THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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215 posts categorized "Contemporary Britain"

09 July 2018

Recording of the week: exploding seed pods

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This week's selection comes from Cheryl Tipp, Curator of Wildlife and Environmental Sounds.

The soaring temperatures of summer can have explosive results, especially if you happen to be standing near a gorse bush. This thorny, evergreen shrub produces an unmistakable sea of bright, yellow flowers from January to June. As the flowers begin to fade, a mass of black seed pods emerge to take their place. Slowly but surely, the heat of the summer sun dries out these downy carriers until the structures burst open, expelling the tiny seeds enclosed within. The force of this explosion produces a sharp, popping sound, as can be heard in the following example recorded on the Isle of Wight by Richard Beard.

Exploding seed pods (BL ref 212269)

24921214482_051c505a74_bGorse seed pods (Photo credit: Starr Environmental on VisualHunt / CC BY)

This recording was chosen in memory of the field recordist Richard Beard (1953-2018) whose work in the wildlife section helped process hundreds of unpublished collections for more than a decade. Richard also contributed many thousands of his own recordings to the British Library, some of which can be heard in the Weather and Water collections on British Library Sounds. An oral history interview with Richard, conducted in 2013, can be found here.

Follow @CherylTipp and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

25 June 2018

Recording of the week: "There was always the smell" - inter-generational memories of the steel industry

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This week's selection comes from Charlie Morgan, Oral History Archive & Administrative Assistant.

The last time I wrote a recording of the week post it was about the artist Michael Rothenstein’s memories of growing up in the Cotswolds (C466/02). For him, these were all mediated through sights and sounds. This week it’s another childhood memory but we’re heading north from Gloucestershire to Yorkshire, leaving rural life for industrial work, and swapping sounds for smells.

Frank Homer was interviewed by Alan Dein in 1992 as part of the Lives in Steel project. Frank grew up in Sheffield and spent his career in pre-privatisation British Steel. Like many, he followed his father into the industry, albeit against the desires of his parents. This recording specifically deals with how Frank remembers his father, how it seemed like he was always at work and how “you never got the chance to chat too much”. He says he has one memory but “it’s not visual”, it’s the smell of his father’s overalls in the house – “there was always the smell of the steel industry”. Decades on he describes how he can still smell that same smell.

Later on in the interview Frank tells us about another inter-generational relationship when he describes working in the same department as his son Michael. Frank says he now knows how his father felt, but at the same time he fears for the future and questions whether his children will be the last generation to work in the industry. Of course we now know he was right to be concerned; Sheffield currently produces more steel than any time in the past but the work is highly automated and only employs a fraction of what it once did.

Frank himself died in 2016 and we are left in the dark about whether Michael continued to work with steel. Likewise, we don’t have his memories of working with his father. What is it that sticks with him, what does he remember? Perhaps another smell? Well, that’s for a different interview.

Lives in steel cd front

Lives in Steel was a National Life Stories project that ran in the early 1990s and was the first national oral history of the British steel industry in the twentieth century. 88 life story interviews were recorded with interviewees from all levels of the industry including blastfurnacemen, rolling mill managers, fitters, crane drivers, stock takers, rollermen, melting shop managers, descaling inspectors and concast managers. You can access the full life story interview with Frank Homer online at British Library Sounds.

Follow @BL_OralHistory and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

06 June 2018

Make yourself at home! The BBC in a multi-cultural world

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David Hendy, Professor of Media and Cultural History at the University of Sussex writes about an upcoming event at the British Library, Britain Reimagined: A New Oral History of the BBC.

The clue is in the name. The British Broadcasting Corporation. It’s a national broadcaster. When its motto proclaims that “Nation Shall Speak Peace unto Nation”, it doesn’t just mean different nations speaking to each other. It also means the nation – Britain - speaking to itself.

But who exactly gets to speak? When the BBC began in the 1920s, it all seemed straightforward – at least to that great Founding Father, John Reith. Christian, high-minded, infused with Victorian spirit of paternalism, Reith was adamant: only “the best” in thought or culture should be broadcast, “only those with a claim to be heard above their fellows” should talk at the microphone, only those with an “educated” southern English accent could be announcers, only programmes of devout Christianity could be aired on a Sunday.

Even at the time, this took little enough account of the richness of regional or working-class life. But after the Second World War - when Britain became home to thousands of immigrants from the Caribbean or Eastern Europe, and later from Kenya, Uganda, India and Pakistan – a dramatic change in attitude was surely inevitable. Like most who arrived at Tilbury on the Empire Windrush in 1948, many of the new immigrants were already British subjects: this was their Motherland. And there’d been a rich Black and immigrant presence here for centuries. Even so, for the BBC a new balancing act was required. Differences had to be acknowledged, yet new settlers needed to be integrated. Which was more important?

