THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Sound and vision blog

99 posts categorized "Oral history"

02 May 2017

Blair's Babes

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Twenty years ago, Tony Blair was elected Prime Minister in a landslide general election for the Labour Party. Among the new government’s Members of Parliament were 101 women. A photograph taken on 2 May 1997 of 96 of the new Labour women MPs with Blair publicised the new cohort, but the image and the associated term 'Blair's Babes' were attacked as having a demeaning, sexist tone.

Mo Mowlam on Blair's Babes

In this extract from an interview Mo Mowlam (1949-2005) remembers inadvertently coining the phrase. Mowlam was not proud of the image, but she justified it by pointing out that it helped convey the message that such large numbers of women MPs had been elected, to a public largely unaware of what happens on Parliament. In any case, she comments, ‘A lot is demeaning in politics.’

Full transcription:

I have the unfortunate notoriety of having worked out Blair Babes, because somebody said something, and I said “Well, Blair Babes, that’s what we are”, which I don’t—I’m not proud of, and it’s been used against us. But I think we needed to do that. I think we needed to do other things to show that we were there in such large numbers, because you very rarely understand how little the public know about Parliament, how little they know about their MP, how little they know about what’s going on, and I think it’s very important to get whatever method you can to get that message across, and I think that was a good one.

I mean, some people felt it was sort of kind of demeaning.

A lot is demeaning in politics. You often get used, you write something, it gets rewritten; that’s demeaning. I think there are many more demeaning things than that picture. I can see that we were being herded together like animals, but it was for a function, for a purpose, to get a message across that women had arrived, and I think that was an important message.

Did you think then that big influx did actually change the atmosphere at all?

It did a little. I didn’t think it would, but I remember when I went in once and there were men talking to all the women, which wasn’t always the case, and I suddenly realised there was an election coming up and jobs in the Parliamentary Labour Party, and women had votes, and so they were being talked to in a way I hadn’t them seen before, and men took women’s issues into account.

This interview (C1182/64) was recorded in July 2004 for the Harman-Shephard collection of interviews with women Members of Parliament. Find out more in our oral histories of politics and government collections guide. Follow @soundarchive for all the latest news.

12 April 2017

By preserving our sound heritage now, in the future we can recreate the past

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Sound recordings freeze moments in time: music or theatrical performances, the words spoken by the famous or in everyday speech, or the sounds of our environment. When played back, they allow us to understand, to experience, to be immersed in - to relive - those moments.

Yet preserving sound recordings and making them accessible is a huge challenge, not least because sound recordings can rapidly decay and as technology marches forward, formats quickly become unplayable.

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Many thousands of archived magnetic tapes urgently need digitising

The British Library’s Save Our Sounds programme received a tremendous boost when in 2015 a £9.5 million grant was earmarked by the National Lottery. After months of preparation and assessment, prioritising the most significant at-risk sounds collections around the UK and building a network of 10 collaborating institutions, our ambitious project called Unlocking Our Sound Heritage is launched today.

Unlocking Our Sound Heritage builds on the generous support of other donors and funders, meaning that the total project funding of £18.8 million is now in place. The funding enables the formation of the first ever UK-wide network of ten sound preservation centres. This network will now come together with the British Library to save almost half a million rare and unique recordings.

The funding allows the British Library to lead this major preservation and access project, sharing skills and supporting the ten centres across the UK in order to preserve their own unique and rare regional sounds and make them more accessible to the public.

The Library and its ten partners will invest in a schedule of public engagement activities, including well-being workshops, learning events for families, and tours, events and exhibitions. A vital element of the project will be a new website for listeners to explore a wide selection of recordings. This website is scheduled to go live in 2019.

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Cleaning a shellac disc before digitisation in the British Library’s sound studios

Dr Sue Davies, Project Manager at the British Library commented:

“This project has been a long time in development and, over the last 18 months, we have laid good foundations for the next five years. I am excited to be part of this HLF funded project which will make a huge difference to the care of and use of audio archives across the UK. I am particularly looking forward to working with the ten institutional partners, sharing our skills and making it easier for a wide range of people to engage with recorded sound.”

