Marie-Noëlle Polino will be known to some of you personally, from conferences, or as a name, through her role at the French Railway History Society and as editor of many transport and mobility publications. As she describes herself, she ‘has a load of papers, reviews and reports to write before next week and teaches industrial heritage here and there. She is a member of a bunch of official committees and associations’ boards dealing with business history, industrial heritage and the same. She is proud to be a founder member of the International Association of Railway History. Hobbies: reading; opera singing (in extremely private circumstances); cats’ education (no improvement in years).’ Here we find out more …
How did you get involved in railway history?
I was taught early never to boast on chance, because, they say (see below), there would always be a man to tell you, “you women have no special ability to be where you are.” So I won’t mention chance, but tell you that I was contacted because of my reputed abilities in management(!) to bring to existence what should become the French railway historical society (AHICF). In the years 1982-1987, the main French ministries and agencies and public utilities made a point of creating so-called “comités d’histoire” (historical committees) where elderly civil servants or equally high ranked engineers could talk shop and recount their histories for the benefit of academics who would take advantage of profuse grants to organize conferences, publish books, offer scholarships. At the time (1988), the non-profit AHICF society was in existence for a year and a seminal conference had been held. The question was: what next? I was then completing my degree in humanities and just out from the Ecole Normale Supérieure followed by a year as a TA at Yale and two at the Sorbonne and quite fascinated by the publishing world, so the prospect of managing a scientific journal was quite alluring to me. I then discovered the railway world and learnt to understand it with passion. I was sent around the French Railways during the winter of 1990-91 and did a lot of field work. The technical system and its operation, the dedication of the people involved was somewhat of a change after the previous years I had spent in the Bibliothèque Nationale or the Yale University Library. I gradually became involved in industrial heritage, which is now a part of my occupation.
What is your role at the AHICF, and what are you researching at the moment?
Contrary to what one might think or wish, my main job is not supposed to be research. What I am mainly doing is ‘research engineering’: to allow others to do easier, better, more disseminated research. It may sometimes be frustrating, but it is mainly gratifying. I am less quoted as an author than as an editor of journal, books, or the object of kind dedications on title pages. I include of course fund raising, project management, as for instance our rather large oral history programme, which involves several researchers and a nice amount of public money, publishing projects, or even public research programmes (as a European funded COST action from 2000 to 2005). Besides, there is a lot to do in information management; we don’t keep archives (railway archives are State archives and managed by the French railways, the French rail network, Paris public transport authority, and for historical records, by the National Archive) but we have a small research library and answer a lot of well-timed and ill-timed queries (last week: what about trousers worn by female staff in French railway administration and the internal regulations thereabout?).
Do you find the world of railways and railway history to be very dominated by men?
I have delicately alluded twice to the topic already. I think that the academic world is living far behind the time (as is politics, by the way). Gender is far more a problem than in the non-academic world, as your ‘tag’ (left? Right? In-between?) is highly conspicuous there when it hardly plays a role in the industry anymore. I won’t say that a woman experiences perfect conditions doing a ‘man’s job’ in railway operation, but women are there (from 8% of the railway staff from the beginning of the railway –10% in wartime– to over 20% for the last 10 years or so) and working everywhere. It is when it comes to higher management that you have too many senior male mid-managers for fewer jobs, and women are unwelcome; competition for tenure in universities is even more acute, and men stick together even more. To go a bit farther than mere common sense or petty coffee shop talk, it is a fact that when there was no difference between economic history and transport history, men dominated both fields. Opening the field to mobility issues and cultural history increases the places where women are more numerous. And now that being an academic in France is an underpaid and ever more strenuous job then before, well, universities recruit more women, with men being encouraged to look for ‘better’ jobs.
What are the key questions being discussed in French railway history at the moment?