Una%20Marson%20in%201941%20hi000374838Una Marson during a BBC broadcast to the West Indies, 1941. Copyright: BBC.

The story of how the BBC navigated these tricky waters can be traced in vivid technicolour through the BBC’s own immensely rich archives, more and more of which are being opened-up to public view for the first time. They offer a lively gallery of programmes and pioneering individuals. Una Marson, pictured above, was born in Jamaica and joined the BBC’s staff during the Second World War. She was the first black producer on its payroll – and a pioneer in cultural programmes transmitted to the Caribbean.

Una Marson interviewing Ken "Snakehips" Johnson, 1940. Copyright: BBC.

That fragile recording of Marson interviewing the jazz band-leader Ken “Snakehips” Johnson in 1940, only a matter of months before he was killed in the London Blitz, is just one among many we’re making available online through a new project based at the University of Sussex, working in collaboration with the BBC.

At our workshop on 10 July, Britain Reimagined: A New Oral History of the BBC we’ll be listening to, watching - and talking about – Una Marson, the programmes she made, and her dramatic departure from the BBC in 1946. Through newly-released oral history recordings and programmes not seen since their first broadcast, we’ll also be encountering many other fascinating individuals who helped – and in some cases hindered – the BBC’s slow embrace of a multi-cultural world: the people behind the first TV programmes for British Asians in the 1960s, Make Yourself at Home; the creators of Open Door, a bold 1970s experiment in ‘access TV’; the broadcasters who first brought Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists to the microphone.

The story these records tell isn’t straightforward: the BBC was brave in some areas, cautious in others. Nor is the story always reliable. There are gaps in the archive – including the testimonies of listeners and viewers themselves - and questions to be answered about who gets to tell the BBC’s own history now.

MikePH2Mike Phillips, former broadcaster, 2018. Copyright: Connected Histories of the BBC.

So, we’ll also be joined live on 10 July by a special guest – and a brand-new contributor to our ‘unofficial’ oral history of the BBC: the former journalist and crime-writer Mike Phillips, pictured above, who in 1998 wrote the ground-breaking book Windrush: The Irresistible Rise of Multi-Racial Britain. We hope you can join us.

05 June 2018

London dialect in pop music

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Jonnie Robinson, Lead Curator for Spoken English writes:

The mixed reception among my children and their peers to Arctic Monkeys’ sixth studio album, Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino, is, I suspect, the equivalent of my Kid A moment. I’m probably not qualified to contribute to the debate on the album’s artistic merit, but the continued evolution in Alex Turner’s singing style struck me as linguistically significant in that he now reveals much less of his Sheffield identity.

As noted in a previous blog post it is pretty rare in mainstream pop music to detect a regional accent, but Turner was at one time a notable exception. However, in a British context, perhaps not surprisingly, London has arguably featured more prominently than elsewhere in British popular music culture from music hall (Gus Elen singing oh it really is a wery pretty garden in ‘If It Wasn’t for the ‘Ouses in Between’ [1931]), through musical theatre (Stanley Holloway singing wiv a little bit of bloomin' luck in ‘My Fair Lady’ [1964]) to contemporary pop, rock and hip hop.

Like most British acts the vast majority of London artists tend to adopt a more conventional ‘transatlantic’ pop voice when singing (listen to David Bowie’s ‘Let’s Dance’ [1981] or Adele’s ‘All I Ask’ [2015] and you’ll hear dance and ask sung with a short vowel, which contrasts with the long vowel they and other Londoners use when speaking spontaneously). Unlike most British dialects, though, there is a substantial back catalogue of pop music performed in an instantly recognisable London accent and a quick glance at one example per decade since the 1960s offers glimpses of typical elements of London pronunciation and insight into change over time.

1960s: ‘Lazy Sunday Afternoon’ by the Small Faces [1968]: contains echoes of music hall Cockney; notable features include my pronounced like ‘me’, TH-fronting (with pronounced as ‘wiv’) and the vowel quality in nice (‘noyce’) in the opening line oh wouldn’t it be nice to get on with my neighbours

1970s: ‘Cool for Cats’ by Squeeze [1979] is crammed full of London cultural references; notable features include H-dropping and TH-fronting (Heathrow pronounced as ‘Eafrow’) and frequent T-glottaling (the substitution of a glottal stop for the <t> in ninety, got, get and at) in the line the Sweeney's doing ninety cause they've got the word to go they get a gang of villains in a shed up at Heathrow

1980s: ‘Rabbit’ by Chas & Dave [1981] combines music-hall humour and pub sing-along conventions in a style affectionately dubbed ‘rockney’; notable features include H-dropping (heart pronounced as ‘art’), yod-dropping (knew pronounced as ‘noo’) and an older dialectal pronunciation of off (rhyming with ‘morph’) in the line now you was just the kind of girl to break my heart in two I knew right off when I first clapped my eyes on you

