Sound and vision blog

128 posts categorized "Oral history"

06 November 2017

Recording of the week: watching Britain's nuclear bomb tests

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This week's selection comes from Tom Lean, Project Interviewer for An Oral History of British Science.

On 8th November 1957, hundreds of British military and scientific personnel gathered at Christmas Island, a remote speck of land in the Pacific Ocean. They were there for Operation Grapple X, the first successful test of a British hydrogen bomb. At 1.8 megatons, the blast was about a hundred and forty times more powerful than the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima, and signified Britain's mastery of the secrets of thermonuclear power. Amongst the witnesses to the mushroom cloud rising above Christmas Island was a 35 year old technician named Frank Raynor. As he recalls, in perhaps something of an understatement, it was “quite impressive” to watch:

Frank Raynor_C1379/76


The tests were also witnessed by Laurance Reed, a naval officer on HMS Warrior. He describes a shipboard atmosphere of excitement, anxiety and awe when the first bomb was dropped. 

Laurence Reed_C1503/37

The full interview with Frank Raynor can be found in the Oral History of British Science collection on British Library Sounds.

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

16 October 2017

Recording of the week: soul midwives

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This week's selection comes from Holly Gilbert, Cataloguer of Digital Multimedia Collections.

Friends, Vanessa and Felicity, talk about their work as soul midwives which involves working with people who are dying to ensure that their death is personal and dignified. They describe the different ways that people approach and experience death and how their work has changed the way that they view life and think about their own death. They discuss at length the mysteries that surround death, how other people react to what they do and the gift of insights that they feel are given to them by the people they work with. They also describe the experiences of death that made them want to do this job, they talk about how much they enjoy what they do and say that, contrary to what people might think, it actually involves a lot of joy and laughter.

The Listening Project_soul midwives (excerpt)

Vanessa and Felicity

This recording is part of The Listening Project, an audio archive of conversations recorded by the BBC and archived at the British Library. The full conversation between Vanessa and Felicity can be found here.

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

12 October 2017

LISTEN: 140 Years of Recorded Sound

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Listen: 140 Years of Recorded Sound is the Library's new free exhibition in the Entrance Hall Gallery until 11 May 2018.

This exhibition also inaugurates the Library’s Season of Sound which, includes happy hour listening sessions, a series of talks and late-night shows.

What would you find?


100 Sounds

In the exhibition space we present 100 sounds from the archive, amounting to nearly seven hours of playing time, dating from 1889 to 2017 and covering music, drama, oral history, wildlife, environmental sounds, accents and dialects, and radio.

Many of the selections are rare and unpublished and they can be accessed from any of the exhibition’s listening pods, which have been designed for a secluded and prolonged listening experience.


 Some of my favourites…

  • Radio drama: a musical excerpt from an off-air recording of a radio play by Caryl Brahms and Ned Sherrin - The People in the Park made in 1963. This is an example of a radio drama which was not saved by the BBC and which the British Library has preserved from an off-air recording. The chosen musical excerpt is representative of the humour and the strong feminist message of the piece.
  • Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan live at WOMAD recorded by the British Library in 1985. The Library has 2500 hours of recordings made at the WOMAD Festival by a team of volunteer staff from 1985 till the present.
  • Brendan Behan singing ‘The Old Triangle’ in 1954 from his play The Quare Fellow. This is a private recording donated by the Theatre Royal in Stratford East.
  • An excerpt from an oral history interview with chef Cyrus Todiwala, interviewed by Niamh Dillon in 2008, recalling his reaction to first encountering Indian restaurant menus when he arrived in the UK from India in the 1990s.
  • A wildlife recording of a Turkish soundscape at dusk made by biologist and field recordist Eloisa Matheu in 2010.
  • Hugh Davies performing his composition ‘Salad’ on a variety of egg and tomato slicers in 1978.

Also… the voice of Florence Nightingale; James Joyce reading from Ulysses; the voice of Brahms; Maya Angelou live in Lewisham; the earliest recording of British vernacular speech; bird mimicry; whale songs; …

‘Mystery tracks’

To put you in the zone we have installed five ‘mystery tracks’ at the very front of the exhibition space. If you are curious to know the ‘when’, ‘where’ and the ‘who’ of the mystery tracks, the details are revealed in a hand-out available elsewhere in the space.

Mystery tracks 1blog 


For reference there is a timeline listing key developments in the history of recorded sound (including radio), and illustrating how the effect of recordings and recording technologies has changed our relationship to sound over the years.

Listen timeline_blog


The British Library has a collection of rarely seen audio players and other artefacts. For this exhibition we have taken a few out of storage. Players include an Edison home phonograph from 1900 and a Nagra SN miniature tape recorder from 1970. The artefacts include a colourful selection of picture discs and the original nickel-plated stamper used to press a disc version of Tennyson reciting 'The Charge of the Light Brigade' in 1890.

