Being a military historian from Canada is a strange thing. On home soil, we are a minority. We have not been the movers and shakers in academia (running the big departments, as opposed to producing scholarship) since the mid 1960s, and the new breed that came of age after the Cold War was over are some of the most imaginative, well researched and versatile talents you will ever come to meet. We all did our work while being considered something of a pariah and throwback field to the rest of the historical community, tolerated on Remembrance Day but otherwise disdained as arm chair generals and great man theorists of a lost era (which is, of course, bullshit, but I digress . . . ). I’m proud to call many of these outlaws and underdogs friends and colleagues.
But since military history is often the domain of the political right, I often did not share similar opinions and attitudes with many peers. Maybe it was being a civilian at a military college, maybe it was being a punk rock kid who is a social animal but hates being a member of a group, and maybe it’s my anti authoritarian streak, but even within this small community I gravitated toward the oddballs, free spirits, and geeks.
One of these was a mentor who had a reputation for being a intellectual bad ass. He scared a lot of students. He demanded excellence in research and writing. He could barely suffer fools in class, but most had their ass handed to them when they submitted a paper.
And he introduced me to Jan Morris, a British historian. I was instructed to read as much Jan Morris as I could, because it would help me become a better writer, and make me a better scholar. Morris is best known for a trilogy of books on the history of the British Empire, but is also well known for being born a man and later becoming a woman. She took a lot of heat for becoming who she really was, despite being a war veteran, amazing historian and journalist, and wonderful writer. Rumours abounded that positions of influence in universities were denied Morris because of her journey from one gender to the other, that her life as a travel writer was in part a result of these challenges.
This mentor of mine, who was a hard-ass and very conservative in many regards, was infuriated at the injustice done to Morris. Her talent, her gift, as far as he was concerned, transcended any social bias. Her value to the world via the quality of her work made her a force to be championed, not scoffed or dismissed. He had the same reaction when a scholar who visited was snidely insulted by some small minds because he happened to be overweight. As far as this mentor was concerned, this man was a first class scholar and everyone around him was sniggering like spoiled brats. I always appreciated his sticking up for talent over artifice.
Sadly, I had to come to Morris’ work late. Her work only barely touched on my doctoral studies. But reading her book on Hong Kong, I’m floored with the beauty of her prose and the magic of recreating the city as it left the British empire to rejoin China in 1997. Each page is a testament to my mentor’s opinion of Morris’s the scholar and writer.
And, reading it, I was reminded of his defence of Morris at a time when most around him would have made bad jokes and dirty punchlines. Kudos.