Unlocking Our Sound Heritage has been made possible thanks to the generous support of the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Garfield Weston Foundation, the Foyle Foundation, Headley Trust, the British Library Trust and the American Trust for the British Library and other kind donors.

The ten centres that will soon begin work on preserving their regional sounds are: National Museums Northern Ireland, Archives + with Manchester City Council, Norfolk Record Office, National Library of Scotland, University of Leicester, The Keep in Brighton with the University of Sussex, Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums, National Library of Wales, London Metropolitan Archives, and Bristol Culture.

Richard Ranft, Head of Sound and Vision

More information: 
Save our Sounds
Unlocking our Sound Heritage press release 12/04/17
£9.5m boost from Heritage Lottery Fund for our Save our Sounds campaign
Save our Sounds: 15 years to save the UK’s sound collections

05 April 2017

Politics, jump jets and the world's first hovercraft

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It has been sixty years since the British aircraft industry was devastated by defence minister Duncan Sandys' White Paper on Defence of 1957, which cancelled almost all new aeroplane projects in favour of guided rockets and forced the demise of many famous companies.

The late 1940s and 1950s was a time of daring new aircraft design concepts, as aeronautical engineers began to explore the potential of the newly developed jet engine. Britain was at the forefront of this experimental age of aircraft design, but much of the effort was directed at military aircraft. The same jet engine designs that whisked tourists in speedy luxury on the De Havilland Comet, the world's first jet airliner, would also power supersonic fighters and mighty nuclear bombers to deter the Soviet Union.

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SR177 single seat fighter – a development of SR53 in 1958

The problem was that this innovation race was expensive and Britain was broke after the Second World War. There was also a belief that the new guided rockets that were beginning to appear, would soon make piloted military aircraft obsolete, and be a lot cheaper too. Sandys' White Paper abruptly cancelled almost all the new military aircraft projects under development, and forced the aircraft companies to merge with each other.

The effects of the Sandys cuts loom large in the memories of aircraft designers interviewed for An Oral History of British Science, a time of redundancies, confusion, sadness and cancellations. “To us it didn’t make sense at all, it was just silly, stupid, and if Duncan Sandys was sitting in front of me now I’d tell him just that,” recalled Saunders-Roe designer Ray Wheeler.

At the time Saunders-Roe were working on a radical new fighter powered by both a jet and a rocket engine, but as Ray recalls in this interview clip Sandys' White Paper brought an end to the project.

Ray Wheeler on rocket powered fighters

Although the British aircraft industry probably never recovered, the Sandys defence review had a number of unforeseen consequences. Saunders-Roe, for example, turned their attention to building the world's first hovercraft, which took flight in 1959.

021I-C1379X0035XX-0002A1The 1959 Saunders-Roe SRN1, the first hovercraft

Meanwhile at Hawker's factory in Kingston a young designer named Ralph Hooper found himself at a loose end after the cancellation the project he was working on. As Ralph recounts in this video, “in the middle of 1957 I was in the project office really looking for something to do after the expected cancellation of the 1121.”

What he found to do was to sketch out the first design for an incredible new aeroplane that wouldn't need runways – the P.1127, better known today as the Harrier jump jet, one of the few projects to escape the aftermath of the Sandys cuts.

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Ralph Hooper after his flight in the Harrier c.1972 © BAE SYSTEMS

Blog by Dr Thomas Lean (@reggitsti), Oral History of British Science project interviewer.

Over 1000 hours of unedited interviews from An Oral History of British Science are available in full on BL Sounds, while the Voices of Science web resource offers curated access to audio and video highlights from the interviews organised by theme, discipline and interviewee.

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

27 March 2017

Recording of the week: Silversmithing - 2D to 3D

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This week's selection comes from Liz Wright, National Life Stories Project Interviewer.

Rod Kelly is a silversmith who specialises in the technique of chasing to create low relief decoration on the surface of silver vessels, which he often raises (hammers from sheet metal) himself. Rod depicts images from nature with a fluidity of line that seems effortless, but the process of decorating a three-dimensional object, based on a two-dimensional design, can be painstaking. In this clip, he describes the nerve-wracking process of composing a design on a silver form.

