Sound and vision blog

5 posts from January 2022

24 January 2022

Recording of the week: The memory of liberation in Holocaust survivor testimonies

This week's selection comes from Dr Madeline White, Curator of Oral History.

In the week of Holocaust Memorial Day, our recording of the week reflects on the theme for Holocaust Memorial Day 2022: 'One Day'.

Holocaust Memorial Day is marked on the 27th January, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. The idea of liberation as ‘one day’ in a survivor’s story is a powerful one: when listening to survivors recall their wartime experiences, we often hear them discuss how they thought about ‘one day’ being liberated. Some survivors describe it as a moment they held on for, the hope of which sustained them; others describe it as a moment they felt would never come.

The testimony of Edith Birkin – given in an interview for National Life Stories in 1989 – contains a range of responses to both the idea of liberation and the liberation itself.

A painting by artist and Holocaust survivor Edith Birkin, depicting a group of prisoners at a concentration camp. A child embraces an adult through a barbed wire fence whilst another child looks on.

Edith Birkin 'The Last Goodbye', image courtesy of Denis Maryk.

Edith Birkin (née Hoffmann) was born in Prague in November 1927. She was 12 when the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia and 14 when she and her family were sent to the Łódź ghetto. She remained there until the ghetto was liquidated in 1944 and she was deported to Auschwitz. In the early part of 1945 she was sent on a death march to Flossenburg, then transported via coal truck to Bergen-Belsen, where she was liberated.

In this edited extract, Edith describes the conditions in which she waited for her liberators to arrive, what she imagined the moment would be like, and how the reality was quite different from what she had pictured.

Edith Birkin describes the liberation [BL REF C410/030]

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There are moments of joy in Edith’s recollection. She describes the moment as ‘marvellous’, remembering the first food she ate – tinned macaroni – as ‘heaven’, and explaining how she shares that same food with her family every year to personally commemorate the moment. Yet what she and her fellow inmates had imagined would be a euphoric moment filled with dancing, singing and kissing was dampened by their severe ill health. The inmates were too weak to celebrate. The food the liberators brought them saved some and killed others. They were free but not safe.

Decades after the event, we often assume that liberation was ultimately a joyous event for survivors. The war was over, they were alive, they were no longer incarcerated and were able to return home. The word ‘liberation’ itself elicits ideas of liberty and salvation, which is consistent with the popular notion of liberation marking the break between incarceration and independence, between suffering and relief, between certain death and the opportunity to live. Edith’s testimony complicates this narrative, showing us that the moment of liberation was emotionally complex and that it did not necessarily mark the end of suffering.

In this edited extract she describes returning to Prague after the war, just 17 years old at the time.

Edith Birkin describes her return to Prague [BL REF C410/030] 

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The most striking part of Edith’s description of this time in her life is her declaration that this, for her, was ‘the worst time of the war’. Contrary to what one might expect – contrary even to her initial response to being liberated – the reality of liberation was often far from ‘marvellous’. Edith recalls the loneliness of being the sole survivor of her family; the discovery that friends and neighbours who had promised to protect property had in fact stolen it for themselves; and the helplessness of not knowing where to turn. Perhaps her most crushing realisation was that the hope that had sustained her in the concentration camps – that she would find surviving family members and be reunited with her friends one day – was gone. For survivors, the dawning realisation that life would truly never be the same again was a trauma all of its own.

Oral history provides a unique opportunity for us to understand and engage with the ways in which people remember the past. Liberation was one day in Edith Birkin’s life, but its significance shifted as her situation changed, taking on a whole range of meanings as her story develops: it is simultaneously a dream, a joy, a disappointment, a moment of justice and the precursor to the darkest period of her life. As this example shows, it is through survivor testimony that we can gain a fuller appreciation of the nuances of historical events that can often seem unambiguous.

We should note, however, that exploring the past through testimony – particularly remembering genocide through testimony – can only tell us part of the story. In reflecting on liberation and in listening to survivors describe their memories of liberation, we must remember that for millions of people that one day never came.

On this Holocaust Memorial Day, we remember all those who never saw liberation, as well as those who did.

A banner graphic for Holocaust Memorial Day, featuring a candle alight against a black background, the Holocaust Memorial Dya logo, the words 'We're marking Holocaust Memorial Day' and the hashtag #HolocaustMemorialDay / 27 January

Edith Birkin was interviewed in 1989 by Katherine Thompson for The Living Memory of the Jewish Community. Her full interview is available to listen to online on British Library Sounds.

