THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Sound and vision blog

Sound and moving images from the British Library

Introduction

Discover more about the British Library's 6 million sound recordings and the access we provide to thousands of moving images. Comments and feedback are welcomed. Read more

16 May 2018

50 years since the Ronan Point disaster

50 years ago today at approximately 5.45am Ivy Hodge entered her kitchen on the 18th floor of the Ronan Point building in Canning Town and lit a match. The match triggered a gas explosion which blew out her panel built walls and led to the partial collapse of the 21-storey tower. Four people were killed and seventeen injured. The casualties were lower than might have been expected but the impact of the Ronan Point disaster on architecture, urban planning and building regulation would be enormous. 

Ronan_Point_collapse_closeupR0nan Point after collapse, 1968 (Image credit: Derek Voller)

An inquiry found severe weaknesses with the Large Panel System method used to build Ronan Point and suggested many other tower blocks were at risk. In response legislation was passed to change building codes, to regulate the use of pre-fabricated parts and to safeguard buildings in the case of explosion. Notably the Ronan Point disaster shook public faith in high rise building itself, construction of new buildings halted and many were eventually demolished. Ronan Point was torn down in 1986.

The National Life Stories oral history collection Architects’ Lives contains over 140 interviews with British architects and their associates and unsurprisingly Ronan Point features heavily. The interviews are able to help us understand how the disaster affected those working in the industry. 

Kate Macintosh knows the architecture of London well having designed buildings in Southwark and Lambeth. She is able to give us the context of how Ronan Point was built through precasting, the lack of supervision of this method and some shocking discoveries from her friend Sam Webb’s report into the disaster: 

Kate Macintosh on precasting (C467/132/07)

Ronan Point was built by the private firm Taylor Woodrow and it's easy to look back and say the issue was with private construction. Yet our interview with Norman Engleback challenges this and he talks of how the Greater London Council used the same construction method and that reconstruction only took place afterwards.. According to Norman it was only the “luck of the draw” that GLC buildings didn’t also collapse “like packs of cards”:

Norman Engleback on GLC construction (C467/62/09)

For Maurice Ash, who would in 1969 become Chairman of the Town and Country Planning Association, the disaster justified his long campaign against high rise construction and his view that the people who lived in the towers “hated” it:

Maurice Ash on high rise construction (C467/40/04)

Regulation change is a legalistic process but it has deeply human consequences. The interviews in Architects’ Lives are a fantastic resource for understanding these consequences but they are at the same time limited. Notably in this case they do not include the voices of those who lived in Ronan Point or other tower blocks. With this mind it is useful to contextualise the collection among other local oral histories and oral histories of housing; for example the interviews in the East London People’s Archive as well as the work of the Woodberry Down Memories Group and Tony Parker’s ground breaking book The People of Providence. Taken as a whole these oral histories shed some light on how disasters like Ronan Point as well as broader changes in housing were experienced by the people involved and affected. 

Architects’ Lives is an ongoing National Life Stories project which began in 1995. Many interviews from Architects’ Lives, included those mentioned in this blog, can be accessed via the British Library Sounds website in the Architecture collection. To explore the collection in detail, please search the Sound and Moving Image catalogue. The catalogue reference used for all the recordings in the project is C467. A list of interviewees is also available.

14 May 2018

Recording of the week: the Moken - seafarers of the Andaman Sea

This week's selection comes from Dr Janet Topp Fargion, Lead Curator of World and Traditional Music.

Ko Surin is a group of five small islands in the Andaman Sea, sixty kilometres off the Thai coast. They are entirely covered in primary rain forests, with two small villages inhabited by Moken communities of roughly 160 people. The Moken used to live almost entirely on their boats as they travelled in the seas between Thailand and Myanmar. These days they have been forced to settle on the islands where they have built small huts standing in rows on stilts in the surf.