Rod Kelly_the nerve-wracking art of silversmithing

BK-1988-5Silver vase, Philippe Wolfers c.1895 (Rijksmuseum) 

Visit Crafts on British Library Sounds to hear more from British artisans working with studio crafts such as pottery, metalwork, jewellery  and book arts.

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

13 March 2017

Recording of the week: a Welsh kibbutz?!

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This week's selection comes from Dr Cai Parry-Jones, Curator of Oral History.

In this extract, Holocaust survivor, Judith Steinberg, talks about her husband who arrived in Britain in 1939 on the Kindertransport from Germany. Steinberg’s husband was one of 200 Jewish refugee children who spent their early war years living and working in Gwrych Castle, north Wales, one of several hachsharoat (agricultural training centres) established in wartime Britain by German-Jewish Zionist Youth Organisations such as Bachad and Youth Aliyah. Working on the land, the hachshara (singular of hachsharoat) at Gwrych sought to train its apprentices for kibbutz life in Eretz Israel. 

Jewish Holocaust Survivors_Judith Steinberg extract

Gwrych_Castle,_Denbighshire;_The_Seat_of_Lloyd_Hesketh,_Bamford_Hes

Gwrych Castle, Denbighshire; The Seat of Lloyd Hesketh (National Library of Wales)

Judith Steinberg's full interview is part of the Jewish Holocaust Survivors collection on British Library Sounds.

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

10 March 2017

Speaking of the Kasmin Gallery: how to buy a Hockney for £40

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Artists’ Lives: Speaking of the Kasmin Gallery is a free display at the Tate Britain in London. You can listen to artists, curators and John Kasmin himself telling the story of the groundbreaking gallery in New Bond Street which became known as ‘the most beautiful room in London’. The art on display, by artists shown at the Kasmin Gallery, includes works by Anthony Caro (1924-2013), Robyn Denny (1930-2014) and Richard Smith (1931-2016).

Artists'_Lives_Spotlight_01Photography © Tate, 2016; Photographer Joe Humphrys

Kasmin, who was born in 1934, established the Kasmin Gallery in 1963 and has been involved in London’s art scene for over fifty years. His life story interview was recorded between 2008 and 2016 by Monica Petzal and Cathy Courtney. Kasmin’s engaging recall of people, events and conversations is extraordinary – but his storytelling style is not the only unusual thing about his interview.

Most National Life Stories interviews are recorded in sessions over a period of a few months; a typical Artists’ Lives completed interview might be around 20 -30 hours long. At over 180 hours, Kasmin’s interview (C466/184) is by far the longest interview held by the British Library’s Oral History section. The full interview is not yet fully documented and available online but audio clips, photographs and exhibition catalogues have been used in the exhibition.

In one of the extracts, Kasmin remembers going to the Young Contemporaries show in 1961 and becoming fascinated by one painting in particular, even though he didn’t understand its points of reference. That painting was Doll Boy by a then unknown student named David Hockney (now in Tate’s collection)– and he had to have it.

Kasmin on Doll Boy

At that time Kasmin did not yet have his own gallery – he was working at Marlborough New London. Kasmin invited Hockney round for tea after work. He liked the shy young man with NHS glasses and a strong Yorkshire accent. He admired his work so much that he wanted to help him, even if it meant upsetting his boss, Marlborough Fine Art co-founder Harry Fischer.

Kasmin on Hockney

Soon life at Marlborough became intolerable for Kasmin, who was not allowed to follow his artistic interests. Frank Lloyd, Marlborough’s other co-founder, was disappointed when Kasmin handed in his notice because he could see the young man’s potential – and also because he took the gallery’s main collector, Sheridan Dufferin, with him. Hockney went on to become one of Kasmin’s most famous artists.

Artists'_Lives_Spotlight_16Photography © Tate, 2016; Photographer Joe Humphrys

The idea of life story interview methodology is to capture a person’s whole life in detail, including childhood, education, family, social and working life. One of the benefits of this method is that the interviewees have a chance to explain the connections between phases and aspects of their lives and how these fit together. Interviewees often explain how random coincidences – such as spotting a painting at a show and liking it - lead to whole careers and relationships. These junctures can be missed or misinterpreted by biographers but they are often crucial to the life trajectory.

