From the Garden to the Trenches: Now that the conference is over ...

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From the Garden to the Trenches: Now that the conference is over ...

Published on June 13 2012

Submitted by: Lissa Paul

At the end of the first conference day of “From the Garden to the Trenches” (10-12 May 2012) Michael Morpurgo, author of War Horse, sang, spontaneously and unaccompanied, one of the original songs from the play. Everyone was riveted. It was one of those dramatic, unscripted, unexpected moments that will remain bright in everyone’s memory. Yet it was just one of many unforgettable moments in the conference which had brought together authors (Canadian and British), literary scholars and historians (Canadian, American, British, Australian and German), teachers, librarians, musicians and an actor to rethink our approaches, as the subtitle of the conference has it, “childhood, culture and the First World War".

As the centenary of that first global conflict approaches, our collective cultural memory is using the occasion to reflect on current global conflicts. Our debates about the morality and ethics of, say drones used in Afghanistan or of chemical and biological warfare, are rooted in debates almost a century ago about the then new technologies of tanks, machine guns and mustard gas. One of the reasons that Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse has resonated so profoundly with theatre and film audiences internationally is that it provides us with a safely distant war story through which we can refract our responses to our own global hot spots.

Throughout the conference there were many profoundly moving moments in which to reflect on our ethical choices and obligations, and our conflicted value systems, including our continuing attraction to war. Margaret Higonnet, from the University of Connecticut at Storrs, spoke about girl soldiers who generally disguised themselves as boys and were, in an oddly perverse way, “liberated” from their corseted domestic lives.

Paul Stevens, Canada Research Chair in Early Modern Literature at the University of Toronto gave a brilliant talk in which he entwined the story of Churchill’s boyhood reading (and his attraction to war as an adventure story), with discussions on Michael Morpurgo’s work as situated in the English literary traditions of Milton, Shakespeare and Gerard Manley-Hopkins.

German scholars, including Andrew Donson, Hans Heino Ewers, Maureen O. Gallagher and Mary Ellen Friday Leibheit gave papers on what the First World War looked like from the “other” side. Because Germany in the twenty-first century is now on “our” side, their papers provided the opportunity to reflect on how we construct friends and enemies.

Canadian perspectives were also featured at the conference, and often centred on questions of suffering. Andrea McKenzie’s discussion of L. M. Montgomery’s Rilla of Ingleside (1921), drew attention, new in that early post-war period, to the idea that women at home as well as men on the front suffer.

The conference also featured four contemporary Canadian authors reimagining the First World War for the twenty-first century: Hugh Brewster and Art Slade, spoke “in conversation” about their books with British scholar Mary Clare Martin from the University of Greenwich, and Kevin Major and John Wilson spoke “in conversation” with American rare-books librarian Michael Joseph (Rutgers).

Those conversations focused on the recovery of otherwise lost lives. As Kevin Major’s No Man’s Land (2005) makes so poignantly clear, the Newfoundland regiments decimated in the First World War battles had represented a significant proportion of the male population at the time.

When academic conferences come to an end, there is typically a sense that the magic of the intellectual exchanges disappear too. That will not be the fate of “From the Garden to the Trenches”. Thanks partly to an occasional conference grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Council of Canada (SSHRC), the proceedings were all digitally recorded. They will eventually be combined with the proceedings from the other two “Approaching War” conferences (the first was in Australia in 2011 and the third will be in the UK in 2013), partly supported by the Leverhulme Trust in the UK, and developed into an openly available digital archive. And wo volumes of essays arising out of the conference presentations will also be published by Palgrave.


michael morpurgo sits at conference table in front of projector screen
Front and Centre

Michael Morpurgo answers questions at the head table