1990s: ‘Parklife’ by Blur [1994] is a portrayal of contemporary London life in which Damon Albarn adopts a more markedly London accent in his singing style, unfairly dismissed by some commentators as ‘mockney’; notable features include my pronounced like ‘me’, a glottalised <p> sound in cup of tea, H-dropping and the distinctive vowel sound in house (‘aahse’) in the line, delivered by actor Phil Daniels, I put my trousers on have a cup of tea and I think about leaving the house

2000s: ‘Defeat You’ by N-Dubz [2006] is one of many 21st century songs that captures Multicultural London English (MLE), a distinctive blend of established London forms and features from British Asian, British Caribbean and non-native speaker varieties; ‘traditional’ Cockney features include T-glottaling and L-vocalisation (the substitution of an ‘oo’-like vowel for the <l> sound so that royalty sounds something like ‘roy-oo’y’) in the line you ain’t gonna see no royalty cheques; Caribbean English features are apparent in pronoun exchange (I for ‘me’) and word final consonant cluster reduction (vex for ‘vexed’) in the line you don’t wanna see I vex; while the invariant tag innit in the opening line listen to I innit is thought to have originated in British Asian speech communities.

2010s: The latest singer to excite my dialectologist’s ears is Croydon-born Whitgift and Brit School old boy, Loyle Carner. The single ‘No CD’ from his Mercury Award nominated debut album, Yesterday’s Gone [2017], is lyrically a fascinating mix of well-established Cockney, imported vernacular and extremely current slang that neatly reflects London’s vibrant cultural mix, delivered in an extremely authentic, contemporary accent that is relatively classless, socially and ethnically ambiguous and yet – geographically – unmistakeably London as is immediately apparent in the opening lines:

DD00006998 Loyle Carner NO CD

Loyle Carner Yesterday's Goneay ay oh please we ain't got no P's because we spent all our money on some old CDs

it's like oh please we ain't got no P's because we spent all our money on some old CDs

we saying oh please we ain't got no P's because we spent all our money on some old CDs

we got some old Jay Zs couple ODBs place ‘em up in perfect order

cause my OCD won't let me keep it I never speak it and keep it a secret

it be peak if any geezer would hear it and then repeat it

so we keep it keeping out of reach from all the eejits

if you need it best believe it you won't seek it

locked up in my room deep cocoon like you're digging in crates

already done with your digging so your digging is bait

Carner, L & R. Kleff. 2017. No CD. Loyle Carner ft. Rebel Kleff. Yesterday’s Gone. [LP]. UK: Universal, AMF 0007. BL Shelfmark: DD00006998

Loyle Carner Field DayNotable lexical items: geezer [= ‘chap/fellow’] is recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) from 1885, but is, I suspect, nowadays most closely associated with speakers from London, while eejit [= ‘fool/idiot’], listed from 1853, is categorised as ‘Anglo-Irish dialect’; this celebration of established vernacular forms blends seamlessly with current urban slang forms like P [= ‘penny/pound’ i.e. ‘money’], peak [= ‘unpleasant’] and bait [= ‘obvious’], none of which has yet made it into the OED, but all three are recorded in Green’s Dictionary of Slang as 21st century British coinages and included in Wikipedia’s London slang glossary.

Notable grammatical constructions: alongside lexical markers, Carner uses non-standard grammatical forms such as ain’t [= ‘have PRESENT NEGATIVE’] which he combines with no to form a double negative (we ain’t got no P’s). Although the use of ain’t as an invariant negative for both ‘be’ and ‘have’, and indeed multiple negation, exist in numerous varieties of English around the world, they are both clearly productive markers of present-day London dialect as confirmed by the analogous construction (you ain’t never seen no royalty cheques) in ‘Defeat You’ noted above. Carner also adopts a narrative device, quotative be like (it's like oh please we ain't got no P's), that is extremely common among young English speakers worldwide as a means of introducing reported speech and a phenomenon that has received considerable attention among academic linguists.

Notable pronunciation features: in common with many of the singers included here, Carner exhibits L-vocalisation (old pronounced like ‘oh-ood’ and couple pronounced like ‘cupp-oo’) and consistently uses T-glottaling in word final position (ain’t, spent, got, keep it, speak it, secret, hear it, repeat it, need it, believe it, seek it, bait).

While none of these features individually is unique to London English, the combination is typical of many young Londoners and shows how the British Library’s sound archives – spoken voice and music alike – are a wonderful linguistic resource. Our Unlocking our Sound Heritage project and investment in new technology in collaboration with the music industry to enable us to receive music in digital formats means even more London music will be available to linguists and other researchers now and in the future. Let’s hope, like Loyle Carner fans last weekend, they end up having a field day.