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

20 January 2022

Rosemary Goad

At National Life Stories we are sorry to hear of the death of Rosemary Goad, a former director of Faber & Faber, who was recorded by Sue Bradley in 2002 for the National Life Stories project Book Trade Lives. Book Trade Lives collected oral histories to capture the experiences of people who worked in publishing and bookselling in Britain from the 1920s onwards. Here, Sue remembers Rosemary and the agreement that allows us to hear her voice today.

Portrait photo of Rosemary Goad in an officeRosemary in her former office at 24 Russell Square, 2015. Photo © Robert Brown.

‘Their interview is closed for how many years?’ People could be incredulous that National Life Stories gave interviewees the option to embargo their recordings. ‘For the rest of their life? But it’s a public collection. Shouldn’t the records be open to everyone?’ In fact, when I started work in 1998 as the interviewer for Book Trade Lives, it felt like an act of faith to archive any oral histories at all. ‘Who will be listening anyway?’ was the question I heard from interviewees. ‘It’s like stocking a library with books,’ I’d say, repeating the answer I’d recently been given, ‘but now we’re collecting oral histories. And you can’t always tell in advance who readers or listeners will be.’

Rosemary had helped me prepare for my Book Trade Lives job interview, although she barely knew me at the time. She supplied pages from The Bookseller with family trees of publishing mergers and shared just enough low-down on one of the interview panel to make me feel that if I wasn’t an insider myself, at least there was someone kind enough to give me clues. When I was offered the job, I rang to thank her in Dorset, interrupting what sounded like an animated conversation. ‘I must go,’ I heard her say to whoever was there. ‘A friend’s on the phone with some rather good news.’ That was followed by a series of equally generous, and hugely enjoyable, social occasions. But it would be nearly four years before we sat down together in her London flat to begin her Book Trade Lives recording.

Remembering her maternal grandmother (Edith Milburn) [Tape 1 ide 1]

Remembering her maternal grandmother (Edith Milburn) [Tape 1 Side 1]

Rosemary Goad joined Fabers as a secretary in 1953, initially sharing a room with Valerie Fletcher, soon to become Valerie Eliot. ‘As I saw it,’ Rosemary said, ‘the firm was ruled by men but the women had quite an interesting time.’ She began to do publicity work – ‘the way I perceived my way out of being a secretary’ – while working as assistant to the editor Charles Monteith, and eventually acquired authors of her own, many of whom became life-long friends. Along with Joan Smith and Rachel Ingalls, they included PD James, whose books she continued to edit after retiring. Not that she claimed any credit. ‘You’re really more the continuity girl on crime editing, I think’.

Fabers in the early-mid 1950s ‘The women had quite an interesting time’. [Tape 5 Side 1]

Fabers in the early-mid 1950s ‘The women had quite an interesting time’. [Tape 5 Side 1]

Rosemary was made a director in 1970, the first woman employee appointed to the board. When she had arrived, secretaries in publishing were expected to have private means – ‘You could not have lived on the salary’ – and she later introduced schemes to improve terms and conditions for staff. ‘Once we had a union, [salaries] became much fairer.’ By the time she retired in 1988, the firm had been invigorated by a new regime, headed by Matthew Evans and Robert McCrum, to which Rosemary brought her warmth and discernment. In his own Book Trade Lives recording, the publisher Andrew Franklin, who worked at Fabers in the early 1980s, remembers Rosemary’s ‘extraordinary grace’ and her distinguished taste as an editor. Defender of the slush pile to the end – ‘I know there’s a lot of rubbish, but I always thought it was good, particularly for young editors, to look at what was coming in’ – she retained her trademark decency in an increasingly competitive publishing world. But Rosemary was not naive. In a poem written for her leaving party, her friend Seamus Heaney identifies her ‘unfooled smile’.

After those four years of waiting – she had seemed reticent about it and, rightly or wrongly, I didn’t want to push – Rosemary agreed to the interview on condition that it would be closed to public access for her lifetime. We started in July 2002 and finished the following March. The recording runs to around seventeen hours. A summary will soon be available, so I won’t pre-empt it here except to say that the interview – which takes the form pioneered by National Life Stories – follows Rosemary’s own life, from childhood and education to work before and after Faber, and that her recall of others goes beyond the well-known figures. Typically, her recording offers some discreet but revealing – and often very funny – glimpses of publishing life at the time, but the central and most vital presence is Rosemary herself.

On being recorded [Tape 20 Side 2]

On being recorded [Tape 20 Side 2] Transcript

Now, twenty years later, that recording can be shared. Which is, in the end, the point of the closure option. Without it, Rosemary may never have agreed and we wouldn’t be able to hear her voice at all. The same applies to many other National Life Story interviewees, a significant number of women among them. There is no need to spell out today what a loss their absence would be. Those anticipated listeners quickly arrived, and their numbers continue to grow exponentially.