National Life Stories collects oral histories by project – this approach allows cross-reference (and often disagreement!) between interviewees. For example within the Artists Lives collection on BL Sounds [http://sounds.bl.uk/Arts-literature-and-performance/Art], the British Library’s online sound resource, you can listen to three full life story interviews with artists whose work was exhibited at the Kasmin Gallery and is now on display at Tate Britain: Richard Smith (C466/308), John Latham (C466/69) and Robyn Denny (C466/347).

In this clip artist Robyn Denny explains that he was delighted to show his work with Kasmin, whom he considered the most important person on the art scene from the 1960s onwards. Denny reflects on Kasmin’s odd mixture of attributes and roles in life, from poet to dealer to collector to dealer: ‘he was kind of nuts, Kasmin, and he is, but he isn’t.’

Denny on Kasmin

In total, over 200 Artists’ Lives oral histories are now freely available on BL Sounds. To explore Artists’ Lives interviews not online please search the British Library’s Sound and Moving Image catalogue.

Artists’ Lives is run by National Life Stories at the British Library in association with Tate. The Henry Moore Foundation and the Yale Center for British Art have supported the project since its inception in 1990, and NLS also works closely with the Henry Moore Institute. National Life Stories is grateful to all its sponsors in relation to the exhibition Artists’ Lives: Speaking of the Kasmin Gallery, particularly the Gubenkian Foundation UK and the Rootstein Hopkins Foundation.

You can visit the free BP Spotlight exhibition Speaking of the Kasmin Gallery at Tate Britain until Autumn 2017.

23 February 2017

Behind the candy-striped jackets – oral history uncovers the unspoken

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David Kynaston is perhaps best-known for his prize-winning studies of Britain in the later twentieth century, most tellingly his Tales of a New Jerusalem series, including Austerity Britain, Family Britain, and Modernity Britain.  We can now hear David Kynaston reflect upon how he weaves personal memories through his studies of this dramatic period, as he gives the National Life Stories Lecture, ‘Uncovering the unspoken: memory and post-war Britain’, to be held in the Knowledge Centre at the British Library on 13 March 2017.

Austerity Britain book cover

Austerity Britain by David Kynaston

To inform the themes of his lecture Kynaston welcomed four eminent guests to the purpose-built recording studio in the Library: Clare Short (former British politician), David Warren (former British diplomat), Anne Sebba (writer, presenter and lecturer) and Sarah Dunant (novelist, journalist, broadcaster and critic). This wide-ranging and lengthy discussion – which will also be archived and made available at the British Library – covered the speakers’ reflections on some key themes including class, sexuality, education, gender, the influence of family background and the mechanics of how we remember.  If, like me, you are intrigued to know how Kynaston will intertwine these themes with his wider reflections on post-war Britain then book a ticket to attend the lecture.  Tickets are available via the British Library Box Office.

Of course, Kynaston is no stranger to oral history. National Life Stories is the oral history fieldwork charity based in the British Library Sound Archive that has been collecting and commissioning oral history interviews for the last thirty years.  David Kynaston deposited the interviews from two of his key works on the City of London, which are available for anyone to listen via the Listening and Viewing Service at the Library; one on the City investment group, Phillips & Drew (now incorporated into UBS Global Asset Management) and the second on LIFFE.  The Kynaston London International Financial Futures & Options Exchange (LIFFE) Interviews is a series of over 65 recordings with employees and former employees of LIFFE conducted in 1996 as part of the research for his book LIFFE: A Market and its Makers (Granta, 1997).

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Floor traders © Power Stock Photo Library

When Kynaston conducted his interviews in 1996 LIFFE was at its zenith, as one of the largest futures, commodities and equity exchanges in Europe. The exchange floor was a hive of activity, noise and colour where each trader - kitted in a distinctive coloured blazer - would use a mix of hand-signals and shouts from ‘the pit’ to conduct the exchanges.  In this clip from the City Lives project, we hear about the events at the opening of LIFFE in 1982 and then a description how the exchange functioned in the mid 1990s. The first speaker is David Burton, Chairman 1988-1992 (this recording is from 1993), and the second is his successor Nick Durlacher (interviewed in 1995).