04 June 2018

Recording of the week: the orchestral power of embroidery machines

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This week's selection comes from Lucia Cavorsi, Audio Project Cataloguer for Unlocking our Sound Heritage.

Serious/Speakout was a UK promotion company to which artists submitted their demo tapes when seeking performance opportunities during the 1990s.

This particular recording features an excerpt of Concerto for Percussion and Embroidery Machine. It world premiered at Warwick Festival in 1991 and was composed and performed by musician Matthew Griffiths, the now CEO of Youth Music.

Matthew Griffiths

Fascinated by the idea of making art out of daily life objects (especially the traditionally gender specific ones), I contacted Matthew and asked him to tell me more about it.

So here’s the story: Matthew graduated as a solo percussionist in 1989. The then Artistic Director of the Warwick Festival, Richard Phillips, introduced him to Robert Hornby, the Director of Bryant & Tucker. This was an embroidery company in Leamington Spa that produced badges for companies using, at the time, state of the art computerised embroidery machines which were very loud and very rhythmic. After the enthralling visit to the factory, Robert Hornby commissioned the percussionist to compose a new work for the Warwick Festival and Matthew suggested creating a composition utilising the sounds of the machines.

The theme of the 1991 Festival was Prokofiev, so the Bryant & Tucker machines were programmed to create a unique badge portraying ‘Peter and the Wolf ‘ as a memento for the audience to take away after the performance. To do this, the machines had to run for about thirty minutes creating a variety of cross rhythms, juddering sounds and ‘white noise’ as they created the badge. The sounds were notated and the musician and the programmer worked together to focus on the sounds that were musically most interesting. These were then incorporated into the computer programme for the badge production. This became the orchestral accompaniment with Matthew playing live percussion over the top as the concerto soloist. The multi-percussion set up included a marimba, vibraphone, timbales, cymbals and bells and it was played in front of the one massive embroidery machine in the factory before a sold out audience.

Excerpt of Concerto for Percussion and embroidery machine (C728/684)

The performance only happened once.

The idea subsequently won an award from ABSA (Association for Business Sponsorship of the Arts) for the most innovative sponsorship by a small business.

This recording is part of the Serious Speakout Demo Tapes collection (C728) which has been digitally preserved as part of the Unlocking our Sound Heritage project.

Follow @lcavorsi, @BLSoundHeritage and @soundarchive for all the latest news. Many thanks to Matthew Griffiths for his assistance with this piece.

21 May 2018

Recording of the week: "We regret to inform you" - bad news from the sound archives

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This week's selection comes from David Govier, Oral History Archivist.

An Oral History of the Post Office includes memories of telegram delivery boys who delivered telegrams by hand with news of war casualties during the Second World War, and their reflections on what it was like delivering the bad news. Delivery boys were always told what the news was. They were instructed to ask if there was a man in the house first. They also had to wait at the door in case a reply was requested.

Roger Osborn (C1007/16) discusses the wording of war telegrams which would always start with the words “We regret to inform you…” A friend of Roger’s in Tring, Hertfordshire, ignored his instructions when delivering news of the killing of a woman’s husband. He noticed the woman out shopping and gave her the telegram. Her first reaction was to hit him over the head with her loaf of bread.

Des Callaghan (C1007/38) remembers delivering three telegrams in Nottingham to one home: one with the news that the son was missing, the second the incorrect news that he was dead, and the third that he was actually in a prisoner of war camp - and Des got a £1 note in return!

These extracts come from An Oral History of the Post Office, a collection of life story interviews with a sample of Royal Mail and Post Office staff in the UK conducted between 2001 and 2005. Interviewees include, of course, postmasters and postmistresses, postmen and postwomen but also those involved with postal sorting and transportation (by road, air and train); stamp design, printing and marketing (the story of the stamp); legal, purchasing and property departments. The collection also includes interviews with staff who worked in lesser-known departments such as the Post Office Rifles, the Post Office Film Unit and the Lost Letter Centre.

There is an emphasis within the collection on change within living memory from the 1930s to the 1990s: the separation of post from telecommunications, computerisation and automation, new management practices and the diversification of new services offered by Royal Mail and the Post Office.

A CD of extracts from the collection entitled “Speeding the Mail: an oral history of the post from the 1930s to the 1990s” was published by the British Library and the British Postal Museum and Archive in 2005, and over forty extracts are available online at British Library Sounds.

Speeding the Mail CD

Follow @BL_OralHistory and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

16 May 2018

50 years since the Ronan Point disaster

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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.

11 May 2018

Trauma, narrative and theatre

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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.