‘I’ve always thought it was important to enjoy work, but I never thought one was making a great mark or footprint of any kind,’ said Rosemary. What could be a better basis for an oral history interview? I don’t suppose she would mind people cherry-picking memories about Faber celebrities – on the contrary – but those who take time to listen to the rest won’t be disappointed. Rosemary led a remarkable life of her own and she looks back on it here with insight and relish.

Rosemary Goad, 4 November 1928 – 11 September 2021.

Rosemary Goad's interview can be found by searching C872/78 in the Sound and Moving Image Catalogue. For more information about Book Trade Lives see the collection guide Oral histories of writing and publishing. Book Trade Lives was recently digitised by Unlocking Our Sound Heritage.

Sue Bradley edited 'The British Book Trade: An Oral History', British Library, 2008 and 2010. These days she listens out for animals in oral histories. Sue is a member of the Newcastle University Oral History Unit and Collective and a Research Associate on FIELD (Farm-level Interdisciplinary Approaches to Endemic Livestock Disease) in Newcastle University’s Centre for Rural Economy. Her article, ‘Hobday’s hands: recollections of touch in veterinary practice’, appeared in Oral History vol 49, no 1, 2021.

17 January 2022

Recording of the week: Norman Ackroyd on Henry Moore

This week’s selection comes from Karen Atkinson, Assistant Librarian at the Henry Moore Institute.

The Henry Moore Institute in Leeds has collaborated with National Life Stories on its Artists’ Lives project since the inception of the project in 1990. Past and present colleagues have interviewed artists, whilst visitors can listen to a small selection of extracts on the NLS sound point in our welcome area. Selected full interviews are available in our Sculpture Research Library.

Part of my role at the Henry Moore Institute is to curate the sound point. This allows me to delve into Artists’ Lives to listen to artists talking about subjects relating to the exhibition, research and library programmes at the Institute. I find these personal accounts provide wonderful insights into topics ranging from their art school experience, views on past exhibitions, to their artistic thought processes.

Currently on display at the Institute is a small exhibition of Henry Moore sculptures, drawings and collages which focus on Moore’s use of natural forms. Whilst thinking about the exhibition I discovered Norman Ackroyd’s interview with Cathy Courtney where the artist shares an encounter he had with Henry Moore’s ‘Reclining Figure: Festival’ outside Temple Newsam House in the 1950s.

Norman Ackroyd on drawing a Henry Moore sculpture [BL REF C466/293]

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The announcement of the sculpture coming to Leeds had drawn negative comments from readers in the local press but the young Ackroyd decided to see the work for himself, taking drawing paper to sketch the work in situ. Ackroyd gained a greater understanding of the sculpture, relating the natural forms Moore was using to similar shapes he saw in bones when boiling meat. Some smaller reclining figures can be seen in the current exhibition at the Institute.

Three Henry Moore sculptures on display in cabinets in an exhibition roomImage courtesy of the Henry Moore Foundation. Photo by John McKenzie.

Henry Moore explained the importance of these natural forms in his work and how he gained inspiration from collecting objects such as stones, bones and shells, which he then drew, modelled or photographed.

For me, everything in the world of form is understood through our own bodies. From our mother’s breast, from our bones, from bumping into things, we learn what is rough and what is smooth. To observe, to understand, to experience the vast variety of space, shape and form in the world, twenty lifetimes would not be enough.

Henry Moore, 1978

Norman Ackroyd was interviewed by Cathy Courtney for the National Life Stories project Artists’ Lives, 2009-2011. British Library Sound & Moving Image reference C466/293.  

This extract is currently playing on the National Life Stories sound point at the Henry Moore Institute. The exhibition Henry Moore: Configuration runs until 23 January 2022.   

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12 January 2022

Voices of British theatre design: Explore the world of theatre behind the scenes

Listen to theatre practitioners speak about their lives and work, their favourite productions, professional networks and the design process from scale model to stage set.

Voices of British theatre design is a new British Library website featuring over 50 audio clips from National Life Stories recordings. Interviewees include set and costume designers, scenic artists, directors and actors. The audio clips are presented within a series of 12 articles written by theatre practitioners. In every article, authors and interviewees draw on their technical knowledge and creative practices to reveal what happens behind the scenes, while weaving in personal reflections on the profession itself.

