Friday, January 15, 2010

In the archives

The Chateau de Vincennes, Paris, in early 2009

This year's snow reminded me of last year's - and how it nearly wrecked a research trip I had planned.

Original research forms the heart of my approach. I've spent the last two years in various archives gathering the information that I will use to write my current book. This is slow work. On some days I find nuggets, on others, none. There is always the temptation to cut corners. If I based my books on others' work, I could write more, and faster. As a consequence I might be better-known and richer. But I would always feel that I was an interpreter, rather than an explorer. I would not have the same feeling that I am bringing the reader something that is genuinely new. And the only way to do that is by going into the archives.

This new book, which covers the era between 1915 and 1948 when Britain and France divided and then ruled the Middle East between them, required several weeks' work in France. There were two places I had to visit: the Centre des Archives Diplomatiques, in the suburbs of the western city of Nantes, and the imposing Chateau de Vincennes, in east Paris. This time last year I was in Paris.

The Chateau is, as the name suggests, the best defended archive that I have ever visited. No other set of papers I have looked at is protected by a drawbridge. It is the home of the Service Historique de l'Armee de Terre - housing the French army's historical records. Like all things French, there is a certain amount of bureaucracy involved in getting in to look at them. You have to register with the archive when you first visit. You cannot order documents before your visit unless you have a registration card.

Last January I had booked my tickets to go to the Chateau in Paris. Then came the snow and on the day before I was due to take the train to Paris, on the website a notice appeared, warning visitors not to come unless they had already ordered documents. I had not ordered documents, because I was not registered. The choice was between writing off the Eurostar tickets, or pressing on regardless and hoping that the rules were flexible. I took the latter option.

Early on 7 January, I crossed the drawbridge and walked to the reception centre where I would apply for my ticket. I was apprehensive: this could turn out to be an expensive waste of time. My spoken French is also pretty slow. So I had rehearsed a few sentences explaining my predicament.

"Je suis historien anglais" turns out to be a very useful phrase.

The woman in charge of visitor registration initially caused my heart to sink. Had I not seen that the Chateau was shut today, because of the bad weather? I lied, saying I had not. I had come all the way from London and this was my first visit. Hence my predicament.

The atmosphere improved. Forms were produced for me to fill. A registration card was printed. My shoulders dropped at least an inch, and I left the hot office, crunching across the snow towards a forbidding looking Napoleonic barrack-block where, I was told, the archive was based.

The vital registration card

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