Burton & Durlacher (LIFFE)

David Burton interviewed by Cathy Courtney, 1992-1994, and Nicholas Durlacher interviewed by Cathy Courtney 1995. Both of these interviews from City Lives are available to listen online, British Library Sound Archive refs C409/077 and C409/127.

Within only four years of these interviews LIFFE changed beyond recognition. The last open outcry trading pits were closed in 2000 as trading shifted to electronic platforms.  Gone were the coloured jackets, the shouts and the practical jokes of the brokers.  Both City Lives and the Kynaston London International Financial Futures & Options Exchange (LIFFE) Interviews capture personal descriptions of these moments in the life of the City of London from the perspectives of those who worked there and experienced the intense life on the trading floor.

If you are not able to attend the lecture, we plan to film the event and make it available online. More news will follow on this in later March.

Mary Stewart, Curator of Oral History

31 January 2017

When politics meets science: Tam Dalyell, Labour MP (1932-2017)

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The many tributes to Tam Dalyell, who died last Thursday, paid little attention to his unswerving interest in scientific affairs throughout a 43-year career as an MP.

Tam

Tam Dalvell, Labour MP (1932-2017), courtesy of Douglas Robertson and the University of Edinburgh

Dalyell read history and economics at Cambridge in the 1950s, yet acknowledged in his 2012 interview for the History of Parliament oral history project “it’s important that there were particularly others from the sciences that I got to know very well”.

While at university he was friends with Ron Peierls, son of nuclear physicist Sir Rudolf Peierls, and attended lectures given by physicists Sir James Chadwick and Otto Frisch.

Dalyell on attending lectures given by Otto Frisch (British Library Reference: C1503/38)

Dalyell knew many world-famous scientists through his friendship with David Schoenberg, head of the Mond Laboratory in Cambridge. In 1964 he was the only MP on a high-level science/political delegation to the Soviet Union, witnessing how personal relationships within the international science community could transcend Cold War politics.

However it was through writing a weekly column for New Scientist for 37 years that Dalyell “provided a conduit for researchers to speak to Parliament and vice versa”.

Dalyell’s support for the public understanding of science demonstrates that parliamentarians who are actively involved in debates about science do not necessarily come to Westminster with a scientific background, as interviews with other former MPs confirm.

Patrick Jenkin (MP for Wanstead and Woodford, 1964-1987), who died in December 2016, spoke about having never been taught science at school, yet he became president of both the Foundation for Science and Technology and the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee. He was chair of the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee during its 2000 inquiry into Science and Society.

David Price (MP for Eastleigh, 1955-92) read history at university but in Parliament became a vigorous campaigner for British industry and space research.

David Price on his involvement in space research (British Library Reference: C1503/19)

The interviews also reveal that MPs with a technical or scientific background were not always comfortable adopting a visible position on science. “I really didn’t feel sufficiently technically qualified in order to become, as it were, a technical guru in Parliament, so in the end I concentrated on foreign affairs,” said Ben Ford (MP for Bradford North, 1964-83), despite a thorough knowledge of aviation electronics and experience of lecturing on productivity at INSEAD and the University of Cambridge.

From accounts such as these, it seems that there was little correlation between these MPs’ scientific credentials and an inclination to be actively involved in Westminster’s consideration of science.

The interview clips featured in this blog are sourced from the ongoing  History of Parliament Oral History Project (deposited at the British Library). For further interviews in this collection, search 'C1503' in the Sound and Moving Image catalogue. Further oral history interviews relating to Science and British Scientist can be found via the Sound and Moving Image, online via BL Sounds and the Voices of Science webpage, the website of the Oral History of British Science programme, led by National Life Stories in association with the Science Museum, and with support from the Arcadia Fund.

Emmeline Ledgerwood, AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Student, University of Leicester and The British Library