MokenVillageMoken village (photo: Aroon Thaewchatturat) 

Tom Vater (sound recordist and writer) and Aroon Thaewchatturat (photographer), during their research stay on Ko Surin Nua in 1999, became part of a campfire singsong. The songs, lead by Tawan and Ko Yang (two women singers) accompanying themselves on a single plastic barrel, told of their daily experiences and of their relationships with one another. This song, lu iu ma iu (brother and brother) is a good example.

The Moken - Lu iu ma iu (brother and brother)

This recording is part of the Tom Vater Collection (C799) at the British Library. A longer extract has been published on The Moken: sea gypsies of the Andaman Sea (Topic Records TSCD919, 2001). The full collection also includes recordings from India, Laos and Cambodia. It will be digitally preserved as part of the Unlocking our Sound Heritage project.

Follow @BL_WorldTrad, @BLSoundHeritage and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

11 May 2018

Trauma, narrative and theatre

This blog is by Rib Davis, the 2018-2019 National Life Stories Goodison Fellow.

I am very excited to be embarking on my work as the National Life Stories Goodison Fellow 2018-2019. The project brings together my two loves, oral history and theatre, but in a way that is new for me. I am going to be exploring memory – and in particular the traumatic memories of Holocaust survivors – and how those memories are accessed differently at different points in life. So I will be particularly focusing on those Holocaust survivors in the oral history collection who have been interviewed on more than one occasion.

How do we form our memories of experiences – experiences which may be utterly chaotic – into something which we can present to ourselves and others as a coherent narrative, something that makes sense, something that might even have a meaning? How do we give it shape? How do we even choose the words? And as we create that narrative, each time we create it and re-create it, what is the process of choosing what to include, what to leave out, what to emphasise, what is an aside? How much are were affected by our own previous tellings? And how are our versions of events informed by what we have since learned from others, and also by what has happened to us personally since the time of those events?

Then there is the interview itself. How is the interviewee feeling on that day? Who is the interviewer? What might their expectations be? What might the interviewee feel is expected of him or her? How much does the interviewer contribute, or question, or even lead? What can the interviewee cope with telling, or not?

IMG_20180511_141022554The original cassette tape from the 1988 interview with Barbara Stimler

Let us take one example. Barbara Stimler, born in Poland in 1927, endured appalling events, particularly in the Lodz/Litzmannstadt ghetto and then in Auschwitz. Barbara was interviewed a number of times; two of the interviews, from 1988 (for the Living Memory of the Jewish Community project) and 1998 (for the Holocaust Survivors Centre Interviews) are archived in the British Library and accessible in the Jewish Survivors of the Holocaust collections on British Library Sounds. Here are two version of what was perhaps the most traumatic moment of Barbara’s life: when she saw her mother for the last time. I find both versions quite difficult to listen to.

Barbara Stimler interviewed in 1988 (C410/004/05)

Barbara Stimler interviewed in 1998 (C830/038/02)

Where does all this leave us as we try to put together History? Of course we all access our memories differently every time we recall an event. This does not mean that we have to decide which version is true and which is false. There may be many different versions of an event – from different people or even from one individual – all of which may be true (and this applies to written accounts as well as oral ones). The subtle differences between one version and another, and the reasons for those differences, are fascinating and perhaps informative. (However, present day politics also reminds us that there are also some statements that are simply false – not all statements are equal).

These are the issues – of memory, of trauma and of history - with which I will be dealing, not in the form of a paper or a lecture but as theatre. The challenge is not only to come to grips with the material and its context, in a respectful yet questioning way, but then to create a script which explores it in a form that is truly theatrical. It’s a challenge I’m looking forward to.

The Living Memory of the Jewish Community was a National Life Stories project which ran between 1987 and 2000 and recorded 186 life stories with Jewish survivors of the Holocaust and their children. The Holocaust Survivors' Centre Interviews was a National Life Stories collaborative project with the Jewish Care Holocaust Survivors' Centre which ran between 1993 and 1998 and gathered 154 audio life story testimonies. You can listen to full interviews from both collections on British Library Sounds.