THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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154 posts categorized "Oral history"

22 June 2018

Women, Engineering and British Politics

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June 23rd is International Women in Engineering Day 2018. To mark this and the 100th anniversary of (partial) women’s suffrage in the UK I decided to see what the British Library oral history collections could tell us about women whose careers involved both engineering and parliamentary politics. Neither of these areas was part of systematic oral history fieldwork until the 21st century, when An Oral History of British Science (2009) and The History of Parliament’s Oral History Project (2011) started to gather interviews.

Both projects began by targeting older interviewees and so have not yet captured the increase in participation of women in both fields since the 1970s. The History of Parliament collection concentrates on those who have left office, excluding current MPs such as Margaret Beckett (Labour, Lincoln 1974-79, South Derby 1983 – present), who worked as a metallurgist before moving into politics. She does appear in the recollections of others, including Kenneth Carlisle, interviewed in 2015 by John Barry. Carlisle recalls winning Lincoln for the Conservatives from Beckett in the 1979 general election.

In her interview Emma Nicholson, (Conservative then Liberal Democrat, Torridge and West Devon, 1987-97,) suggests some of the difficulties of combining political ambitions with a technical career. She explains to Emme Ledgerwood why it was only after she stopped working as a computer programmer and systems analyst that she was able to start fulfilling her early political ambitions.

Emma Nicholson on early political ambition (C1503/62/02}

Nicholson joined the industry in 1962, and like other women programmers of her generation benefitted from its willingness to consider entrants from a range of educational backgrounds, in her case one in music.

Emma Nicholson (2)     Emma Nicholson   

Here she describes how she came to take the ‘entrance test’ for International Computers Ltd (ICL).

Emma Nicholson on ICL 'entrance  test' (C1503/62/01)

Once she had completed her training her gender proved decisive in selection for an assignment in Zambia involving setting up key IT infrastructure in the run up to independence in 1964.

Emma Nicholson on setting up Zambian IT infrastructure 1/2 (C1503/62/02)

Emma Nicholson on setting up Zambian IT infrastructure 2/2 (C1503/62/02)

After her election she found herself bombarded by requests from former colleagues eager for her to intervene on proposed legislation concerning software copyright.

Emma Nicholson on copyright legislation (C1503/62/02)

Nicholson now sits in the House of Lords, a chamber that only admitted women in 1958. Here her interests focus on human rights, education, international development and trade.

Perhaps the most vociferous voice for women in engineering to sit in the Lords was Beryl Platt, Baroness Platt of Writtle.

A wartime engineering graduate she joined Hawker Aircraft in 1943 and worked as an aeronautical engineer until her marriage in 1949. Her route into politics was at a local level and she served on Essex County Council for many years. Created a life peer in 1981, she became chair of the Equal Opportunities Commission in 1983, an appointment recalled in her interview by her predecessor Betty Lockwood, interviewed by Margaret Faull in 2014 (C1727/01).

In this role she did much to champion opportunities for women in engineering. This included collaborating with the Engineering Council to launch 1984 as Women into Science and Engineering year and acting as a mentor for a new generation of women engineers, including Joanna Kennedy, interviewed in 2017 by Tom Lean (C1379/126).

Joanna Kennedy on Beryl Platt (C1379/126/04)

A more recent addition to the House of Lords is Julia King, Baroness Brown of Cambridge, created a life peer in 2015. Interviewed by An Oral History of British Science in 2011, when she was vice-chancellor of Aston University, she described herself as ‘not a very political animal’. ) (track 2 31:14, transcript p. 60) Perhaps unsurprisingly she sits on the cross benches from where her contributions have been primarily on issues relating to technology, the environment and higher education.

Here I have concentrated on the relatively few women who made the transition from engineering to parliamentary politics, but a broader definition of engagement with the political sphere and the processes of government would have allowed me to include many more women who have provided advice to government, worked in government research establishments and been involved in campaigning in different ways. As the Oral History collections at the British Library continue to expand we can expect significant new insights into how women have combined engineering and politics to emerge.

Dr Sally Horrocks, Lecturer in Modern British History at the University of Leicester, and Senior Academic Advisor to the National Life Stories's project, An Oral History of British Science.

21 June 2018

“And we saw the thing had done a computation” - The modern computer turns 70

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It's been 70 years since the first successful run of the Manchester Baby, arguably the worlds first modern computer. Built in a dreary laboratory at Manchester University, to designs by electronic engineers Freddy Williams, Tom Kilburn and Geoff Tootill, the Baby was built primarily to test the world's first computer memory. At its heart was a Cathode Ray Tube (CRT), the same component used in an old style television set to show a picture, but used in the Baby to store data and programs. Unlike any computing machine before it, Baby could be used for different purposes by simply changing the electronic instructions of its program, making it the first machine to share the basic architecture used most computers since.

