Sound and vision blog

13 posts from July 2019

10 July 2019

Partition memories and the power of oral testimony

BBC journalist and author Kavita Puri reflects on the power of oral testimony. Hear more from Kavita at the British Library on Tuesday 16 July at 7pm, where she will discuss Partition Voices in conversation with Kirsty Wark. Book here: https://www.bl.uk/events/partition-voices.

In the summer of 2017 I ran a BBC project called Partition Voices. It marked the 70th anniversary of the division of British India into the independent states of Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan. I collected testimonies of colonial British and British South Asians who had lived through that tumultuous time. Their eye-witness accounts document the end of empire. They also tell of living through partition – where over ten million people were fleeing: Hindus and Sikhs to India, Muslims to Pakistan. It was accompanied by terrible violence where people of the “other” religion were targeted. Many thousands whose lives were disrupted by partition migrated to post-war Britain. They brought their stories of grief, loss and trauma with them, but kept silent about it for many decades. I also interviewed children and grandchildren of the partition survivors about its continuing legacy in Britain. I have now published a book arising from the interviews.

Partition Voices book cover

Central to the project was having a place to keep these testimonies, so future generations could access them, for interest or scholarly work, and I am delighted that 32 of the interviews are now archived in the British Library Sound Archive. Why did this matter? Partition memories in Britain were only just emerging with the 70th anniversary. When the migrants came over to post-war Britain, people were getting on with their lives here, fighting to be accepted and there was little time to talk of the past. There was also an institutional silence pervading empire and its demise, no one spoke of it, so there was no public space to discuss it. And so many partition memories are bound up in honour and shame – it became difficult to speak of. Many from that generation are elderly, and as they finally open up, it has become a race against time to record their stories for posterity.

These accounts – the lived experience – are important. These voices are harder to find in the official documentary evidence kept in the British Library India Office Records that speaks more loudly of the “high politics” of partition. Crucially, the interviews paint a complex picture from that time. Of course they speak of the horrors, but they also talk of how closely the Hindu, Sikh and Muslim communities were in pre-partition British India. How people would share in each other’s festivals, happiness and sorrows. There were deep friendships across religions. The place that people left may have been land that generations of their family members had lived on. Even though people may not have returned in seventy years there is still a visceral pull to their place of birth. It’s a place they still say they feel they belong to. The precise details of the testimonies reveal so much. The musings out loud, of what happened to a childhood friend; the longing to go back to visit a mother’s grave; the wish to have your ashes scattered where you were born.

These stories are significant because they show another side of history. And for second and third generation British South Asians it paints a nuanced picture of that time, and helps inform their identity today. The South Asian community in Britain can be fractured, and what these accounts reveal is how much they shared and had in common. These testimonies of former subjects of the British Raj who are now British citizens are British history. It is a part of history that is still difficult to talk of, and is not yet taught in schools. Yet it is vital to understand why contemporary Britain looks the way it does today. There will be a time, I hope, where the history of empire and its end is taught widely and these accounts will be a valuable resource.

There is something wonderful in knowing these original interviews on which my book Partition Voices is based upon will live in the British Library, and that when I am an old lady, around the age of the people I interviewed, they will still exist there, and for many generations to come.

The Partition Voices collection (reference C1790) sits alongside many existing oral history collections which contain powerful testimonies of migration and the impact of the colonial British past. The Partition Voices radio series is available from BBC Sounds and won the Royal Historical Society Public History Prize 2018, which you can read about on the Sound and Vision blog. Partition Voices: Untold British Stories is published by Bloomsbury on 11 July, 2019.

08 July 2019

Recording of the week: discovering Victorian coins in a Leeds butchers shop

This week's selection comes from Camille Johnston, Oral History Assistant Archivist.

As a boy the artist Norman Ackroyd (born 1938) developed a fascination with Victorian coins such as the Godless florin and Bun Head penny. He helped out in his family’s butchers shop in Leeds, and vividly describes in his life story interview how he cashed up the till one Saturday afternoon, and came across an ‘eccentric’ coin…

Norman Ackroyd on old money (C466/293)

Ackroyd had discovered the Godless florin. He goes on to describe how this coin was the first indication that decimalisation would be coming to Britain: the florin was worth 1/10th of a pound and was issued from 1849. The coin, unlike others from this period, doesn’t say ‘Dei Gratia’ (by the grace of God) and so is referred to as being ‘Godless’.

