By Maurice Casey |
In a recent interview about his narrative history of the October Revolution, China Mieville described the transformative effect of visiting St. Petersburg for research. Walking streets hitherto only encountered in literary description, Mieville gained a unique sense of how of the canal-city shaped the events of the revolution. As a habitual stroller, this observation resonated with me. Walking with no particular direction in mind is a hobby that has always given me space to think.
Indeed, some of my most productive periods have been en route to the library rather than inside of it, as I become ensconced in the habitat my own research subjects once lived in. During research trips, I can traverse to the streets and post-codes that I have encountered in archival documents. The chapters of my dissertation take place in a number of locales and temporal periods; East London in the final years of the Great War, Moscow during the New Economic Policy and Ireland at the close of the interwar period. Each place had its own distinctive culture and landmarks that cast a shadow on the contemporary urban space.
Wandering through these locations allows me to get a sense of the proximity of the people I research to one another. On a recent research visit to Dublin, I plugged some of the addresses of Irish radicals listed in a secret police surveillance document into google maps and set out. It dawned on me that much of Ireland’s revolutionary activity took place in drawing rooms and basements located within a single post-code. Such locational intimacy undoubtedly influenced their social networks and political developments. Even Irish activists sojourning in the Soviet Union, a territory covering one-sixth of the earth’s surface, were largely confined in their daily activities to two intersecting streets in central Moscow: Tverskaya, home of the hotel for foreign residents, and Mokhovaya, where the Communist International had its’ headquarters just a stone’s throw away from the Kremlin walls.
Whilst walking can provide a sense of how this past was experienced, there is also an occasional poetic irony in how the sites have transformed. For example, the Eccles Street basement that housed the Communist Party of Ireland’s printing press in the early 1930s now hosts a children’s creche (whether or not the kids inside are taking their first steps towards a communist society is unknown). If you are interested in following in the footsteps of your research subjects, I recommend digging up old guide-books for the city in question. Not only do these give you contemporary maps, they also provide a unique sense of local colour by describing murals, stores and events as they existed during that period.
Rambling for research is an activity I heartily recommend. I’m not the first Pubs and Publications to underline the advantages of sight-seeing during research, as Christoph Otte also tackled this in a previous post. While the benefits might vary from discipline to discipline, there’s hardly any downsides to stepping out of the library and into the open air.
(All photos: © Maurice Casey)
Maurice J. Casey is a first year DPhil student at Jesus College, Oxford. You can follow him on twitter @MauriceJCasey. He tweets about Irish-Soviet history and, very occasionally, dogs in pubs.