This week’s selection comes from Andrew Ormsby, Audio Project Cataloguer at the British Library.
Above: Smoke coming from a small chimney at H-Fönster factory in Gåseberg, Lysekil Municipality, Sweden, on a foggy day. Photo by W.carter. Used under CC BY-SA 4.0 licence.
Fifty years ago, in June 1972, a giant blue and white placard depicting a human figure was raised above the old parliament building in Stockholm. The figure with outstretched arms – ‘to encompass the globe’ – symbolised the world’s first major environmental summit, which was about to take place in Sweden’s capital city.
The United Nations Conference on the Human Environment was the world’s first major environmental summit and the first global attempt to co-ordinate international co-operation on the complex range of issues arising from the threat to the world’s ecosystems from pollution and industrialisation.
Rex Keating, a radio producer working for UNESCO, recorded many of the conference’s debates and speeches, as well as the activities of the campaigners and non-governmental organisations who went to Stockholm in order to present alternative solutions and influence the official delegates.
The first clip is taken from an interview with an unnamed member of the Hog Farm, a hippy commune whose members came over to Sweden from the USA in order to act as a peacekeeping force in case of unrest, as they had done at the Woodstock Festival in 1969. In the end their efforts were not required: the predicted riots did not happen and the commune’s members settled in Skarpnäck, an airfield outside Stockholm.
In the featured clip the interviewee mentions the group’s ‘whale parade’ march into Stockholm and the presentation of a document to the conference secretary Maurice Strong, calling for ‘a ten-year moratorium on the killing of people’.
In the second clip you can hear Keating’s description of the dismantling of the conference’s emblematic placard. He sees the splitting of the figure as a symbol of future difficulties. Fifty years later, as the effects of climate change become ever more frighteningly apparent, it’s hard to disagree with his gloomy assessment.
One of the many joys of oral history is learning about unexpected topics. Whether recording an interview or discovering another interviewer’s work, oral history - and especially life story recordings - is full of information that we would not suspect if we were to only read the catalogue records and summaries.
A large part of my work as an UOSH Rights Officer is to review newly digitised and catalogued sound recordings before deciding whether they are suitable for online open access. When it comes to oral history recordings, conducting a sensitivity review requires paying attention to the interviewee’s family members, key life events and relationships. Each time, I am reminded of the wealth of sociological and historical information that is usually captured in the first hour of most interviews, which often depicts the origins of two parents and four grandparents, as well as their occupations and roles inside and outside the home.
Listening to these recordings shines a light on the power of sound archives, and on the limits of their written description. The four extracts below show the importance of diving into the audio version of any interview, to go beyond the misleading categories that are inevitably created by cataloguing and summarising. This includes the simplistic, and often wrong, category of 'housewife' used to describe an interviewee’s mother. Often the interview summary also hides the many paid and unpaid occupations that many women had in the 20th century. These jobs are revealed when oral history narrators talk about their mothers, aunts, grandmothers and themselves. Although my selection is only of female narrators, the shift in women’s and men’s roles is also described through these personal accounts, as can be heard in the last extract.
My selection starts with Pamela Schwerdt, who was co-interviewed for the Oral History of British Horticulture project in 2002. She was born in Esher, Surrey in 1931. Her father was a naval officer and her mother’s occupation is described as 'none given' in our catalogue. Yet, the first part of the interview unveils a busy trio of women who, between themselves, set up and chaired for a century the National Wildlife Society. Its success culminated in Pamela’s mother receiving a CBE in 1986 for her work as President of this Society.
In this clip Pamela talks about the three Presidents of the National Wildlife Society. The British Library ref. is C1029/08.
In the same oral history collection dedicated to horticulture, Peggy Cole described in 2003 the many paid jobs that her mother had in the 1940s and 1950s. Despite being catalogued as a 'housewife', her mother worked as a hospital cleaner, a woodcutter and fruit picker. In this extract, Peggy, who was born in 1935, recounts how her mother worked after the birth of her last son in 1950 as one of a hundred other female seasonal workers near Easton, Suffolk. The British Library ref. is C1029/11.