The website is divided into five themes: costume design, the design process, directors and designers, scale models, and set design. There are vivid descriptions of stage scenery, techniques for model making, the use of 3D design technology, and how to manage what the audience sees (and doesn’t see) from their seat. Contributors to the website also address wider questions on roles and relationships in theatre, and how to get started. What is theatre design education like? How reliable is the job market, and how has this changed over the years? What is it like to interpret a script, collaborate with directors, and engage with actors during costume fittings?

To celebrate the launch we’ve picked three clips highlighting different design elements that are explored on the website: model making, stage scenery, and costume design. Interestingly, in each case the interviewee mentions how their work impacted others involved in the production process. Scroll down to hear extracts from life story recordings with Lis Evans, Jocelyn Herbert, and Billy Meall.

Lis Evans talks about making, painting, and clothing miniature figures for her models

Assorted figures in a box, used for theatre design models
Assorted figures. Courtesy Lis Evans. Image not licensed for reuse.

Lis Evans (born 1965) is Head of Design at the New Vic Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent. In this clip she describes how she creates model figures from scratch using a variety of materials. The use of figures is an essential element of both her design process and how she presents the design to others.

This audio clip features in Peter Farley’s article, Communicating design: Creating a world.

Lis Evans on making figures for models (C1173/15)

Download Lis Evans transcript

The New Vic Theatre is ‘a theatre in the round’, where the stage is completely surrounded by the audience. Evans became Head of Design in 1991 and has designed over 120 productions during her time in this role.

Lis Evans was recorded by National Life Stories for An Oral History of British Theatre Design in sessions between 2006–2007. The interviewer was Elizabeth Wright. 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.

Jocelyn Herbert shares a surprising fact about Bertolt Brecht’s play Baal

Painted drawing by Jocelyn Herbert for Baal, showing an interior scene
Set drawing by Jocelyn Herbert for Baal by Bertolt Brecht (world premiere, Phoenix Theatre, 1963). Drawing © Estate of Jocelyn Herbert, from the Jocelyn Herbert Archive, housed in the National Theatre Archive. Image not licensed for reuse.

In this clip from her 1992 recording with Cathy Courtney, theatre designer Jocelyn Herbert (1917–2003) sets the scene for the world premiere of Bertolt Brecht’s play Baal. Brecht (1898–1956) was a German playwright and poet. He established the Berliner Ensemble theatre company with actor and director Helene Weigel, his wife, in 1949 in East Berlin.

This audio clip features in Roma Patel’s article, Stage design: 2D to 3D.

Jocelyn Herbert on projections for Baal (C465/13)

Download Jocelyn Herbert transcript

The play, Baal, was not performed until after Brecht’s death, and the first performance was not even produced by the Berliner Ensemble. It was in fact first staged at the Phoenix Theatre in London, in 1963. Jocelyn Herbert designed the play, and it was directed by Bill Gaskill (William Gaskill, 1930–2016) with actor Peter O’Toole in the title role.

Herbert talks about her preparatory drawings and models – Brecht’s script ‘lit up your imagination’ – and the technical process of designing projections for the stage using 1960s technology. She mentions working with Richard Pilbrow, who was the lighting designer for Baal, and his team to produce and install the projections. Herbert’s drawings for Baal can be seen in her archive at the National Theatre Archive.

Between 1985 and 1993 Jocelyn Herbert was interviewed by Cathy Courtney. The recordings are archived at the British Library and can be accessed on BL Sounds. Written summaries of the recordings can be word searched on the Sound and Moving Image Catalogue.

Billy Meall’s costume design for Shakespeare’s Richard III

Paul Jesson as Richard III, wearing a costume made by Billy Meall
Paul Jesson playing Richard III, wearing a costume made by Billy Meall. The costume featured a pebble in the boot to create a limp, and a glove with sewed up fingers. Projections in the background. Everyman Theatre. Photographer unknown. Courtesy Billy Meall. Image not licensed for reuse.

Theatre designer Billy Meall (born 1947) describes the terrifying costume he created for Shakespeare’s Richard III. The costume featured a shrunken hand, armour with a spiked hump, and a painful boot that caused the actor Paul Jesson to drag his leg around the stage. Paul Jesson (born 1946) is an Associate Artist of the Royal Shakespeare Company.

This audio clip features in the article On actors and costume design, by actor Eric Potts.

Billy-meall-designing-the-costume-for-richard-iii

Download Billy Meall transcript

In another clip, Meall talks about learning the craft from a costume supervisor called Cathy Alger, who he worked with at the Liverpool Playhouse at the start of his career. He was resident designer at the Liverpool Playhouse until 1998, after which the management of the Playhouse was merged with the Everyman Theatre.

Billy Meall was recorded by National Life Stories for An Oral History of British Theatre Design in 2006. The interviewer was Elizabeth Wright. 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.