Photograph of a Godless florinGodless florin, dated 1849, saved by Norman Ackroyd from working in his father’s shop. Courtesy Norman Ackroyd Collection (Image not licensed for reuse)

Another coin mentioned in this audio clip is the Bun Head penny. First minted in 1860, this coin depicts a young Queen Victoria with her hair styled in a bun. Ackroyd makes the link between his early interest in Victorian coinage – ‘some of the most beautiful coins that we’ve ever produced’ – and his interest in etching, which he went on to develop during his artistic training.

Photograph of a bun pennyBun Head penny, dated 1862, saved by Norman Ackroyd from working in his father’s shop. Courtesy Norman Ackroyd Collection (Image not licensed for reuse)

To learn more about Norman Ackroyd, his background, education and work, see the article ‘A sense of place: The work of Norman Ackroyd’, published on British Library website Voices of art in June 2019. This article was written by Cathy Courtney, and features seven audio extracts from Ackroyd’s oral history interview and a series of images from his private collection.

Cathy Courtney recorded Norman Ackroyd for the National Life Stories project Artists’ Lives in sessions between 2009-2012. A written summary of the full interview can be word searched on the Sound and Moving Image Catalogue. Listen to the full interview on BL Sounds.

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

04 July 2019

Chernobyl: Perspectives from the British Nuclear Industry

Photograph of Peter Vey at the Chernobyl nuclear power station complex in 1988Peter Vey at the Chernobyl nuclear power station complex in 1988, as part of an international delegation led by Lord Marshall. Courtesy of Peter Vey

A new television series has once again brought public attention to the 1986 accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power station, when an explosion in one of the RMBK reactors caused one of the worlds worst nuclear disasters. Today, our attitudes toward nuclear power are forever overshadowed by Chernobyl, and it’s easy to forget that the early days of nuclear power were marked by tremendous optimism. In 1956 the Queen opened Calder Hall, the first full size nuclear power station to provide electricity to the public in the world, declaring that the terrible power of the atom bomb had now been, “harnessed for the first time for the common good of our community.” Nuclear power, futuristic and apparently clean and economical, promised an age of “electricity too cheap to meter.” Yet gradually the mood changed, as Granville Camsey, a nuclear engineer caught up in the early optimism, and then the backlash against nuclear power, recalled in his interview for An Oral History of the Electricity Supply Industry.

"It became very difficult to say you were a nuclear engineer" (C1495/09/05)

The Chernobyl disaster was a major issue for the British Central Electricity Generating Board (CEGB), which was trying to obtain permission to build a new nuclear plant at Sizewell to join the fleet of older reactors it already operated at the time. In this age of Cold War secrecy, the Soviets initially attempted to cover-up the disaster. But European nuclear power stations started to detect inexplicably high levels of radiation as a radioactive cloud spread across Europe. With the Soviet Union underplaying the severity of the situation, other countries scrambled to figure out what had happened, reassure the public, and to assess the risks of a Chernobyl happening at their own nuclear plants. As recalled by Peter Vey, head of public relations at the CEGB, the days after Chernobyl were very busy ones, particularly for the CEGB chairman and nuclear scientist Walter Marshall.

"The cloud by then had reached Dungeness" (C1495/51/11)

In the aftermath of Chernobyl, nuclear industries around the world united to try and improve the safety of nuclear power stations. Two years after the disaster Peter Vey travelled to the Soviet Union as part of a delegation visiting to sign a nuclear safety agreement. The trip included a visit to Chernobyl itself.

"People had just dropped everything" (C1495/51/11)

Chernobyl, and the later Fukishima disaster in Japan, had a profound effect on the nuclear industry across the world. Although the high cost of nuclear power has been a major factor in there being no new nuclear plants built since Chernobyl, higher safety standards and negative public opinion have undoubtedly been a factor too. Various countries have attempted to phase out nuclear power. No new nuclear plants have been built in Britain since Sizewell B was completed in 1995, and the planned Hinkley C station under development still faces uncertainties. Most of Britain’s existing nuclear stations, built between the 1960s and 1980s, are due to run at least another decade or more. When they are finally shut down, radioactive contamination means they will not be simply demolished, but carefully dismantled and decontaminated. The most radioactive parts will be sealed up and left as nuclear landmarks for decades, until they become safe enough to remove entirely. In this short video, former manager Peter Webster explores the silent control room and reactor hall of one such decommissioned station at Oldbury near Bristol.