Listen to Tennyson reciting 'The Charge of the Light Brigade'

Edison Diamond Disc phonograph_blogEdison Diamond Disc phonograph (c.1919)

Boy Wireless

To illustrate how archival sounds can inspire new works in the 21st century, composer and sound artist Aleks Kolkowski has created a unique sound installation.

Boy Wireless was inspired by a diary kept by a sixteen-year old radio enthusiast, Alfred Taylor, writing in 1922-23, at the dawn of broadcast radio. The original diary is also on display in the space.

BoyWireless_B Boy Wireless sound installation by Aleks Kolkowski

Aleks Kolkowski_blogAleks Kolkowski at the British Library cutting souvenir voice recordings on the exhibition’s opening night.

Save Our Sounds

The Library’s sound archive is one of the biggest on the planet. It contains six and half million audio recordings from all over the world in over forty different formats. The preservation of recorded sound is at the heart of our work. In 2016 the Library launched the Save Our Sounds Programme to digitise the most vulnerable items in our collection and in other collections across the UK. Donations to support the programme are welcome.

Follow @BL_DramaSound and @soundarchive for more news.

11 October 2017

James Gowan on the Engineering Building at the University of Leicester

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"The building committee we were dealing with wanted to make a statement, and indicate their presence, and make a splash, and I think that was probably successful" - James Gowan

47958155_bebd6e3385_bThe Engineering Building, Leicester University by Steve Cadman at Flickr

James Gowan on the Engineering Building design

The Leicester building did involve a lot of drawings but not as many as one would expect because most of the time we were sorting out options rather than doing working drawings.  Because we were in the dark really, we didn’t have a model to work to, not like a Corbusian model, we were shaping the thing up from scratch.  So we were trying out various types of roofs, various arrangements for the front, and that was done at a smaller scale.  … One of the things that fixed the building was that, the fact the hydraulic tank had to be 60 feet up in the air to get the pressure ….and we had a lot of pressure from the building committee to have a tower facing Victoria Park and having a presence that could be seen by the wider public. ….The building committee we were dealing with wanted to make a statement, and indicate their presence, and make a splash, and I think that was probably successful. 

JGowan&JSterling_0266_10James Gowan and James Stirling, Gowan in the foreground (© Sandra Lousada)

The building proved ground-breaking in its form, construction and use of materials and aroused huge interest nationally and internationally with many younger architects recalling site visits while under construction.  However, it was the last project Stirling and Gowan worked on together.  Subsequently, James Gowan focused on housing for both private clients and for the public sector and James Stirling became known for large scale urban projects such as the Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart, the Clore Gallery at Tate Britain and No. 1 Poultry in the City of London.

Niamh Dillon, Project Interviewer, Architects' Lives

Listen to James Gowan's full interview at British Library Sounds

10 October 2017

National Life Stories Podcast Episode 2: Electricity

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Dr Tom Lean, Project Interviewer on An Oral History of the Electricity Supply Industry, chatted to David Govier for our second National Life Stories podcast. Tom takes us back to 1950s Lancashire when Granville Camsey (born 1936, shelfmark C1495/09) was about to become a power station apprentice.

021I-C1495X0009XX-0004M0Granville Camsey collecting the prize for student apprentice of the year from the Lord Mayor of Manchester, 1958

Granville eventually became a senior manager at the Central Electricity Generating Board (CEGB) in the 1980s and a Director of National Power in the 1990s, but in 1952 he was a craft apprentice from a working class family:

“I was introduced to the power station because my mother had a weaving friend in the mill, Mrs Ashworth, and her son had got a student apprenticeship at the power station and she said: ‘You'll never believe it May, they gave him two pairs of overalls.’ And I can remember my mother saying ‘you should go to the power station, they give you overalls...’”

Listen to the podcast to find out how Granville's career (and fashion sense) developed from his early years in overalls to managing power stations in the age of privatisation. Along the way, Tom explains what the oral history project set out to do, how he recruited his interviewees (by rolling eighty-year-olds down a mountain, seeing as you wondered), and what happens when the interviews are finished (he puts them next to the magna carta, apparently).

National Life Stories podcast episode 2 - Electricity

You can hear Tom and Granville, among many others, speak about An Oral History of Electricity Supply Industry at ‘The Life Electric’, a British Library event on Thursday 19 October. Book your tickets now!

09 October 2017

Recording of the week: computer programming and motherhood in the 1960s

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This week's selection comes from Tom Lean, Project Interviewer for An Oral History of British Science.

Like many women in the 1960s, Stephanie Shirley left her job in the computer industry after becoming a mother. At the time, women were expected to cut short their professional careers and stay at home to raise the family, but this was not quite what Stephanie Shirley had in mind. In 1963 she started a company named Freelance Programmers, to allow women who had left the computer industry when they had children to continue working as programmers from home. In time, Stephanie Shirley's company grew to a major business employing thousands of people. However, at the start, with sexism rife, Stephanie Shirley had to go to rather unusual lengths to create a professional image, not least calling herself "Steve", as she recalls in this interview from An Oral History of British Science.

