These days we are just a finger click or page turn away from a popular presentation of the past. If you chose to, I’m sure you could spend a whole 24 hours just consuming history through television and radio programmes, in magazines and on the internet.
Oral history audio plays a key role in many of these presentations but the viewer or listener tends to absorb it in a mostly passive capacity. Developments in technology, like GPS and smartphones, are now allowing us to break free from our living rooms and to engage with the past in a more active way.
Jill Liddington has argued that people acquire a sense of the past through memory, landscape, archives and archeology. The use of oral history in audio walks brings all four together almost uniquely in a public history context. The result is a powerful and engaging presentation of the past. In fact, it is more than a mere presentation. The use of fragmented narrative and located memory gives each user an opportunity to share in the process of interpretation. They do not just consume the historical narrative but participate in the experience, and this allows them to develop their own meanings.
It is this use of oral history in public history that I will explore in my essay. As well as outlining the opportunities offered by audio walks and located memory, I will also look at how they are constructed and the challenges they present both to an oral historian and to a public historian.
I’m growing increasingly anxious about conducting my first ever Oral History interview. In fact, my feelings are best described as apprehension and fear. There is so much to prepare, consider and remember.
I’m concerned that language might be a problem. My interviewee has warned me that his grasp of English is basic and that he might have some trouble communicating with me. It’s something that is constantly in the back of mind as I prepare my questions. I have been doing some reading about the importance of language to identity and I’m hoping the barrier won’t mark me out as too much of an ‘outsider’. I’m also aware that I am being invited into someone’s home, someone who lives by different cultural norms, and I need to respect those throughout. I do not want to cause offense unwittingly.
From a practical point of view, I’m worried about not being able to use the equipment properly and messing up the recording. I’m not going to dwell on that point. As Henry Ford once said: “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t – you’re right.”
Tucked half way up Barking Road in Newham is the office of the Roma Support Group. Surrounded by a cultural and religious mish-mash of mosques, Christian Churches and Caribbean fruit sellers, this is where the Roma of East London come for help making sense of their new lives in the UK. It’s also the location for my first meeting with Sylvia and Tania, the two ladies who are responsible for keeping the advice centre going.
As we chat over a cup of tea, Sylvia tells me about what she calls the ‘carrier bag’ problems the Roma bring to them. She describes how many will arrive with a plastic bag full of letters and junk mail, ignorant of their contents but hopeful that someone will read and explain them. It’s a reminder of how difficult it is to function in a society when you don’t understand the language and struggle with literacy.
My tutor Graham then reminds me of the Roma’s strong oral tradition, passing their stories from generation to generation through speech, music and song. In many ways, this was the first type of ‘oral history’ and one that has enabled Roma culture and their past to survive.
It appears to have instilled a sense of identity and belonging in a group that isn’t a homogenous nation and doesn’t have a state of its own. Both are areas I would like to explore further in my interview. Another is how, or if, the barrage of bad press the Roma receive from certain sections of the UK media is undermining that identity.
Tania and Sylvia tell me they notice the development of an inter-generational tension within Roma families in the UK. They say the younger generation can be reluctant to describe themselves as Roma because they believe it carries a stigma and is a barrier to their progress. Cultural traditions and past-times are also a battleground as a new generation increasingly adopts the values and lifestyle of the country they’ve grown up in.
It’s clear from our conversations that the interview itself will present a number of challenges. Language and trust are top of the list. After much discussion, Tania says she will try to arrange for me to speak to Dudek, a musician, in his 40s, originally from Poland. He came to the UK ten years ago as an asylum seeker. However, she warns me to keep my questions short and simple, as his English is competent but patchy.
I’m relieved that I don’t have to conduct my first interview through an interpreter but I have roped Graham into a little extra work. The hierarchy of the Roma community is such that Sylvia thinks the group’s President Rosa should be interviewed first. That interview must be conducted through an interpreter. Graham kindly offers to take on the task.
This week the Home Secretary promised yet again to “get tough” on immigration. Theresa May’s Bill is designed to reassure a public who are warned daily, by the press, of an impending ‘invasion’ of Roma migrants to the UK. It’s a well-rehearsed dialogue that has been at the forefront of political debate since the E.U. opened its internal borders in the late 1990s. More than 15 years on, the script remains the same. We hear from the press. We hear from Government ministers. Occasionally, a few members of the British public are asked to give their thoughts. But, where are the Roma? Their’s is the ‘hidden voice’ in this debate and that is why I’ve chosen to interview a member of the Roma community in the UK for my Oral History task.
I hope it will give me a glimpse beneath the stereotypical image. Why have they chosen to come to the UK? How did they travel here? And, how long did they intend to stay? Many of the older generation experienced life under Communism and persecution after it. Their stories have not been told because their countries denied them citizenship and forced them to move on. Where is home for them now?
I would like to explore the question of identity, including its public denial by some Roma. Also, how, and if, that sense of identity survives attempts to assimilate and integrate them into a new host country.
The average Roma lives to just 50 years of age so it is important to capture their memories now before the voice of the late Twentieth Century Roma is lost forever.