this is history – as hard-core as you can get! And I’m still asking a similar question. I’m not asking why they fought but how these cultures were changed by the act of fighting. How did the war change the internal political organization in Britain, Germany, Italy, and the way they thought about the world?
AOL: If Thucydidean history is the most traditional of models for the book, do you have any that could be said to come from outside the discipline of history?
SB: Not consciously. But the discipline itself has had to deal with the challenge of the postmodernist turn, which has been there throughout my career. You have to think through questions about the nature of truth and so on, and decide what you think about them. I come out of a tradition that Michael Bentley has called ‘English modernism’. This tradition entailed a conscious rejection of the engaged or ‘organic’ intellectual model in history, and especially in international history which, as I said, was conceived of as a way to ‘make the world better’ after the disaster of the First World War. For the tradition of ‘English Modernism’ it became, instead, ‘all about the documents’. In this view, the idea of the historian as organic intellectual leads to a warped approach to history and, therefore, to say that history might be so much discourse is not even permissible. The ‘English Modernist’ position breaks down from the 1970s on, and this process influenced me, inevitably.
AOL: What place does film have in your book?
SB: It has a central place and for a simple reason. Talk to anyone who knows anything about the battle of El Alamein and within a minute or two you will get a mention of Ice Cold in Alex. There’s another reason too: a documentary film called Desert Victory (released in April ’43) which films behind the lines as well as the aftermath of the battle zone. The film and the footage taken during its making have become key documents. The footage tends to turns up everywhere else.
AOL: No specific chapter on film though? What exactly do you do with films in your study?
SB: No, I don’t divide the book into studies of separate genres. I proceed by theme and try to have each of my chosen genres say something about the theme within that chapter. So I look at the information battle, correspondents and flâneurs, the reputations of commanders and armies, and so on. So, in the chapter on reputations, all the genres have something to say about Rommel. It’s a stylistic choice, really, but intended to show that none of the genres stand independently of each other. Biographies will influence films, and novels will reference these in turn, and so on.
My approach to films is a commonsensical approach I suppose. I’m interested in production: how the film came to be made, how it was put together. That’s a historian’s question. And I’m interested in how the films portray their themes and the representational choices that they make. So I look at the recorded intentions of the filmmakers, but I also consider the evidence in the films themselves. Then I look at how features recur – how other films or material in other genres go back to the films.
But tell me, I’m interested in what film historians would do…
AOL: Well, I’m no ‘film historian’, I do something else – call it ‘cultural studies’. I doubt you’d be interested in what I do in my work, on 1970s terrorism in Italy say. I’m reading the films as symptomatic texts, so I might argue that terrorism functions as a screen memory in certain films, masking but recalling the deeper ‘trauma’ of challenges to gender roles and the family in the 1970s…
SB: Actually, that resounds with something I’ve noticed about my Alamein material, much of which seems to connote a crisis of masculinity. The films I’m watching are all about what men do and what they should do. All of them give a sense that things have changed while referring back to simpler but still deeply traumatic circumstances.
AOL: That’s interesting! David Bordwell, probably the world’s most famous film historian and a critic of the cultural studies approach to cinema, talks about the ‘crisis of masculinity’ as an academic topos.
SB: [Laughs] That’s fair! The observation may be banal, but the theme of masculinity is striking. I admit to naivety: where am I going with it? I don’t yet know and I don’t know what my final positions will be. The repeated treatment of masculinity is part, though, of the same-iness of much of the material. With regards to Alamein, for the victors, there’s an inability to celebrate right from the off. There’s a certain depressing tone. The British don’t or can’t celebrate – I think that is telling us something about post-war culture, and perhaps masculinity within that culture.
AOL: If this project sounds like ‘cultural studies’, it could also very easily be ‘memory studies’. Yet the word memory never appears in the book outline you sent me.
SB: The book is being written with an awareness of memory studies as a discipline or sub-discipline with its own journals and language. I read that material; the First World War stuff is very apposite right now. But I’m consciously trying to write the book without mentioning the word memory. It seems to me we have to be able to talk about memory without necessarily engaging with ‘memory studies’: there can’t just be one language. Still, the book will still have to stand up to an audience versed in that material.
AOL: You will begin the book with a standard description of the battle of El Alamein. Is there a distinction being made between what’s core in historical concerns (the ‘facts’) versus the representations that are described later in the book?
SB: Well, the account of the battle was insisted on by the publisher. To avoid the rehash of familiar material I’m going to tell the story by using material from contemporary diaries, writing the history of the battle as if we didn’t know how it turned out. I’m certainly not interested in implying a value distinction between ‘facts’ and ‘discourse’. I’m interested in structure and style, in being a writer: I’m interested in exploring form. I suspect nobody interested in cultural history is going to read this book! I think it will be read by people interested in Alamein, in the ‘Great battle’; so my challenge is to write for that audience, to change their perception.
AOL: You’re suggesting that your audience is the one already immersed in the myth of the ‘Great Battle’: comradeship between combatants in Ice Cold in Alex, noble Field Marshal Rommel the desert fox, and so on. Richard Evans argues that the function of history as a discipline is essentially revisionist, ‘myth-busting’…
SB: History certainly has a revisionist function and I’m happy with myth-busting as an important activity of the historian. It’s being true to the people you study on a basic level: you have to show that they didn’t say that, they didn’t think that, that’s not how they represented it; you have to show the past is a foreign country. For a democracy to work, it seems to me, people need access to decent information about their pasts and it’s our job to give it to them. That’s a very traditional statement but it’s an inalienable function of history as a discipline.
 The Bomber in British Strategy: Doctrine, Strategy and Britain’s World Role, 1945-1960 (Boulder: Westview, 1995).
 The Bitter Sea: The Brutal World War II Fight for the Mediterranean (London: HarperPress, 2010).
 Michael Bentley, Modernizing England’s Past: English Historiography in the Age of Modernism, 1870–1970 (Cambridge: Cambrdge University Press, 2006).
 Dir. J. Lee Thompson, 1958.
 Dir. J. L. Hodson.
 ‘The thrust of professional history has more often been towards puncturing the clichés of popular historical myth than towards sustaining them.’ Richard Evans, In defence of history (London: Granta, 1997), p. 207.