How do we ‘get’ history? If not at first hand, then where do the people we get it from find it themselves? I have been exploring the ways in which other people’s research into IWM Collections gets shared with a wider public. Formal works of written history and biography provide some obvious examples, which I will look at in a later post, but works of fiction offer a rather more left-field starting point.
Then there are writers who have included scenes at IWM buildings in their plots – the protagonists of both W G Sebald’s Austerlitz (2001) and Justin Cartwright’s The Song Before It Is Sung (2007) view film at the All Saints Annexe, a First World War veteran gives talks to schoolchildren in the London galleries in Pat Barker’s Another World (2001), a woman commissioned to write the biography of a First World War flying ace turned politician begins her researches here in Isabel Colegate’s Deceits of Time (1988), and the whole final chapter of Ian McEwan’s Atonement (2001) concerns a visit to the Reading Room by the central character.
Many writers of historical novels have acknowledged the help they received when researching here – examples include Len Deighton (Bomber, 1970), William Boyd (An Ice Cream War, 1982), Penelope Lively (Moon Tiger, 1987), Pat Barker (Regeneration, 1991), Elizabeth Buchan (The Light of the Moon, 1991), Leslie Thomas (Other Times, 1999), Jody Shields (The Crimson Portrait, 2006) and Sarah Waters (The Night Watch, 2006).
Genre fiction has been helped in similar ways. Jacqueline Winspear has several times expressed thanks to IWM in her books featuring amateur sleuth Maisie Dobbs (since 2004). Veronica Stallwood acknowledged IWM in Oxford Shadows (2000), eighth in her Kate Ivory series, as have Carola Dunn in Gunpowder Plot (2006), one of her Daisy Dalrymple series, Anne Perry for her First World War Reavley novels (No Graves As Yet, etc, from 2003) and Laura Wilson for her Stratton books (Stratton’s War, etc, from 2008). An actual 1995 reunion of Second World War women workers hosted by the Imperial War Museum plays a role in Connie Willis’s All Clear (2010), one of her sequence of science fiction novels about time-travelling Oxford Academics from the mid-21st Century.
IWM premises have also on occasion been the imagined scene of much more violent encounters, whether in Reg Gadney’s 1971 thriller Somewhere in England, where two warders are killed in a vault as various agencies struggle for a politically dangerous reel of film, or in Charlie Higson’s young person’s horror story The Dead (2010), in which the IWM London is one of the places where children are besieged by flesh-eating zombie adults.
This rapid survey has barely scratched the surface: please feel free to post further examples as comments.