In 2009-2010, Geoff Tootill, the last survivor of the original Baby team, was interviewed for An Oral History of British Science, and recounted the construction and first run of the machine in 1948:

Geoff Tootill: Building the Manchester Baby (C1379/02)

GCTca1950-will-be-M0002 croppedGeoff Tootill, circa 1950

For all its electronic complexity, logically Baby was a basic machine. Its circuitry could only do subtraction and its memory held a paltry 1 kilobit of data, about 1/32,000,000th of the memory of the computer I'm writing this on. However, “Baby demonstrated the fact that you could now make a programmable computer,” as Professor Dai Edwards, who joined the computing group a few months after Baby's first run, explains in this video.

This blog is by Tom Lean, National Life Stories Project Interviewer. Tom interviewed Geoff Tootill for An Oral History of British Science (reference C1379/02) in 2010.

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.

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.

02 May 2018

Oral History and the Library of Ideas

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Oral History was one of the British Library's show-and-tells at the Library of Ideas, an afternoon event on 22 April aimed at students and artists interested in using the Library's collections in creative ways. All over the library stalls sprung up, covered in interesting-looking stuff. I felt a bit under-dressed to be honest. All we had on the Oral History stall was a little speaker. But I dimmed the lights and laid out some seats around the room. You listen differently when your eyes, and body, are relaxed.

Undercurrent poster

When many people think about history, they think about books and documents. And there were a lot of them on show. But history is all around us, in our own families and communities, in the living memories and experiences of people. Everyone has a story to tell about their life which is unique to them.

The first clip I played was Alfred Crundwell (C1398/022: copyright the Estate of Alfred Crundwell; used under review exemption). He's one of my favourites. He was born in Shoreditch in 1849. Alfred was 51 years old when Queen Victoria died. He was 102 years old in 1952 when he was interviewed by the woman from the BBC Home Service about Tunbridge Wells...

Alfred Crundwell on Tunbridge Wells

Alfred clearly doesn't feel comfortable being interviewed. He seems to have problems hearing the interviewer's leading questions. He isn't given any time to answer. This is an example of a terrible interview. Imagine the things Alfred could have related to us about the technological changes he had seen his lifetime and what it was like to outlive his four siblings by over 60 years. The amount of social change this man had lived through is staggering. Yet nothing useful came out of it – apart from a really good teaching tool on how not to interview. Alfred had so much more to give.

My colleague Shirley Read has been interviewing photographers for almost twenty years for the Oral History of British Photography collection. One of Shirley's more recent interviewees was the Turner Prize-winning photographer Wolfgang Tillmans (C459/220: copyright Wolfgang Tillmans; used by kind permission of Wolfgang Tillmans). In this clip, Shirley asks a huge question: why was young Wolfgang taken with the photographic image?

Wolfgang Tillmans on why photography and what it means to be alive

It is so difficult, as an interviewer, to bite your tongue at such moments. The pause is a really long one at around 30 seconds, but it feels even longer because of the weight of the silence. I can almost feel Shirley's discomfort – her job is silent but it involves an awful lot of non-verbal communication and empathetic eye contact. Shirley gives Tillmans the time and emotional space required to allow him properly to consider his answer. The oral history interview they are creating together means a lot to both of them – it's an example of shared authority, of performance even – and as a result it is a tremendously valuable historical document. The full-length interview is available in the Library Reading Rooms.

Livia Gollancz (C468/03) was a professional musician – she played French horn in the Hallé Orchestra. She died at the age of 97 in March this year. Dental problems forced her to curtail her musical career abruptly in 1953. She then spent 36 years working in her father Victor Gollancz's publishing firm, running it successfully for 17 years in an overwhelmingly male industry...

Livia Gollancz on Emmeline Pankhurst

In this clip Livia is still at the stage of her life story of talking about her childhood. Notice the introduction - 'I can't remember many details...' - and the pregnant pause after it which interviewer Louise Brodie allows. What follows is a story about Livia's grandmother, the suffragette Henrietta Lowy, who resembled Emmeline Pankhurst. The two women would swap clothes after suffrage meetings and Henrietta would go out of the public entrance, so that Emmeline could evade arrest by leaving in disguise via the back way. You might recognise a similar scene from the 2015 film Suffragette. The full interview is online.

