The Reading Room at The National Archives is a sacred place, especially when you visit for the first time. A museum where you get to handle the items – what an unbelievable act of trust that is! Do really experienced researchers who have been going there all their lives still appreciate the privilege and experience regular awe? How lucky we are to not only have such a place, but to be actively encouraged to use it.
Studying fellow researchers for subtle codes of behaviour that might make me less likely to be chucked out for trespassing is something I still find myself doing. I also have to stop myself from being obsequiously friendly to the staff – although I do quite like the challenge of breaking down the professional surliness of those warders in whose hands lies our history in its most vulnerable physical forms. I like to imagine a sign at the door: ‘Careless smiles cost lives’ and I wonder if I would be surly if I worked there – is there a gradual erosion of tolerance over years of firefighting against small but potentially catastrophic neglects by well-meaning but clumsy researchers like me? I think it’s more likely I’d get sacked for wasting too much time getting absorbed in other people’s research. It would be like working in a sweetie shop and never ever getting to eat any of them. But I do like to think I’d tell people off nicely.
It is also like being back at school, in that you don’t want to draw attention to yourself by not knowing what you’re doing. Being awkward and British is key to this. My sister-in-law once told me that she’d been smiled at by a nominally harmless farmer when she was out running – and chose instead to continue her jog down a hideously slippery slope, rather than engage him in conversation: ‘I’d rather not be embarrassed, and…fall to my death instead,’ she confessed. I recognise this primitive urge whilst struggling with all sorts of equipment in archives, be it Neolithic microfiche machines or Blade Runner scanners. There’s usually a queue of people at the Enquiries desk when this happens too, and you don’t want to undo all your hard work of grinning inanely at the staff by adding to this vast inconvenience.
Frustration and insatiable curiosity, together with time pressure eventually gets the better of embarrassment. But Process is also key to effective researching, and it takes time to work out the best way to do things; whether it’s deciding the optimum time to break off from documents to order the next lot, or if it’s worth photographing every single combat report from 1916. They’ve taken away the monitors in the TNA café that used to show you at what stage in the underground railway dragged by Victorian urchins your next order was. This allowed precious time to study the cakes - now you have to wing it, estimate how long you’ve got and risk indigestion by wolfing your lunch.
A final word on the yellow slips they tuck into your boxed documents awaiting collection at TNA. These have the file (and your) details on them. What devilry is this? There is often a ribbon of them floor behind me in the reading room like a malign Hansel and Gretel trail of sloppy researchery. Surely a new adhesion method must be considered for the twenty-first century? I may be paranoid. But that doesn’t mean they might not be used deliberately to identify unprofessional organisation skills.
And whatever you do, don’t run for the bus outside. It will inevitably turn its engine off and refuse to let you on for at least another ten minutes.
The riches of Lionel Morris’s service record file were hard to beat until I discovered what the RAF Museum had on him. A friend had sent me a PDF of the letter from Captain Gray to Morris’s parents describing the events of September 17th that was kept at Hendon. Being a bit over-preoccupied on the how of doing, rather than just the doing, it took me a while before I just emailed the Reading Room at Hendon to ask what else they had on Morris and No.11 Squadron. There is no online catalogue for the museum, but It was a luxury to have someone else doing the searching. I waited a few weeks, but they sent me back a meticulous list of items, including his diary from the summer of 1916.
My first visit to Hendon was a family affair. Archives can be intimidating places, so I was glad to have my aunt and uncle there to negotiate the paperwork, as well as find the loos and lockers. My aunt was researching the history of the RFC aerodrome at London Colney, (home to Albert Ball in 1917) and her work was included in the book ‘St Albans: Life on the Home Front, 1914-1918’ This subsequently hit the shelves at the National Archives, so she’s ahead of me there. My uncle was there to provide extra transcription help and to distract us with gobbets of interesting information/occasional snorts of laughter.
I was the edge of contemplating a little hyperventilation when Morris’s diary was finally in front of me. Who knew a little brown book could cause such an adrenaline rush? My hopes were high – I’d invented a childhood sweetheart, and a literary style to match Cecil Lewis, probably the most skilled writer to publish an RFC memoir. And oh, the jeopardy. I had just a few short hours to transcribe nearly four months’ worth of entries – at this time I hadn’t seriously started thinking about writing, so this felt like a one-off visit that I had to make the most of. Transcribing was just the start – as with the service file, it took me many months to get the most out of the diary and to really pinpoint what the most valuable historical information was. It was my great good fortune (and poor Morris’s bad luck) that the period of the diary covered the lead up to the Battle of the Somme and its first two and a half months.
What was of interest to me, as much as anything, was the day to day life of the squadron, and I certainly got a sense of the boredom and frustration of waiting around for machines to be fixed and the weather to improve. But there were also flashes of humour and irreverence, and some of the other items at Hendon illustrated this too. There were two programmes for concerts knocked up by No.11 in August 1916; they sent me scurrying off to Google to try and listen to the tunes that Morris would have heard, and to research how the ‘performers’ might have mangled them in the name of entertainment.
A resource I would have loved to make more of, if I’d had the budget, would be the photograph album of Captain Ernest Foot, one of the No. 11’s scout pilots and a good friend of Albert Ball. I was mindful of copyright and did quite a lot of gnashing of teeth because there are some wonderful snaps in the album of the squadron relaxing, some aerial shots of their own aerodrome (and some German ones too) and some ghostly shots of distant FE2bs coming in to land. A photograph of the bodies of dead horses in war-ravaged Souchez, (a town on the southern end of the offensive patrols which Morris often flew over) was jarring amongst the jolly images of the magnificent men in their flying machines. If only Morris had kept a photograph album as well as a diary – and if only it had stayed in the family.
But even though I couldn’t afford to use some of these gems in the book; they all helped me build up a visual picture of No.11 in the summer of 1916 and helped me to at least imagine the atmosphere at Savy and Le Hameau. There’s something so visceral about handling these personal items that you don’t get from reading memoirs.
There was less material from other squadrons Morris had served with, as I was careful not to use material from any other times of the war. The RFC was expanding so quickly that the experiences of airman just six months apart in training could be radically different, and I wanted to be as sure as I could that I was accurately describing what Morris went through.
Not so much a journey of discovery, more of a commute of compulsion
Archives By Date (For Archives by Topic , click here.)