If you would like to know more about the history of the public relations of nuclear power, you might be interested in this academic article by Tom Lean and Sally Horrocks based on An Oral History of the Electricity Supply Industry.

Blog by Tom Lean, project interviewer for An Oral History of British Science and An Oral History of the Electricity Supply Industry.

02 July 2019

Innovations in sound and art

Mary Stewart and Eleanor Dare reflect on an excellent collaboration…

In spring 2019, based in both the British Library and the Royal College of Art School of Communication, seven students from the MA Digital Direction course participated in an elective module entitled The Other Voice. After listening in-depth to a selection of oral history interviews, the students learnt how to edit and creatively interpret oral histories, gaining insight into the complex and nuanced ethical and practical implications of working with other people’s life stories. The culmination of this collaboration was a two-day student-curated showcase at the British Library, where the students displayed their own creative and very personal responses to the oral history testimonies. The module was led by Eleanor Dare (Head of Programme for MA Digital Direction, RCA), Matt Lewis (Sound Artist and Musician and RCA Tutor) and Mary Stewart (British Library Oral History Curator). We were delighted that over 100 British Library staff took the time to come to the showcase, engage with the artwork and discuss their responses with the students. Eleanor reflects: “The students have benefited enormously from this collaboration, gaining a deeper understanding of the ethics of editing, the particular power of oral history and of course, the feedback and stimulation of having a show in the British Library.” Here is just a taster of the amazing works the students created.

Karthika Sakthivel and Giulia Brancati were both inspired by the testimony of Irene Elliot, who was interviewed by Dvora Liberman in 2014 for an innovative project on Crown Court Clerks. They were both moved by Irene’s rich description of her mother’s hard work bringing up five children in 1950s Preston. Giulia created On the way back an installation featuring two audio points – one with excerpts of Irene’s testimony and another an audio collage inspired by Irene’s description. Two old fashioned telephones played the audio, which the listener absorbed while curled up in an arm chair in a fictional front room. It was a wonderfully immersive experience.

A visitor listens to Irene Elliot's testimony on two telephones while sitting at a table with scones and a tea cup

Irene Elliot's testimony interwoven with the audio collage (C1674/05)

Audio collage and photography © Giulia Brancati.

Giulia commented: “In a world full of noise and overwhelming information, to sit and really pay attention to someone’s personal story is an act of mindful presence. This module has been continuous learning experience in which ‘the other voice’ became a trigger for creativity and personal reflection.”

Inspired by Irene’s testimony Karthika created a wonderful sonic quilt, entitled Memory Foam. Karthika explains, “There was power in Irene’s voice, enough to make me want to sew - something I’d never really done on my own before. But in her story there was comfort, there was warmth and that kept me going.”

Illustrated with objects drawn from Irene's memories, each square of the patchwork quilt encased conductive fabric that triggered audio clips. Upon touching each square, the corresponding story would play. Karthika further commented, “The initial visitor interactions with the piece gave me useful insights that enabled me to improve the experience in real time by testing alternate ways of hanging and displaying the quilt. After engaging with the quilt guests walked up to me with recollections of their own mothers and grandmothers – and these emotional connections were deeply rewarding.”

Karthika, Giulia and the whole group were honoured that Irene and her daughter Jayne travelled from Preston to come to the exhibition, Karthika: "It was the greatest honour to have her experience my patchwork of her memories. This project for me unfurled yards of possibilities, the common thread being - the power of a voice.”

Irene Elliot and her daughter Jayne look at the Memory Foam audio quilt

Irene's words activated by touching the lime green patch with lace and a zip (top left of the quilt) (C1674/05)

Image Caption: Irene and her daughter Jayne experiencing Memory Foam © Karthika Sakthivel.

Listening to ceramicist Walter Keeler's memories of making a pot inspired James Roadnight and David Sappa to travel to Cornwall and record new oral histories to create Meditations in Clay. This was an immersive documentary that explores what we, as members of this modern society, can learn from the craft of pottery - a technology as old as time itself. The film combines interviews conducted at the Bernard Leach pottery with audio-visual documentation of the St Ives studio and its rugged Cornish surroundings.

Meditations in Clay, video montage © James Roadnight and David Sappa.

