Recently I was talking with someone about the importance of inspiration. One thing that I have always wanted in life is to be able to wake up, go to work and love what I do. I spend a lot of time on trains, commuting, and I see a lot of people who look like they experience the exact opposite. Right now I am fortunate to be able to say that I do love what I do. I won’t say that there aren’t days when I find it trying, or when I wonder if I’ve chosen the right path – and those days are when my inspiration shelves best serve their purpose. Four months ago we moved house. Since setting off down the path of academia, I have longed for an office. Our new house has a perfect little room which has become just that, and I love it. Right next to my desk I put some shelves, which have become what I refer to as my ‘inspiration shelves’. On them I put things that make me smile, inspire me and keep me going when things get rough.
These things have been invaluable to me, especially when I’ve hit low points or road blocks in my research. I think that it is important to find our own inspiration, and also to share it with others so that they are inspired to do the same. To that end, I thought it would be fun to explain a few items on my inspiration shelves.
- My Eighth Air Force Badge
It took me ages to find one of these. My research focuses on the Eighth Air Force, which is the name given to the American Air Force who were stationed in Britain during the Second World War. I love this research. You kind of have to to take it on. I found out a few days ago that 75% of the personnel records I need to continue my research were destroyed in a fire at the D.C. National Archives in 1975 – that’s what you call a GIANT road block. One of the things about historical research that I am finding to be both frustrating and enjoyably challenging is how similar it can be to detective work. The fire isn’t the end of my research – it just means that I will have to look elsewhere and try different approaches. That being said, the day the archives told me I did have a meltdown, because it did feel a little bit like the end of the world. Then I looked at the badge.
Many of the things on my shelves are representative. When I look at the badge I think of the thousands of men and women who wore it, leaving the relative comfort and safety of their home country, risking and often sacrificing their lives to help us defeat one of the most evil, terrible enemies we have ever faced. My research excites me because I get to tell stories – true, incredible stories, and the badge helps me to remember that that’s what it’s all about. Remembering those who went before us and commemorating their bravery by telling the world what they did and what it meant.
2. My Picture of a B-17 Flying Fortress
Because my research is on the American Air Force, I encounter a lot of planes. Pictures and the real thing. My absolute favourite so far has been the B-17 Flying Fortress. A four-engine heavy bomber developed in the 1930s for the United States Air Force, these carried out heavy bombing over Europe in World War II, flying alongside our spitfires.
I was lucky enough to be able to watch one fly recently, in formation with six spitfires. It was a proud moment indeed – especially due to the fact that the B-17 was flying as a memorial to the 79,000 U.S. Airmen who lost their lives in World War II. I was also very privileged to meet a veteran crew member of one that day, and this picture reminds me of him and his comrades – the subjects of my research.
My research focuses specifically of the women of the Eighth Air Force in Britain. When I started it, I appealed to the currently serving women of the USAF at RAF Lakenheath for possible interviewees. I wanted to get an idea of what life is like across the ranks for ladies in the Air Force today (for historical comparison purposes). I wasn’t sure that anyone would be interested in talking to me, so I was shocked and pleasantly surprised when a bunch of them came forward – including the most senior woman at this base. It was an absolute honour to interview these women, and their stories remain a source of constant inspiration to me. Margie is a lady bear (you can tell because she has long curly eyelashes) wearing the USAF uniform, and has become my research mascot. She got her name from my all-time heroine, Agent Peggy Carter, was called ‘Margaret’. To her colleagues, she was Marge.
4. My Tea Tile
My parents-in-law got this for me, because they know I love tea. I wrote a 4000 word paper as an undergraduate about the effects of tea on ideas of respectability and politeness in Britain. That’s 4000 words of love for tea. I actually can’t function properly without it, and I’ve gained a bit of a reputation for carrying PG Tips around in my purse, just in case. It reminds me that I love tea, that I should definitely make a cup (or three) when I’m tired and have to read the same page a few times before anything sinks in, and that there are Americans I have have successfully converted to PG Tips who love me.
5. My Blue Hippo
This one is more about a memory. I don’t particularly love hippos, but this one is special to me because my husband and I legged it through the streets of Paris to get it. We were at the Louvre one day, looking at the Egyptian artifacts (my favourite in any musuem), and I spotted this. I loved the colour of it, and for some reason it just really stood out to me. When we were leaving that night, we saw replicas in the museum gift shop. I thought about buying one, but the shop was closing and I ran out of time. The next day we were on the metro, and the loudspeaker announced that the next stop was for the Louvre. We booked it off the train, and because the Louvre was due to close in 20 minutes, ran until we got there and swiftly bought this little chap. He now sits on my shelf and makes me smile. Some days are tough and lonely, and when I see him I remember my husband (the very best man in the world) and our wonderful trip to Paris. He also reminds me that fun is just as important as work. I need to be reminded of that!
Also on my shelves I have a copy of the Declaration of Independence – this is to remind me that things are not always as simple as they seem, and that historical research should always involve deep, multi-faceted investigation (it provokes such investigation into how a country can found itself on principles of freedom and equality… that only apply to white men). I have a little wooden keg made from a piece of the H.M.S. Iron Duke, a dreadnought battleship of the Royal Navy in 1912. I don’t need to explain the awesomeness of that. Also my gran gave it to me and she inspires me tonnes. There’s a wooden penguin wearing wellies, which my mum and I got one Christmas (she inspires me too), a few cards from people I know are cheering me on, some books, a signed picture of Nichelle Nichols (a huge inspiration to me), and a tin of M&Ms for when the going gets really tough. Whether they remind me of the importance of what I’m doing or of the fact that someone loves me and is there for me when the work is difficult, these things all mean a lot to me. I urge you to find the things that inspire you – you never know when you might need them.
P.S. thanks for reading – I’ve been so touched and grateful for the lovely emails I’ve received about this blog posts.