In the third extract, we hear about Gladys Hillier who worked as one of the few postwomen in the 1940s in Gloucester, where she was born in 1917. In the interview that she gave in 2002 as part of the Oral History of the Post Office project, she described how she went from working in an aircraft factory during World War II, to delivering the mail in 1947 until her retirement in 1982. The British Library ref. is c1007/57.
Women’s new paid professional activities during World War 2 are discussed in our fourth interview. Jackie Forster, who was born in 1926 in London, reflected on the impact this social change had within her own family. In an interview for the Hall-Carpenter Oral History Archive, she explained how her mother worked as an ambulance driver during the war and started making money in the Stock Exchange to support her two children. Jackie’s mother became the breadwinner after her husband, who was an army doctor posted in India, was declared missing in 1939. In this extract, Jackie describes the new family roles and dynamic, and how these had to be accepted by her father, who eventually returned to England in 1945. The British Library ref. is C456/87.
This week we are pleased to feature a video from musician Paul Cheese which showcases a singularly unusual creative project. It is a musical piece he made from over 4,000 ‘found sounds’ recorded on a 5,000-mile bike ride around the UK in 2019.
Carrying a mobile recording setup on my bike, I cycled almost 5,000 miles to every region of the UK, with the goal of capturing the sound of people, places and record in unusual locations. During the trip I recorded and captured the sounds of people, their friendliness, the sound of the elements interacting with architecture and nature, and the activities of everyday life - over 11,000 sounds. I used around 4,000 of these to create a four and a half-minute piece of music.
The sounds of people's workplaces and tools, hobbies, art, and the different rhythms of different materials - outdoor recording the echoes bouncing off concrete, or through tunnels - all combined to create a unique reflection of ‘The Sound of the UK’.
Paul has kindly donated to the archive a high-quality version of the video shown here, plus a wav-format audio file, and an additional ‘making of’ video. A second audio file, of 200 people each pronouncing the name of their respective home city, town or village, has been lodged with our Accents & Dialects section.
Via email, I asked Paul a few questions about his project.
Steve Cleary [SC]: Did you camp outside each night or stay in hotels or B&Bs? And how was that?
Paul Cheese [PC]: Sometimes I would be on the road cycling and recording for 16 hours and most evenings I'd spend a couple of hours backing everything up, cataloguing all of the day’s captured media, writing a diary/blog and recharging the cameras/recording gear. So a pillow for my head and somewhere safe to put the bike and recording equipment for the night was required. I mainly stayed in cheap B&Bs and hostels. Most days I wouldn’t have any accommodation booked until the evening. This was because very early on in the journey I realised that sticking to the planned route would be impossible - the reason being that when I talked with people along the way they would suggest great-sounding places for recording. Fantastic!, but it was often a completely different way than the way I'd planned to go. So I quit the planning thing and although I had an idea of the main direction I was heading, I just headed where people suggested. This did mean that sometimes I hadn’t booked accommodation until 11.30 pm, and most of the time I didn’t have a clue where I was going, which added a whole different level to the adventure.
SC: How long were you on the road for?
PC: The cycle took me just over three months, longer than planned because of the detours to capture people's sound suggestions.
SC: What was the most interesting, enjoyable or surprising place you visited?
PC: I met so many amazing people and collected thousands of fantastic sounds that take me right back to the moment when I hear them. But there is one moment, that when it happened at the end of a long day it made me feel euphoric, emotional and lucky. As mentioned, sometimes I would arrive quite late to my accommodation. But this meant that some days I would arrive after everything was closed. So, no food. I was cycling in Wales and was staying above a pub.
