Before the first interview with a Bedford College science alumnus, I was anxious about the quality and quantity of my questions – would there be enough? Would they relate to her life at all? I had pretty much no idea what her life story was – had she continued with science after Bedford? Was she married? I even asked a friend to pretend to be a 70-year-old lady to try and work out if the questions would work! (Bizarrely, most of his answers were accurate to my interviewee’s life!)
Heading into the second interview, the nerves are back. I want to improve on the errors I made last time: asking some questions which were in hindsight leading, missing out some meta-information from the beginning. But I’ve already asked all the ‘easy’ questions: we covered early life, college, and career extensively in the last interview. What I now need to go more in depth about her scientific work, and the traumatic experiences we somewhat skated over last time. I need to ask about gender in science without imposing a narrative of discrimination on a lady who might not have felt that way – as somewhat indicated by previous answers. For these subjects, I’m on unfamiliar turf – we covered the more solid terrain of college food and career trajectory in the first interview. But I’m a bit stumped for more questions; we both ended the last interview questioning what more there is to say. Hopefully I can recapture the rapport we developed in the last session, and allow her to look further into her memories of her life.
It feels slightly odd capturing a life history for an archive but not for my own historical project. While we’ve been given a particular brief, it feels like a bit of a disadvantage to not have a personal agenda I’m searching for. There are no questions I have to ask for use in a project, only to ensure the best and most useful oral history interview possible. I want to cover all eventualities, to assist the college, future researchers, and of course, the subject herself.
‘On a dark and lonely night, an old peasant woman was walking her dog along the banks of the River Lune…’
In Kirkby Lonsdale, Cumbria, there is a Devil’s Bridge. Built in 1370, it is to this day a popular meeting spot, motorcycle hub, and occasional dangerous diving location. It holds a particularly prominent position in the hearts and minds of the people of Kirkby. It also holds a legend, about a woman, a dog, and the devil.
My oral history project would be to find out what that myth is to different inhabitants of the town, using a specific idea approach (rather than asking for life histories). I would interview people of different generations, genders, and social class in order to ensure an oral history of a broad cross=section of Kirkby Lonsdale’s society. In particular, I would ask how long individuals have lived in Kirkby and when they learned the myth, as well as from whom. The way they tell the myth could also tell me a lot about their relationship with it, whether they know it well or badly, were proud of it and told it regularly or had merely heard it in passing. In such a way, this project would be a case study for how myths diffuse, and what they become, particularly in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.
‘Devil’s Bridge’ is a moniker given to many bridges, mostly in Europe, and all have a similar myth. All, interestingly, are reasonably important bridges for their communities, albeit for a range of reasons. By investigating the Kirkby Lonsdale legend, I would also hope to provide insight into the importance of particular myths and locations which hold communities together. I would ask people about their relationship with the bridge, whether they go there often, and how they feel about the legend. It might also be interesting to talk to younger people who ‘tombstone’ (high dive) from the bridge, to see if they feel a specific connection to it. The history of the bridge would also be available from local historians, which would provide a view into how much the history of the community is held dear. Altogether, I would explore the place of the bridge and the legend as a part of peoples’ lives in order to comprehend the nature of the community and its distinctiveness.
‘… and a figure arose from the gloomy darkness’