BBC Radio 4 – Lives in a Landscape, Series 15, Rooms for Rent

Catch Alan Dein at 11.00 today, radio 4

Oral history and the radio – a rich history and a bright future.

I am going to look at oral history on the radio as the main focus of my essay on oral history in public history.  I confess that this interest stemmed originally from my being something of a radio addict.  What a happy coincidence then that when researching this topic for our student-led seminar I learned that there is so much  that radio offers as a means of communicating oral history.  Initially I assumed that what we were really talking about was oral history documentaries aimed at “the Radio 4 Waitrose/Boden” listener.  However, I learned about the rich, historical development of oral history on the radio, including the legacy left by the godfather of this genre, Studs Terkel.  Oral history on local, community based radio stations proliferates. There are exciting opportunities too –  collaborative working with documentary makers, learning from each other’s craft –   and using podcasts and other  digital media to reach more varied, younger audiences.  Oral history on the radio can and does reach a much wider public than might at first be thought and I want to explore this in my essay. I hope too that I can use it as a way of developing my arguments about the wider challenges of oral history in public history.

Reflections on My Interview – Dorothy finds her voice

On Thursday and Friday I had the great privilege of interviewing Dorothy, an 82 year old former land girl. After a faltering start – she was quite nervous speaking quietly and hesitantly – the interview soon began to flow.   I had half an eye on my questions but I didn’t use them very much at all, instead allowing Dorothy to direct the interview as her confidence grew.  Metaphorically and quite literally (you can hear on the recording) she begins to find her voice.

Having played the recording back I realise I should have done more to ameliorate the effects of traffic (her flat is very close to a road) and I think the hiss is the warden alarm she has in her OAP block over which I had no control.

During the interview Dorothy found dates difficult to recall so many events were framed i.e. ‘we moved house the day war broke out’.  Possibly she did, possibly she didn’t but this is how she remembers it. I tried to frame my questions to help her recall.

There were many instances of her recalling physical memories, particularly about her time working in a mill in Yorkshire (30+ years so deeply ingrained) but also during the time she was in the land army.  During the interview she re-enacted these actions without prompting; demonstrating how she collected the bobbins from a rapidly moving spinning machine and then picking and chopping sugar beets in the fields of Suffolk as a land girl. This wasn’t for my benefit; it was to take her back to those moments.

I found her experiences fascinating, sometimes funny and frequently moving.  Dorothy  replaced one job involving monotonous, tiring work in a mill with a similar one on a farm in Suffolk but it was worth it for the opportunity it provided for a 17 year old to at last gain some personal freedom and to be in the countryside.  As the eldest girl of six children she was expected to look after her younger siblings, cook, clean and do laundry as well as working at the mill.  So the first taste she had of a social life was as a land girl.  Now she had the freedom to ride a bike, visit the cinema, go to dances and to get walked home by a boy.

Sadly, after a few months and following a concerted effort by Dorothy’s mother and her older brother, she was forced to return to Yorkshire to her previous life.  They needed her to help with the family and to contribute to the family coffers.  Being in the land army also had connotations of sexual promiscuity and this was certainly levelled at Dorothy by her brother.

Dorothy went on to get married and to have a family of her own with all the highs and lows that brings including divorce, however I got a real sense during our interview that those months as a land girl  were amongst the happiest times of her life and, had she been allowed to stay for longer, life may have turned out differently.


“It’s a long way to come to interview me…..”

This was the first response I received to my request to interview Dorothy, an 82 year old former member of the Women’s Land Army (W.L.A.) now living in Yorkshire.  We have spoken a few times since and I get a sense that she is looking forward to our interview next Thursday.  I think her initial reaction sums up how many older people, particularly women perhaps, assume that their life story would be of little interest to anyone else.

So, my questions are written up; all nicely themed and chronologically set out.  Aside from a crash course next Tuesday from Graham on how to use the recording equipment, I’m all set to go.   However as Thursday approaches I have no idea if  I will even use the questions in the way I’ve set them out: Dorothy may just tell her story the way she wants to and I feel I should respect that.

She has already told me on the ‘phone that being in the W.L.A represented a chance to move away from her parents.  Her bitterness and resentment at having been bought back to Yorkshire by them a few months later is still very apparent.    I hope I can give her an opportunity to talk about this exciting time in her life, as well as  what I perceive she may still feel were missed opportunities afterwards and to what extent she may still feel defined by this experience.

I am slightly worried that she may not be expecting me to ask her about life before and after the Land Army and so I feel that those early ‘childhood’ questions will be quite critical in building up a rapport between us.  I really want it to be her story and not an account that satisfies my pre-conceived ideas of her life.

I know already that she is divorced; will my questions on her experience of married life prove too painful?  I am going to ask those questions later on in the interview once I hope we have struck up a rapport.  I have met Dorothy a few times in the past as she is the mother of my sister-in-law so I think she’ll be comfortable with me.

I’m reading Penny Summerfield’s work on women and the second world war and Kathryn Anderson and Dana C. Jack (Learning to Listen: Interview Techniques and Analyses in The Oral History Reader).  I’m hoping, as they advocate, to ‘listen in stereo’ to both facts and feelings.


“Starter” questions for an oral history interview

I thought I would post some ideas to get us started for next week’s seminar on interview questions.

A: Basic Information – perhaps say “I’d like to ask you some questions about your childhood”

  1. Can you tell me your name and address – (for the sound-check)?
  2. What is your date of birth?
  3. Where were you born?
  4. Do you have any brothers and sisters? (Probe: birth order and spacing)
  5. What was your father’s job?
  6. Do you remember your father ever being out of work? (Probe: if yes, how did you manage then? How did that affect your lives?)
  7. Did your mother work?
  8. What did your parents do in their spare time?
  9. Did you go out together as a family?
  10. Did you go on holidays?
  11. Where did you go to school?
  12. What did you enjoy most about school?
  13. What did you dislike about school?

I might then go onto ask more detailed questions under the theme  B: School and Work  to include; hopes on leaving school, part-time work whilst at school , jobs, hours worked etc….

Looking forward to reading other ideas for opening questions.




Unraveling Motivations: the Great War and masculinity in Oral histories of Second World War enlistment

The Oral History Society with the Institute of Historical Research is holding the above seminar next Thursday at 6pm at Senate House, central London.

The speaker is Joel Morley from Queen Mary University of London.

Is anyone interested in attending? Let me know.  It is free to attend. I shall be going.

From Factory to Farm – one Land Girl’s story

From Factory to Farm – one Land Girl’s story.

The ‘land girls’ have been described as the forgotten veterans of the Second World War. These women, members of the Women’s Land Army, were recruited to help increase the amount of food grown in war time Britain.

The Women’s Land Army was first created during the First World War, and then re-established shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War, in June 1939. It was disbanded again in 1950.

At its peak in 1943 over 80,000 women from all backgrounds were ‘land girls’. (Imperial War Museum, 2013)

I am going to interview Dorothy, aged 82, who was a land girl in 1948 aged 17 (despite the minimum age for joining up being 17 and a half). She left her family and her job in a mill in urban Yorkshire to be part of the Women’s Land Army in rural East Suffolk.

I am interested in the history of women during the Second World War and the period of austerity which followed – specifically the employment opportunities afforded to women as a result of the war, the ways in which it also presented a chance for some women to leave the constraints (social and financial) of their parents and gender relationships in the aftermath of war.

I hope that my interview with Dorothy will give me an opportunity to explore these themes. In addition, as the number of land girls alive today diminishes all the time, I believe it is important to record and give a voice to their experiences.