Stephanie Shirley_Programming at home (BL ref C1379/28)


This clip is part of Voices of Science, an online resource which uses oral history interviews with prominent British scientists and engineers to tell the stories of some of the most remarkable scientific and engineering discoveries of the past century.

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

Tom Lean will speak about the related An Oral History of Electricity Supply Industry project at ‘The Life Electric’, a British Library event on Thursday 19 October. Book your tickets here

06 October 2017

Ralph Turner 1936 – 2017

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National Life Stories is saddened to learn of the death of Ralph Turner, gallerist, curator, author and critic of crafts. As a founding member of the advisory committee for Crafts Lives, Ralph provided his invaluable advice and expertise to the project for almost a decade.

Photograph of Ralph Turner - cropped
Ralph Turner, “Wonder Boy Soprano”

Ralph was born in Maesteg, South Wales in 1936 and was drawn to the arts from an early age. An acclaimed soprano until the age of fifteen, he sang at concerts across Wales and further afield with the Midland Symphony Orchestra. In fact the British Library holds a recording originating from around 1949 of Ralph, the “Wonder Boy Soprano”, singing Four Classic Songs by Handel and others.

C960-72 Ralph Turner - treating every maker’s work with respect and meeting Noel Coward

After studying at Cardiff College of Music and Drama, Ralph came to London to pursue a life in theatre and art. At galleries including Electrum, which he co-founded with Barbara Cartlidge, and as the first Exhibitions Officer for the Crafts Council between 1974 - 1989, Ralph curated exhibitions that brought renewed attention to the crafts, and in particular contemporary jewellery.

Download1Flyer for the Arts Council’s The Maker's Eye exhibition (1982) featuring Ben Nicholson's painting, Mugs (1944), and Jug by John Davies (1981) © Crafts Council

His successes include the groundbreaking Maker’s Eye exhibition (1982) in which fourteen makers were asked to define the idea of craft through a selection of objects, Pierre Degen: New Work (1982) a challenge to existing concepts of what jewellery could be, and The New Spirit in Craft and Design (1987) a controversial look at the influence of youth culture on crafts.

 C960-72 Ralph Turner - Maker's Eye exhibition & Michael Cardew

Ralph was at the forefront of promoting and documenting a radical shift within jewellery during the 1970s and 80s. Work emerging during this period shifted perceived notions of jewellery by using unconventional materials, inventive forms and exploring the relationship between jewellery and the body. Ralph published a number of important texts on this subject, notably The New Jewelry: Trends + Traditions (1985), a survey of the movement at its height co-authored with Peter Dormer, where the expression, the new jewellery, originated as the term for this body of work.

Cover of The New JewelryCover of the first edition of The New Jewelry: Trends + Traditions by Peter Dormer & Ralph Turner (1985) featuring a neckpiece by David Watkins

As with most of National Life Stories’ collections, Crafts Lives documents not only the firsthand experiences of individual interviewees but also traces a network of influences across generations within the archive. Ralph was interviewed for Crafts Lives by Hawksmoor Hughes in 2006 but his impact as a supporter and champion of craftspeople is evident more widely. He is mentioned by Gerda Flockinger in the very first interview for Crafts Lives recorded by Tanya Harrod in 1999 and played an important role in the careers of the makers whose work he exhibited, including David Poston, whose jewellery was shown by Ralph at Electrum.

C960-136 David Poston on Ralph Turner’s support for his work as a jeweller

Ralph’s specialist knowledge and understanding of the wider landscape of studio crafts helped to shape and define the Crafts Lives collection, which now includes over 150 interviews. Committee meetings were enlivened by his sense of humour and spirited contribution to debates, and he was greatly missed when he stepped down from the committee due to ill-health in 2013.

The full life story interview with Ralph Turner (C960/72) can be heard at the British Library and will be available online at British Library Sounds in November.

Tribute by Liz Wright, National Life Stories Project Interviewer

29 September 2017

Cooking steaks and why not to reduce the National Grid voltage

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Britain’s National Grid has run constantly since 1938, a single interconnected nationwide network supplying power to our homes and workplaces from distant power stations. Over the years it's expanded and developed, endured wartime bombing, striking miners, partial power cuts, faulty power stations, and terrible weather conditions. Yet the grid itself has never been switched off.

Frank LedgerFrank Ledger signing a contract for uranium enrichment

This giant machine of pylons and cables and switcher has run continuously for nearly 80 years, under the watchful eyes of generations of national grid controllers. How does it feel to have been one of the people tasked with keeping the lights on at all costs?

Frank Ledger - steaks in the stock exchange canteen

If you want to know more about the history of electricity supply, why not come along to The Life Electric: Oral Histories from the UK Electricity Supply Industry at the British Library on the 19th of October 2017?

Blog by Tom Lean, Project Interviewer for An Oral History of the Electricity Supply Industry