The Interview Beckons

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.

The forgotten invasion of the British Isles

Ask someone about the Channel Islands, and apart from the few who perhaps went there during Easter Holidays with their families, many will look a little confused, or perhaps cite them as the tax haven of choice for UK millionaires. Despite them being as much a part of Britain as the Isle of Man is, their proximity to France means their prominence in UK history is almost non-existent. This is unfortunate due to their interesting and extensive past, most significantly of which was the occupation of all four islands, Sark, Alderney, Guernsey and Jersey, by the Nazis during the Second World War. This means that despite the overall euphoria of post-war Britain that comes with being the little island standing last and alone against the might of Germany, Hitler did actually manage to place the jackboots of his soldiers firmly on the ground of his enemy.

For me, this is hugely fascinating. To have a population of British citizens on British sovereign territory under the rule of Nazi authority, in the same way as their neighbours in France were for all those long years, is stunning to think of. It is incredible to think this given the way the history of the Second World War is presented in countless books, films, television and radio programmes and countless other media. It hasn’t been purposefully covered up from these outlets at all – on the contrary, the plight of the Channel Islanders was covered during the War itself regularly, as I discovered when investigating the topic during my undergraduate dissertation, which looked into the Jersey and British newspaper coverage during the war.  There has also been within the last few decades or so books and articles published which cover the Nazi occupation across the Islands, with historians such as Madeline Bunting, Charles Cruikshank and Gillian Carr leading the research in this area.

Oral history often investigates uncovered and neglected stories and lives, of which the Channel Islands are most definitely able to fall into this category. Although there have been interviews conducted for the work mentioned above, there has yet to be extensive oral research conducted pursuing the memories and lives of those who lived through the Occupation, of their experiences and own interpretations, rather than just their chronology of the war. It would be incredibly insightful to examine the patterns of remembrance that occur with the men and women interviewed on this period of their lives, especially as there are mythologies tied into the Channel Islands that are independent of those myths attached to the Second World War alone. These include the concepts of resistance from the Nazis which is a difficult topic even now to address, as well as the potentially uncomfortable suspicion of fraternisation and collaboration which have surrounded the Channel Islands since their liberation in 1945. An extensive oral history of say Jersey or Guernsey, the largest and second largest islands respectively, would contribute greatly to their own local history for future generations and interpretations, but also to the overall view of Britain during the Second World War. Associated with this of course are the benefiting effects oral testimonies will give to the historic record which other sources could simply not provide, due to the personal and deep-rooted nature of the issues concerning collaboration/fraternisation and also resistance. It would also be beneficial to conduct this important and influential research sooner rather than later due to, as is the unfortunate case with Second World War oral testimonies, the increasing age of the concerned populace.

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, Concerns, and an Interview partner

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Mrs. Hamilton was eleven years old when the Second World War broke out. Through an interview with her I am hoping to find out more not only more about her lived experiences, but more about the experiences of women and girls during the Second World War.

But this is not only the information I hope to learn from the interview. I hope to learn a new level of listening in order to better conduct the interview. I also hope to learn how to appropriately time questions so I don’t rush the interview.

I found it relatively easily to find a person to interview, so my main concerns come from the interview process itself. I’m very nervous because for reasons ranging from the fact that Mrs. Hamilton speaks very quietly and I want to make sure that the recorder will pick up her voice properly to more major concerns where I don’t want this to feel like an interrogation. In other words I’m concerned with finding a balance and landing in an interview space, rather than a visit or an interrogation.


What was it like when…? Preserving lived experiences

The summer before I graduated with my undergraduate degree. I distinctly remember walking around a dig site during our field school excavation and thinking. “I wish we could just ask them what this structure was for—it’d be so interesting to know for certain.” It was the ‘for certain’ that got me. Later in a medieval history class I had the same questions: “If only I could ask them what it was really like to live in the fourteenth century.” Obviously, without a time machine such questions are now impossible to ask.

I’ve found myself (and heard others) asking similar questions about periods in time much closer to the present. My younger brother once asked me “I wonder what it was like to be a fighter pilot during the Second World War” in response to my question about a project he was working on. These are exactly the type of questions that oral history can help us answer. It can help us to preserve others’ lived experiences and extend their voices into the future. It can provide a window to help us understand what life was really like for people as historic events were taking place and how those events impacted their lives personally.

It is in this vein of preservation as well as my own interest in gender roles that I have selected the topic for my interview: women’s roles and how they shifted during and after the Second World War. I would like to interview a woman who lived through the war. I intend to pursue the interview as her life story while paying particular attention to how the war impacted her ideas about gender roles as well as shifts in those roles over time.

Evacuees during the Second World War , the first social experiment?

I intended to interview a friend of my grandmother’s who was a child during the Second World War, living in London, and as a result was soon evacuated. I would like to explore this further as it resonates with my grandmother’s wartime experiences as she too was an evacuee and her stories always fascinated me; so the opportunity to hear about and explore another person’s experience of this interests me deeply.

Whilst there has been much telling and retelling of such evacuees experiences each individual experience of this event is just that, individual. Everyone will have different reactions  emotions and emotions which they felt at the time but also how they feel about it now, how they look upon this event in their life.

Additionally the evacuation of mainly working class children from London to more affluent middle class families in the countryside was one of the greatest (unintentional) social experiments in the country, the the conservative well to do families were often shocked at the gap of the prevalent social gap between the middle and working classes. For the children to it was often a culture shock, moving from crowded industrial towns to the countryside and encountering things they had never seen before. Again all of the experiences of this cultural and social change and shock are different and this gives us the chance to hear her experiences of this, of her opinions, and even if she agrees with this view.

Hopes and Concerns – Johanna F.

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!