interview with the past

As I am preparing to face the lady on my first oral history assignment I cannot help but think that that will be a challenge for me. On the phone she sounds self-assured and quite outspoken. She is Eastern-European and from what I have gathered she was a teacher in her native country but did not like the job and moved on to work in food industry. Her previous occupation was economist, however now she works for a private company as a cleaner.

My first concern is that during the interview as time goes on and the trust is being built up I might feel tempted to reminiscent with my interviewee on the past. If that happens and I let the conversation to flow by itself, than perhaps it would lose a momentum. Actually, if the fire alarm goes off and we have to flee the premises the same thing would happen- a broken flow of the interview will be difficult to restore. To avoid such sticky situations I will plan the questions extensively.

I have observed is that the lady seem to be proactive, “hands on” type. She is definitely someone who does not like to be told what to do, her conversations with me were brisk and pretty much matter of fact. She is articulate, strong-opinionated and slightly impatient. So before the interview takes place I will have to outline the purpose of it and point to its huge value for the project to encourage her to work on it.  Most likely she will not let me have 90 minutes of her precious time even in the name of posterity! So I might try and get “Plan B” (a shorter one) ready. I will have to navigate in order to cover the most of the intended periods and topics. I may not be able to cover them all, as I may find something particularly interesting and get stuck there for longer. It is not about time management, or is it?

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Beyond the Water Tower: preparing for an interview

IMG_3102I’m planning to interview a former groundsman at Horton Mental Hospital, formerly Horton Asylum, in Epsom. The former admin block, which is now expensive housing, is pictured above. This will be a second interview. In the first we talked about his childhood – he’s a local boy born and bred – and his time working at the hospital as a young man in the late 1970s. He talked about his job and his recollections of working alongside patients in the gardens. His is an interesting perspective; his job meant he was literally and metaphorically ‘outside’ the hospital. Although he got to know some of the patients, much remained mysterious – their comings and goings, the inner workings of the hospital and even the conditions from which they suffered. He was part of a team charged with making sure the hospital grounds looked attractive; an important consideration for the Horton’s management from the time the hospital opened in 1902. His memories of this part of his working life were generally positive, and although he recalled that some of patients suffered greatly from their illnesses, he gave the impression he thought the hospital was a reasonably good environment for them.

After he left Horton, my interviewee lived and worked in the Middle East for some years, where he married and became a father. He touched on what it was like to return and live in Epsom with his wife and daughter after the hospitals had closed, and I would like to explore the layers of his experiences of the hospital – as a child growing up in a town where it was a significant presence, as a worker there, and as someone returning in middle age and reflecting on the meaning of those experiences both at the time and now.

I would also like to explore his relationship to the physical place in the second interview. In particular, I would like to talk about the Horton water tower (on the left of the photo, behind the admin block). Water towers were an iconic feature of Victorian and Edwardian asylums; their ‘brooding, majestic’ presence was evoked by then Minister of Health Enoch Powell in a 1961 speech advocating the closure of the country’s mental hospitals. This listed, but rather industrial, building survived the demolition of most of the hospital’s infrastructure but was pulled down in 2012 after a long-running campaign by local people who felt it was unsightly and out of place – and possibly dangerous – on the modern housing estate that had been built around it. I must declare an interest here; I have always had a slightly romantic view of two historical Epsoms geographically separated by the town centre. Until 2012, you could glimpse both from the end of my road; on one side the grandstand at Epsom Downs symbolising posh, equestrian Epsom and on the other (and much closer to me) the water tower at Horton, associated with pauper lunatics and the ethnically diverse working class area that developed around the hospital cluster. When the water tower came down I felt it was part of an ongoing process of the town turning its back on an uncomfortable history. My interviewee, to my surprise, saw it completely differently. He was clear that although he thinks the hospitals should be remembered, to him the tower was a symbol of oppression and he’s glad it came down. I was taken aback partly because his own memories of life at the hospital did not seem particularly negative. On reflection, I thought about the research he told me he had done into the history of the hospitals and I wondered if he was taking a wider view of the historical experiences of patients. I am interested in the relationship between  this dual perspective of his own personal experiences and the historical view he has formed from his reading.

My main concern about the interview is that we will not be able to pick up the rapport I felt we established in the first interview, and that therefore he will be unwilling to explore his memories in more depth and consider their meaning for him. Perhaps he will feel that he has already said what he wanted to say – in which case I feel a bit anxious that it will be down to me to prompt and encourage his recollections. Conversely, he knows we share an interest in the history of the hospitals, and if things go well I am aware that I must make sure that the focus of the interview is his memories rather than his research.