The key question is to allow railway history to become permeated by the general move of historiography towards ‘larger’ questions, as ‘mobility’ including all aspects of transport, ‘culture’ including all aspects of mobility. We have nevertheless to be and remain aware of the fact that one lonely limited self cannot have the same degree of knowledge of all fields and the intimate knowledge of archives which allow not only a well balanced comparison, which was the keyword 20 years ago, but global interpretation and the use of far-reaching concepts. Historians are (or should have been) taught to look at anachronism as the worst of sins. They should stick to this basic faith, especially in matters as the perception of technology, its use, or industrial relations, not to mention the Second World War in occupied countries, which was perforce one of AHICF research topics in the recent years. The AHICF scientific programme for the next ten years or so is based on 5 sub-fields which may sound classic (policies and politics, innovation, space and networks, railway societies, urban history and heritage) but bring together rather new and stimulating (and multidisciplinary) research topics (for instance history of time and speed in the railway world, the impact of the railway on food consumption, railway heritage and representation). Besides, transport history is catching up the pace of other European countries and the US in road and motoring history and cultural history of air technology.
Given the importance of mobility across borders, how do you think we can encourage more people to look at the history of transport that crosses boundaries – such as international railways or roads?
I don’t want to be too matter-of-fact or trivial, but the fact is, it is a real challenge to become conversant enough with several countries’ historiography, research language, and culture to do valuable comparative work. (I remember the hard time we had during our COST programme, in which 17 countries were taking part, to agree on the meaning of ‘intermodality’). It is not easier, perhaps, but it is at least feasible to turn towards international studies, which in France means European studies or international relations, an acknowledged and successful field of studies; if you do so, you have then to learn transport history. And we come back to the beginning of our problem. We may do our best to finance internments, scholarships, to encourage students to travel and be international; but these topics will remain a bit more difficult, a lot more expensive than others. We advertised a German/French scholarship for the study of railwaymen during WWII … nearly 10 years ago. If somebody is interested… Of course this should nevertheless be encouraged. The international (as well as an intermodal) vision of transport is nothing new! To go further in this kind of history could change the perception we have of the present stage of transport history we have reached.
What are you reading at the moment?
I read with a good deal of curiosity and interest Stéphanie Sauget’s book on Paris stations (A la recherche des pas perdus : une histoire des gares parisiennes, Paris, 2009) which is a well-driven manifesto for cultural history of transport and mobility spaces and nodes. Following Alain Corbin, it asks fundamental questions: how did people using the station differentiate inner spaces, how did they perceive them in the city and in their daily lives, how did they feel in the stations – how were their senses triggered, which emotions were raised, following the nature of the trip, the gender of the traveller, etc.–, at different moments in the 19th Century? This approach fits quite well in the frame designed by Colin Divall through the conference held in York last July that I was lucky to attend. [See the report by Gordon Pirie in this issue.]
I try and brush up my English by reading a lot of well-bred crime novels. I am currently re-reading in English and in French P.D. James. I read recently in another vein and in the French translation (I cannot read Russian!) Boris Akounine, kindly revealed to me by an extremely brilliant PhD Russian student we were glad to work with, Elena Razvozzhaeva. Also Muriel Barbery L’élégance du hérisson – the social satire of ‘intellectuels’ and upper class left-wing Parisian society is not the least of her achievements; and Jean-Louis Fournier book on his life as a father of disabled children. I am now back to a recently published pamphlet on the French Railways, and eager to read (as far as my knowledge of German will allow me) two books received from German colleagues on the Second World War, deportations and the German railways: Alfred Gootwaldt, Eisenbahner gegen Hitler. Widerstand und verfolgung bei der Reichsbahn 1933-1945 (Wiesbaden, 2009) and Andreas Engwert and Susanne Kill, Sonderzüge in den Tod. Die Deportationen mit der Deutschen Reichsbahn (Köln/Weimar/Wien, 2009 – a welcome initiative of the Deutsche Bahn).
What do you think are T2M’s strengths and weaknesses?
I think the congresses are extremely useful. From a French point of view, they are less accessible than from other countries, but fortunately doctoral students and young academics are now more often members of research teams and have access to the necessary funding to be able to join. The problem is to decide whether such an organisation has a role to play beyond dissemination of research and lobbying, and be an actor in the field of research evaluation and production. I mean a peer-reviewed journal offering a more systematic output for conference papers, a book ‘collection’ at a publisher, an international seminar or summer school, but also a seat on committees deciding public research programmes … T2M is a network, and a successful one; should it become, beyond a group of founders, more or less a perennial and acknowledged institution? That remains, to my mind, the question.