Alexa Reid (C963/47) was interviewed for the Lives in Oil project. In this clip she remembers what it was like to be the only woman working her cleaning shift on the Merchiston oil platform...

Alexa Reid on the Merchiston Platform

When National Life Stories attempts to document an industry in an oral history project, we try to capture the life stories of all aspects of the field. The stories of oil rig support workers are every bit as important as those of the roustabouts, the drillers, the engineers and the executives. Only that way can we capture what an industry was like to live through. You can listen to Alexa's interview at the Library.

What does the word ‘workhouse’ make you think of? Victorian poverty? Poor law textbooks? This clip, from an oral history held at Manchester Central Library, is a woman being interviewed by Paul Graney in 1960 about the six months she spent in Salford Workhouse in 1920.

The woman remains anonymous because her son or daughter may still be alive. That baby would be 98 years old, and could for all I know be sitting in a Prestwich care home listening to this clip right now. The woman reads a poem she wrote in the workhouse to cope with her experience of being pregnant there, and then breaks down. It is a difficult listen. A lot of oral history is emotionally difficult, or repetitive, or boring, or annoying. Basically it’s human.

Other kinds of history – the ones people think of when they think of a library – are generally the results of already decided courses of action. A committee makes its decision, a photographer snaps his moment, even a private diarist frames her day for her very personal audience of one. Whereas oral history is simply one human being talking to another. With all the randomness and kindness and stubbornness that entails.

Oral history proves that history doesn't just mean words on a page. Our often contradictory interviews prompt creative responses as much to the emotion and personality revealed in the voices as to the historical details they document. They are the ultimate primary, unmediated, source. And people have used them in a variety of creative ways: theatre productions, films, creative writing of all kinds, sound art and many other things in between.

If you are interested in using oral history as a source for your creative work, the best place to start is our collection guides. You'll find lots of links there to our catalogue – this is searchable by name, occupation, place or date of birth. Most interviews have text summaries – these can be word-searched to pick up references to places, people or topics. Over 3,000 are available online at British Library Sounds; the rest you can make an appointment to listen to at the Library.

Drop us a line at nls@bl.uk if you have any questions, and before you re-use any of our oral history collections. We'll need to check on rights and permissions to make sure that you can re-use the material in the way you want to. There may be licensing and supply fees involved, but we are keen to help you use our collections.

23 April 2018

Recording of the week: a continual symphony of sound

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

Oral histories are often nostalgic; interviews tend to take place towards the end of an interviewees life and in many cases they are speaking about aspects of their life for the first time. In that respect Michael Rothenstein’s (C466/02) longing description of growing up in the Cotswolds is not unique. But the way he expresses the sights, sounds, and colours of his childhood, as well as the connections he makes to his artistic practice, make it particularly engrossing.

Michael Rothenstein was a printmaker, painter and art teacher whose work often incorporated aspects of nature and rural life – and it seems there’s a good reason for this. In this recording he speaks fondly of growing up in the Stroud Valley, describing it as a wild place with “a continual symphony of sound” where you could be almost deafened by “the birds, the sawing of the grasshoppers in the grass”. Not only is this a wonderfully vivid description, but for us who work in sound archives and are constantly advocating for the importance of sound it’s fantastic to hear someone frame their memories in this way. Still, Michael does talk about other senses too. Specifically he draws attention to the sites of nature and describes how in the summer “the air shivered with the cloud of butterflies… It was glittering, you cannot imagine how beautiful it was”.

1280px-Frampton_Mansell_St_Lukes_Church

Frampton Mansell, close to Stroud in the Cotswolds (Sourced from Wikipedia. Image credit: Saffron Blaze, via http://www.mackenzie.co

Interviewed in 1990 at the age of 82, Michael laments the pace of change during his lifetime. For him “the fields have lost their voice” and the butterflies have “vanished”. Yet if the butterflies have vanished they certainly live on in Michael’s work. Many of his paintings contain butterflies and this interview helps us to understand where the inspiration for this came from. To quote Michael’s friend Peter Muller “they have flown out of the Paradise of your infancy”. A beautiful phrase in a beautiful recording. If you think you’ve heard all there is to hear on childhood memories, think again and give this a listen.

This recording is from Michael Rothenstein’s interview in the Artists Lives collection. Artists Lives is an ongoing National Life Stories project to document the lives of individuals involved in British art, including painters, sculptors, curators, dealers and critics. This extract was published on the CD 'Artists' Lives' in 1998 and you can access the full life story interview online at British Library Sounds.

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