For many years now, in the summer/Trinity term, I’ve been attending and latterly co-convening the Central European History seminar. One of our speakers this term was an Oxford graduate student who is writing his doctoral thesis on the interwar Vilnius dispute – that is, the diplomatic standoff created when in 1920 Polish troops seized the city claiming it was historically Polish, to the horror of the Lithuanians who claimed it as the capital of an independent Lithuania.
It was particularly interesting to hear Donatas talk about his research, because my grandmother grew up in Vilnius in the 1920s. Whereas Donatas talks about documents in
the British Foreign Office archives relating to the dispute, Lord Curzon’s bemused reactions and the frustrations of Lithuanian diplomats, my grandmother talks about the city’s festivals, street markets, the Jewish and Karaite communities, the divination rituals traditional on All Souls night and, indeed, sleigh-rides in the snow. Her stories make interwar Vilnius feel like the setting for a magical realist novel – back in 2002 the American novelist Jonathan Safran Foer did in fact write a prize-winning magical realist novel, Everything is Illuminated,based on his own grandmother’s recollections of her pre-war Ukrainian village.
I was struck by the distance between Donatas’ research in public archives on the diplomatic battles over interwar Vilnius, and the memories of a child growing up in that contested space, the private family oral archive, if you will. Those two narratives of 1920s’ Vilnius don’t contradict one another, but they are radically different in their textures and concerns. It’s this potentially difficult tension between a public/national history, and one’s own personal family histories, which is one of the reasons why I don’t work on 20C Poland/Lithuania, fascinating field though it is. I would find it hard to work in archives with my grandmother’s voice at my ear, hard to keep the sources at arm’s length, and hard, in fact, to stand back and (as a professional historian) study my own close relatives as historical actors.
They all wear a pink carnation...
Photo by Pink Sherbet Photography
June means Finals season in Oxford, with the History finalists soon to sit the last of their exams. It’s an odd feeling as a tutor standing at your window, looking out over the quad, and seeing students all dressed up in black-and-white sub-fusc exam-uniform, complete with symbolic carnation, faces set in concentration, setting out to sit a Finals exam in a paper you taught them.
When I arrived at LincolnCollege as a Fresher in the 1990s, we had an initial meeting with the History tutors in the panelled Wesley room, where we sat literally at their feet on the carpet. We were told then, among other memorable things, that the horror of sitting Finals never quite leaves you. One of the tutors said cheerfully: ‘You’ll dream about it for the rest of your life.”
Alumni I meet often assure me this is true, but I wonder if the post-finals condition is particularly bad among those who stay on at Oxford as tutors & Fellows, watching generations of students go through the same stimulating but slightly grim ritual every single summer. In fact, the Finals nightmares I have nowadays tend to involve my students’ performances rather than my own. I’ve had dreams where I was at a raucous dinner on High Table, and realised to my horror that as the dons sat, feasted, drank and caroused, the hall was full of students trying to sit a Finals paper. I’ve dreamt that I was invigilating as Somerville students sat the ‘Conquest and Colonisation of the Americas’ paper I teach, and leafing through the exam to see in shock that the questions were written not in English, but in the Amerindian languages of Nahuatl, Quechua and Mayan! So the responsibilities of teaching the Oxford degree weigh particularly heavily at the moment, and I too will be glad when it’s all over and the historians can put away their subfusc for another year, and I can stop dreaming about sitting at a tiny desk, with just a fountain pen, a paper booklet and a ticking clock.