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.


Oral history within the family

I would like to explore my family’s history through an interview with my 96 year old great aunt. Although physically frail she is still a great storyteller, and an insightful interpreter of her own life and how it relates to the present.

One of 6 children born into a poor Jewish family in Manchester, at a young age (younger than 10 I believe) she was orphaned and living in a household headed by her 14 year old sister. They survived through the hard graft of the children, and the kindness and help of neighbours – who can’t have had a lot to spare themselves. She has never talked to me about the racial aspects of her childhood, but I have heard (not directly from my great aunt) that my grandmother was unofficially adopted by childless non-Jewish neighbours and lived with them for some years. As a consequence my grandmother doesn’t seem to have considered herself Jewish, which I’m sure had consequences for relationships between the siblings.

The Second World War seems to have been liberating for her personally. She’s never quite said how this came about – possibly I’ve never asked – but at some point during the 1940s she spent time in Egypt. I don’t know if this was during or after the war. What can she have been doing there? She has some great pictures of her perched nervously on a furious-looking camel. After the war she pitched up in London on her own (!) and met her future husband at a literary evening. They were both avid readers, and together became involved in left-wing politics. Shortly after Israel was founded they went to live on a Kibbutz, which she hated (I’m not sure if this was to do with politics, lifestyle or both). Returning to London they opened a bookshop in Finchley, which was eventually very successful but they had many years of financial struggle. They had one son, and as there were no nurseries at that time she describes an incredibly difficult juggling act as a working mother. The family ended up pillars of the local community, to her lasting amusement (and secret delight, I suspect).

I am intrigued by the ellipses in family history – my great aunt has shared some compelling vignettes from her life but I’m not sure of the chronology or how they relate to each other. The Holocaust seems to be a taboo subject – I have no idea how it affected the extended family. Perhaps she doesn’t know either; I don’t get the impression she or her siblings were in touch with any wider family after their parents died. But perhaps I have this wrong.  I have often wondered if these gaps are because she wants to be in control of what she reveals or because I just haven’t asked the right questions or listened carefully enough. There are a number of themes I would like to explore through this interview, among them: my great aunt’s relationship both with her siblings and her Jewish identity; experiences of anti-semitism (she has never mentioned it); the liberating impact of the war; the significance of Israel to her; being a working woman (and especially wife and mother) in 1950s London; class and social mobility. I think this interview could shed light on these aspects of 20th century history through one person’s experience. It would also be an opportunity to reflect on the ethics and methodology of interviewing someone with whom one has a close emotional relationship within the context of a tight-knit family.

I have several concerns about this interview – some practical, some relational, some ethical – which I’ll explore in my next post, but the main area is whether she will feel she needs to ‘protect’ me from some of her more difficult experiences. I will also want to protect her, as I have no desire to cause her distress or bring traumatic memories to the surface. She might also just feel some of the things I’m interested in are none of my business – and I’m sure she will say so! She has honed her story so much in the retelling over the years I think I’ll probably hear a well-rehearsed version; entertaining, but guarded. Given her high status as the most senior member of the family it could be difficult for me to interogate this as I might wish.


Hopes and Concerns: Interviewing a victim of Terrorism

This comes along a little late, but nevertheless better late than never I suppose. I feel like my concerns are probably bigger than my hopes at the moment since I am still unsure about who I will be interviewing for this assignment. I have not yet received a solid response but still hoping to create an interview based in the field of terrorism. I actually came across something very interesting quite recently which I wasn’t aware of. We have all of course heard of the 7/7 bombing attacks at King’s Cross in London in summer 2005 I actually remember it quite well because a couple of days after the attacks it happened I was traveling to London for the very first time, what a strange welcome that was!

Anyway, something, or someone rather, I hadn’t heard of before is Sajda Mughal. She was actually present during the attacks and compared to the 52 victims who were unfortunately killed, she survived, witnessed, and decided to dedicate her life to persuading extremist to swear off violence. At the time of the attack, Sajda was 22 and gave up her career to form the JAN trust, a women’s charity that helps women from ethnic minorities, including refugees and asylum-seekers, to integrate society. Besides helping those women, she also aims to stop young people from being radicalized.

When reading her story I knew it would be difficult and delicate to create an interview either with her or with other women part of this charity. Quite frankly, I am not an expert on Islam, not close to being one actually, but I know that if I decide to do an interview in this direction I would be rather thrilled to interview someone like Sajda and not only understand what it must feel like to experiment something such as terrorism, but also understand her stance, and those of other Muslim women in a society such as Britain, in which hundreds of young people have already left to join the Jihad in Syria.

As a whole I am having extremely mixed feelings about this interview. On the one hand I am considerably stressed not having received a formal response, and on the other, I am really looking forward to this interview and to be able to look back at it thinking that this was perhaps one of the most enriching and exciting experience of my academic life so far.


In the Community

I would like to focus my oral history project on the life history of an individual within the Egham community. My goal is to interview someone from one of the local churches or the pastor. The topic would center around the individuals life, focusing on a particular aspect depending on the individual, and the historical changes that have taken place throughout their lifetime. I have chosen to focus on this area because of the importance of capturing these individual stories and experiences while it is still possible. Life history interviews hold great significance for public oral history because it provides a personal experience and understanding of events beyond what we can learn solely from books.


Interview Day is Almost Here

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.”


INTERVIEW TOPIC CHOICE- MARIA KARPASITOU

For my oral history interview I am planning on interviewing an individual from the Cypriot community in London. I have contacted the ‘Parikiaki’ which is the leading Greek Cypriot newspaper in London. The newspaper itself was established in 1974 which was also the time a lot of Cypriots had arrived to the UK due to the Turkish invasion that took place in Cyprus in the year. A small number of Cypriots had already been living in the UK beforehand, however from the 1950′s onwards was when a community was beginning to be formed, the contrast is great between the community in the 50′s and today. I am very much interested in hearing (if possible) first hand accounts of moving to the UK, what life was like then; being away from home where an invasion was taking place, being in a foreign country where everything was unknown, even the language; and how it has changed to modern day, how the community grew and what factors were used to keep a collective spirit- such as the newspaper, the churches, Greek schools etc. Therefore, I will be focusing on the social and cultural side of the community hopefully through a person’s first hand account.
I am awaiting a reply from the ‘Parikiaki’, hopefully either allowing me to interview someone that works (and has worked for a long period of time) on the newspaper that would be able to highlight the growth of the community or even getting me in touch with someone that would be willing to participate. If this is unsuccessful, for whatever reason, I do know Cypriots in London so I am prepared to ask them if needed, as a life story interview would also be of interest to me and could easily be placed in the larger context of events taking place in the UK and the Cypriot community at the time (though I am aware that it would be preferable if they understood and spoke English).