When I first heard that we might be working on a project involving interviewing female science graduates from Royal Holloway and Bedford College I must admit I was a little apprehensive. I was worried that I might not have a sufficiently scientific background myself to do the interview justice. What if the person I was allocated was going to talk to me about some extremely complicated piece of post-doctoral chemistry? How would I respond? Would I make the right noises? How would I even know what was going on? I could foresee despondency and panic. Alternatively, thinking about experiences with some of my own older relatives, there were alternative scenarios in which the interviewee was either extremely deaf resulting in a great deal of shouting and confusion, or else prone to repeat the same story several times in one sitting interspersed with the statement “I’m eighty-four you know” at regular intervals.
As it turns out, I was worrying over nothing. When I spoke to my interviewee over the phone to arrange our interview dates she was very friendly, joking that she was glad I called when I did as she was working in the garden and needed an excuse to come in doors to make a cup of tea. She gave the impression that she is very much looking forward to taking part in the project and I must say I’m looking forward to interviewing her.
My interviewee is a Physics graduate from Bedford College (so I must be careful to not refer to the project as if it is solely about Royal Holloway) and this is interesting in itself as there will be lots to ask her about life at Bedford and around Regent’s Park in the 1950s. Born in the 1930s, I’m hoping to find out about her memories of life as a child in wartime Britain and if that was one of the things that drew her towards science as a career. After University she worked as a secondary school teacher and it will be interesting to perhaps explore the many changes she would have seen in post-war education, especially as her career spanned the rise and fall of the grammar schools. I also know that she was involved in local politics after retiring from teaching and maintains an interest in the arts, so I’m looking forward to hearing about that part of her story too.
All of this is great, but now I have some more worries. Will two 90 minute sessions be enough? Will my batteries hold out? Will we go off on an interesting tangent and not talk about Bedford College enough? At least with two interviews we have a bit of flexibility to allow for problems like these. My other worry, is striking the balance between not speaking too much myself (because it’s not a normal two-way conversation) and making sure that she knows I’m interested and engaged in what she’s saying.
It will be a good thing to record my interviewee’s memories, not just for our college archives but for her own family. Over the years I heard a lot of stories and anecdotes from my older relatives, but rarely wrote any down and certainly never sound recorded any because I foolishly kidded myself that they would be around forever. Now they’re gone and I wish I’d have had the foresight to carry out interviews like this on my own parents.
I’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.
Though out of sync with blog posts from my course mates on this topic, my hopes and concerns are nonetheless sizeable. Conducting an oral history interview for posterity is, after all, a daunting and exciting prospect. My area of interest, the influence of gender roles on activities undertaken by girl guiding groups in the mid-twentieth century, is virtually untrodden by historians. This both concerns me, as I have little specific research to go on, and motivates me, to really uncover a previously untold story.
Despite the fact that I have known who I am going to interview since early February, I am nervous for a number of reasons. I am concerned about creating a rapport with my interviewee, because whilst this isn’t usually a problem, I recently interviewed someone with whom I was unable to establish rapport with, this resulted in a bored sounded interviewee, although perhaps that is his natural demeanour. The interviews I conducted for my radio documentary have no doubt been helpful preparation for this one, but on those occasions I knew precisely what content I could hope to obtain, having read the interviewees’ work. In this instance I am stepping into the unknown. For this reason I am concerned that my line of questioning will not do the interviewee justice, and will not contribute to the historical record as much as it should.
I am worried about navigating myself, and the interviewee, through the interview so that we both leave feeling satisfied, and indeed happy about the experience. In this vein, I am concerned that I will assume too much knowledge, and forget to ask the interviewee about how they felt in a certain situation. Furthermore, my primary concern is forgetting to ask follow up questions, or asking leading questions, as I have a tendency to do in my normal life.
I wish to be as prepared as possible so I will ensure I have an extensive interview plan, whether or not I feel I need to actively use it in the interview. And something that could be considered a hope and a concern is my desire to stay engaged throughout, when I have conducted interviews over the years there have been times when my thoughts have wandered, occasionally to calamitous effect, and these, were much shorter interviews. So, I am concerned that I will daydream, and I hope that I will not.
I hope to give back to the girl guiding community from what I uncover. I am also hoping that it will enrich my own experience of guiding today. I trust that I will gain insight into the experience of leading youth groups in the mid-twentieth century, and how gender roles are perceived to have been influential in activities at the time. Lastly, I want to learn more about the way memory works, and reflect on the challenges of conducting and using oral history.
I am looking to interview someone that was a Girl Guide during the 1950s and 1960s. I want to address the extent to which activities were gendered, and to what extent they diverted from gender norms. It will look at whether these activities were aimed at preparing young girls to become good wives and mothers. Hopefully I will find someone who has stayed in Guiding in some capacity up to the present day, to allow we to address changes over time. I will ask about attitudes towards Guiding, and potentially issues of class, community, religion and personal freedom. This will be a life interview which focusses on the impact of a specific period. It will feed into historiography about childhood and perceptions of Gender, particularly conceptions of the stereotypical 1950s woman.
I have a few concerns about the interview. Of course, I‘m afraid I can‘t handle the recording equipment, that I will forget to push the record button or that something will be wrong with the sound levels. On the other hand, I worry that I won‘t ask the right questions, that those questions stir up very unpleasant memories of my interviewee and that he will feel uncomfortable or even depressed after the interview.
I really do hope to get an personal insight of what it was like to be a child during the Second World War in Austria. I‘m looking forward to talking to my interview partner about this time and I‘m also – somehow – looking forward to being „the interviewer“ with the dictaphone. I‘m used to finding the answers to my questions in books; it‘s a relief to talk to people about their experiences for a change!
Planning my interview has proven to be increasingly stressful and prompted more concerns that I expected originally. So far the largest difficulty I had had to overcome has been finding an interviewee. Because I recently moved to the UK from the United States, I have virtually no relationships with any adults in the area. Luckily, I have received a very promising lead from Dr. Matthew Smith at the Egham Museum and have a number of back-up options should that fall through.
My main concern is that my questions and the topics which I wish to explore may be seen as too probing or personal. The woman I will likely interview was a child during WWII and her mother worked at a local ammunitions factory; I am interested in discussing gender during and after the war but I don’t want to step on any toes in doing so. Also, I am interested in expressions of sexuality but do not know how to approach that topic in a delicate way. I am hoping to gain more insight into this issue through the readings.
My second concern is related to my own abilities as an interviewer. In an undergraduate class, I was assigned an oral life history as a final project. We were encouraged to interview members of our own family (simply for ease of access). I found myself unwilling to ask probing questions and struggled to stick with a definite them. Hopefully, however, this can be attributed to a lack of training and preparation and also my relationship with the interviewee (my grandmother).
In terms of hopes for my interview, I would like to gain a greater insight into England during the Second World War. Most of my knowledge on the topic is US centric so I am excited to see the topic in a new context. I also hope that my interview will make the experience of war, especially one on such a large scale, seem more human to me instead of historical and academic; I hope that I am able to illustrate the importance of her experience, her story, and her voice.
On a much more personal level, I hope that this interview gives me a deeper connection with Egham and England in general. Though a full-time student here, I still feel transient, like a perpetual tourist, and I trust that learning more about this community will change that.