Those attending the showcase were bewitched as they watched the landscape documentary on the large screen and engaged with the selection of listening pots, which when held to the ear played excerpts of the oral history interviews. James and David commented, “This project has taught us a great deal about the deep interview techniques involved in Oral History. Seeing visitors at the showcase engage deeply with our work, watching the film and listening to our guided meditation for 15, 20 minutes at a time was more than we could have ever imagined.”

Raf Martins responded innovatively to Jonathan Blake’s interview describing his experiences as one of the first people in the UK to be diagnosed with HIV. In Beyond Form Raf created an audio soundscape of environmental sounds and excerpts from the interview which played alongside a projected 3D hologram based on the cellular structure of the HIV virus. The hologram changed form and shape when activated by the audio – an intriguing visual artefact that translated the vibrant individual story into a futuristic media.

3D hologram as designed by Raf Martins

Jonathan Blake's testimony interwoven with environmental soundscape (C456/104)

Soundscape and image © Raf Martins.

Also inspired by Jonathan Blake’s interview was the short film Stiff Upper Lip by Kinglsey Tao which used clips of the interview as part of a short film exploring sexuality, identity and reactions to health and sickness.

Donald Palmer’s interview with Paul Merchant contained a wonderful and warm description of the front room that his Jamaican-born parents ‘kept for best’ in 1970s London. Alex Remoleux created a virtual reality tour of the reimagined space, entitled Donald in Wonderland, where the viewer could point to various objects in the virtual space and launch the corresponding snippet of audio. Alex commented, “I am really happy that I provided a Virtual Reality experience, and that Donald Palmer himself came to see my work. In the picture below you can see Donald using the remote in order to point and touch the objects represented in the virtual world.”

Interviewee Donald Palmer wearing the virtual reality headset, and exploring the virtual reality space created by Alex Remoleux

Donald Palmer describes his parents' front room (C1379/102)

Image Caption: Interviewee Donald Palmer wearing the virtual reality headset, exploring the virtual reality space (pictured) created by Alex Remoleux.

The reaction to the showcase from the visitors and British Library staff was overwhelmingly positive, as shown by this small selection of comments. We were incredibly grateful to interviewees Irene and Donald for attending the showcase too. This was an excellent collaboration: RCA students and staff alike gained new insights into the significance and breadth of the British Library Oral History collection and the British Library staff were bowled over by the creative responses to the archival collection.

Post it note comments from visitors to the showcase

With thanks to the MA Other Voice cohort Giulia Brancati, Raf Martins, Alexia Remoleux, James Roadnight, Karthika Sakthivel, David Sappa and Kingsley Tao, RCA tutors Eleanor Dare and Matt Lewis & BL Oral History Curator Mary Stewart, plus all the interviewees who recorded their stories and the visitors who took the time to attend the showcase.

01 July 2019

Recording of the week: wonderful Weingartner

This week's selection comes from Jonathan Summers, Curator of Classical Music Recordings.

This year is the 250th anniversary of the birth of Napoleon Bonaparte and next year is the 250th anniversary of the birth of Beethoven.  Both men, known the world over by a single name, are joined in history by the fact that Beethoven originally dedicated his Third Symphony to Bonaparte.

In 1806, the score was published under the Italian title Sinfonia Eroica - 'Heroic Symphony, composed to celebrate the memory of a great man.'  Apparently, in order to gain a fee from a nobleman for the composition, Beethoven deleted Bonaparte's name and changed the dedication to Prince Franz Joseph Maximilian Lobkowitz. 

Title page for Beethoven's Symphony in E flat major, Op.55, 'Eroica'Title page for Beethoven's Symphony in E flat major, Op.55, 'Eroica' (via Wikimedia Commons)

Composer and conductor Felix Weingartner (1863-1942), a pupil of Franz Liszt, was the first to record all of Beethoven's symphonies, many more than once.  This recording of the Eroica was made in 1936 with one of the finest orchestras then and now, the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. 

Symphony no. 3 op. 55 E flat major (Eroica)

Photograph of Felix WeingartnerFelix Weingartner circa 1890 (via Wikimedia Commons)

Weingartner brings fresh, clean lines, a taught rhythmic vitality and plenty of colour to the performance.  The quiet surfaces of this Columbia recording and the resonance of the Grosser Musikvereinssaal make for an exciting listening experience, particularly the Scherzo (at 29:28) and the Finale (at 33:36).

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