Voices of British theatre design was produced by Cathy Courtney, Camille Johnston, Mary Stewart, and Elizabeth Wright. We would like to thank article authors, interviewees, and image donors, who are fully credited on the 'About the project' page. National Life Stories is very grateful to The Linbury Trust for making this website possible.

Blog by Camille Johnston, Voices of British theatre design Web Co-ordinator & Oral History Assistant Archivist, National Life Stories at the British Library.

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

10 January 2022

Recording of the week: A new year song from Vanuatu

This week’s selection comes from Vicky Barnecutt, True Echoes Research Fellow.

In early 1924, just before leaving the island of Efate due to ill health, the Presbyterian missionary Eric Raff used a phonograph to record around 30 songs on wax cylinders. The performers of these songs came from villages around Port Vila on Efate, the capital of what was then the Anglo-French Condominium of the New Hebrides, now the Republic of Vanuatu.

Map of the islands of the Republic of VanuatuMap of Vanuatu © Nations Online Project. Efate circled in red.


These twelve cylinders, now digitised, form the Eric Raff 1924 Efate, New Hebrides Cylinder Collection (C83) at the British Library Sound Archive. The collection is being researched as part of the True Echoes project. Fieldworkers from the Vanuatu Cultural Centre/Vanuatu Kaljorel Senta, a project partner, have recently started to take the recordings back to the communities from which they originate.

The second track of cylinder C83/1502 was described as a New Year song, sung by Tavero and Leiboni from Meli, and Turi from Leleppa.

A new year song from Vanuatu [BL REF C83/1502]

Eric Raff’s widow, Ruth, typed up the translations and transcriptions of the recordings shortly after her husband’s death in 1927. The relevant section for this song includes a translation by Nganga, who was probably a Mele chief at that time:

Transcription and translation of the New Year SongA typed transcription and translation of 'New Year Song' produced by Ruth Raff and held at the British Library Sound Archive (cropped).

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In 1924, 'Meli' referred to the small offshore island of Mele in Mele Bay. In 1950, the government of the New Hebrides ordered the population of Mele Island to relocate to the mainland; today, Mele, or Imere, is a large village a few miles north-west of Port Vila. Around 2000 people speak the Mele language, which is of Polynesian origin. Leleppa, or Lelepa, is an island off the northwest coast of Efate.

Map of Efate, Vanuatu, showing the locations of Mele and Lelepa islands, and Mele village today.Map of Efate, Vanuatu, showing the locations of Mele and Lelepa islands, and Mele village today. Map data ©2021 Google.

Ambong Thompson, Manager of the National Film, Sound and Photo Unit at the Vanuatu Cultural Centre, spoke to Jimmy Lulu Subuso, the fieldworker at Mele village, to ask him about this New Year song. Ambong shared the following via email on 7th December 2021:

Jimmy Lulu Subuso […] confirmed that the singers on C83/1502 were from Mele village. The two singers were Leiboni Sael Taravaki and Tavero Sarapera whose generations are still living today at Mele village. The people of Mele were excited to hear the old voices and Jimmy told me this morning that they are working on recording the same song with more people taking part in the singing. The people of Mele are very well known for singing old and new songs celebrating the new year. They can sing for whole night till dawn. Between Christmas and New Year they can also visit surrounding villages on Efate including some parts of Port Vila capital with their singing and at the same time welcoming new year 2022.

A photo of Jimmy Lulu Subuso holding a guitar at the Vanuatu Cultural CentreJimmy Lulu Subuso, Vanuatu Cultural Centre fieldworker for Mele village.

The song is interesting for many reasons. It shows how concepts introduced through colonial government and Christian churches, such as the Gregorian calendar and the New Year, were celebrated in local languages and local music styles. We do not know exactly when the people of Mele started their tradition of singing in the New Year like this, but it may have been well-established by 1924. To welcome in 2022, we are proud to share with you, 98 years after it was recorded, the song sung by Tavero, Leiboni, and Turi.We thank Ambong, Jimmy Lulu, and the villagers of Mele for their support in producing this recording of the week.

True Echoes – funded by the Leverhulme Trust and BEIS – is a three-year research project centred on the British Library’s collection of Oceanic wax cylinders. These cylinders were recorded between 1898 and 1924 in the Torres Strait Islands (Australia), Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, and New Caledonia. True Echoes is working with national cultural institutions in Australia and the Pacific to increase the visibility and accessibility of the collections and reconnect the digitised sound recordings with the communities from which they originate.

Follow @BLSoundHeritage, and @soundarchive for all the latest news.