It had been a long hilly day and I had eaten all my supplies. When I arrived, everywhere was closed and the bar didn’t even have any peanuts. But there were a few locals at the bar, we got talking and they said, ‘You’ve been cycling all day, we can’t have you going without food'. So one guy went home and got me some bread and butter; one lady got me some eggs; another went home and got me sausages; and one lady said, 'I’ve got some vegetables, you can have them too.' I felt like I was in a film, how amazing was that? I was so appreciative of their kindness and food.
During all of my bike adventures I have been overwhelmed by the kindness of people, and to top it all, when I left the pub in the morning, the front door made a fantastic sound, which I recorded and used in the final track.
SC: What were your favourites of the sounds you recorded?
PC: I collected thousands of sounds, just by having a good listen to the world around me.
How can I choose just one? There were so many great sounds and every sound has a story:
the beat of firemen retracting ladders in Suffolk;
the rhythm of chalk marks as the sign writer marked out the new lettering at a carriage restorers in Ballantrea on the west coast of Scotland;
lock gates in Leicester;
curlews and electric fences on the Orkney isles;
the kettle drum-like sound of metal girders being dropped in Cornwall;
the breathing of the shingle on Brighton seafront;
waves on steps in Rhyl;
footsteps on the beach of the North coast of Guernsey;
crop sprinklers in Shropshire;
the winding of cable on the transporter bridge into Middlesbrough;
Hull Cathedral bells and the flicker of bunting;
the favourite chord of an organ master in Newark-on-Trent;
the one-o -clock gun in Edinburgh;
clog dancers in Leeds;
kicking the bar in Aberystwyth;
the wind whistling in the rigging of boats at Sandwich bay, Kent;
the scrape of bull dozers pushing metal into compactors on the north coast of Wales;
Manchester town hall clock;
the rhythm of builders re-pointing a wall in Somerset;
the sound decay of the reverb in an old railway tunnel in West Yorkshire;
the sounds of Rossy boatyard at Clydebank as a plane flew over;
a Spitfire fly-by in Folkestone on the Kent coast;
the audio tones of the different sluice gates and weirs on the Kennet and Avon canal;
rhythms and clanks of metal works in Keighley;
an old man with a 2 piece metal walking stick in Cambridge;
a motorbike dealer’s favourite engine idling in Norfolk;
‘relay for life’ walkers footsteps in Barnstaple…
There were so many different bird songs and the sound of people’s accents.
If I had to choose from a cycling point of listening/view, it would have to be the sound of a strong wind humming bass lines through barbed wire fences.
From my experience, the loudest sparrows were on Jersey: the loudest blackbirds were in Norfolk; the loudest seagulls were in Devon (Sidmouth); and the most melodic blackbirds are from the northeast of England up to around Dundee.
SC: Were there advantages to doing this by bike?
PC: The brilliant thing about being on a bike is that you can stop and listen. Here’s an example.
I was cycling EuroVelo 1 in Scotland, ah, the amazing quiet! It was so quiet that I could sense this low rumble… the kinda sound you can feel. People say about following your nose - well I followed my ears…
I followed my ears for about a mile. Eventually I found it: the low sub bass was coming from a water pumping station. Which incidentally was humming the note of D.
There were some interesting things I noticed from the recordings (not highly scientific but interesting all the same). From the sounds I recorded, 30% blackbird calls on the east of the UK were at 98 bpm, in the west, 108 bpm. Three out of four UK builders render a wall at 108bpm.
From the thousands of sounds I collected, the most prominent tempo across the UK was 98 bpm, then 110 bpm, then 122 bpm. I reflected this by the three different tempo changes within the final piece.
I also found that the prominent key was F# major, then D major and A# major (I found that D major was the prominent key of Kent). I also used this in the different movements of the final piece of music.
SC: Would you consider doing something like this again?
PC: Absolutely! I’m in the middle of creating my third solo album Just for The Record Three. This is being written and recorded on 12 worldwide cycle missions with one song being written on each trip.
I’m looking forward to how the third album will come together and the inspirational sounds and locations I will find on the way.