THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Sound and vision blog

109 posts categorized "Interviews"

06 October 2020

What if your home had ears?

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We have all spent much more time at home since coronavirus abruptly changed our daily lives this spring. Perhaps, like me, you’ve paid more attention to the sounds within your house - the whistle of the kettle, the clack of the keyboard, the grumble of bored children, the chirp of birds outside. I’ve also been contemplating how we occupy our domestic space: who cooks and washes up, where do children play, which creatures live in and near our home and how has this changed within our own lifetimes? For the new British Library web resource, If Homes Had Ears we have delved into the vast treasures of the Library’s Sound Archive to explore the sonic landscape of the home. Key to this resource are the voices and memories of people speaking about home life over the last 140 years. We invite you to open your ears, draw back the curtains, and listen, discuss and reflect upon what makes a home.

If Homes Had Ears is grouped into five areas found in most homes: the bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, living room and the garden. There are three discursive and thought-provoking articles for each space, and the web resource features over 70 fascinating audio clips to intrigue the listener. We hope the sound clips we will be a springboard for reflection and discussion and will provoke the listener to think of their own experiences.

Homepage for If Homes Had Ears showing articles list
Homepage for If Homes Had Ears showing articles list

No web resource on the home can ever cover all types of experience, but we have worked hard to try and ensure a variety of voices and sounds from different UK regions and nations, and stories from people who have migrated to the UK. We have included examples of different social-economic situations, ethnic backgrounds, cultures, genders and time periods. The oldest recording is a 1911 edition of the popular song ‘When Father Papered the Parlour’, but we also explore the memories of a Welsh seamstress recalling her childhood in the 1880s. The most recent material was recorded in spring 2020 on memories of gardening.

I love this clip of Marjorie Atkinson describing the scullery in her family’s home in the North East of England in the 1920s:

Marjorie Atkinson describes the scullery

Download Transcript – Marjorie Atkinson on the scullery in her childhood home

What would children today make of the scullery in Marjorie’s home? In contrast, what might be the reaction of listeners from older generations to sisters Yasmin and Lana speaking in 2015 about sharing a bedroom?

Yasmin and Lana on sharing a bedroom

Download Transcript – Yasmin and Lana Coe describe sharing a bedroom

In this extract Immunologist Dr Donald Palmer recalls the front room of his family’s home in London, a space of great importance to his parents who had migrated from Jamaica in the 1960s:

Donald Palmer describes the front room

Download Transcript – Donald Palmer describes the front room

For each room we have created a short montage of audio clips, brilliantly animated by students from the London College of Communication, who have responded to these audio soundscapes creatively and with sensitivity. Here is Jachym’s animation of the sounds of the kitchen:

Download Transcript – The Kitchen

There is plenty of family friendly material (my children have been singing ‘Beans, beans good for the heart’ for weeks!), but we have not shied away from difficult topics too – as the home is not always a place of happy memories. In this extract Tricia Thorpe describes an incident when she was resident in a psychiatric unit as a teenager in the 1980s:

Tricia Thorpe describes an incident in the psychiatric unit

Download Transcript – Tricia Thorpe's experience of living in High Royds Psychiatric Hospital

There are also clips discussing menstruation, abortion, aging, family structures in the LGTBQ communities and funeral rites. Where we feature this more challenging content, this is flagged in both the introduction to the clips and the audio item descriptions, so that listeners (and their teachers or caregivers) can decide whether listening is appropriate.

This resource has been over two years in the making and is part of the 5 year Unlocking Our Sound Heritage Project funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. It has been a true collaboration led by Mary Stewart (Oral History), Holly Gilbert (Digital and Multimedia Collections), Harriet Roden and Charmaine Wong (both from the Learning Team) with invaluable input from Megan Steinberg (former Learning Assistant), Chandan Mahal (Learning Projects Manager) and latterly Yrja Thorsdottir (Learning Team). Enormous thanks to colleagues from all across the Sound Archive for content suggestions and the support of the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage Intellectual Property Team, Web and Learning Teams. The greatest thanks, as always, must go to the speakers, sound recordists, performers and musicians – as without them there would no sounds in our archive to unlock.

Blogpost by Mary Stewart, Curator of Oral History.

05 October 2020

Recording of the week: We’re gonna be parents!

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

C1500 0776 David and Mairead

Husband and wife, David and Mairead, are expecting a baby any minute now! Mairead is already in labour and they came across the Listening Project booth while taking a stroll through a park near the hospital as a distraction from Mairead’s contractions. They decided to stop and record a conversation in this liminal moment while waiting for their baby to appear.

David and Mairead (BL REF C1550/776)

They reflect on their experience of pregnancy and look forward to being parents with both excitement and trepidation. They discuss which words they will use for ‘mum’ and ‘dad’, while referring to their baby as ‘cub’, and reflect on a future of feeling more and more out-of-date as their child grows up.

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

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

01 October 2020

‘Using your eyes as a pen’ – Black British Poets in Performance

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By Dr Hannah Silva, British writer and performer and Leverhulme Early Career Research Fellow at Queen Mary, University of London.

Paula Varjack
Paula Varjack selfie.

“What you actually do is you use your eyes as a pen,” David J is telling me how he learned to freestyle, “off the dome.” We’re sitting in a studio at the British Library, recording an interview for an archive: Black British Poets in Performance.

David J developed his craft out loud. When freestyling “it’s your life really that gets played out.” He describes hiding in a corner: “a silent child hears more.” He picked up vocabulary from books in the family home, medical journals and the Encyclopedia Britannica, and integrated it into his freestyling, “we can have fun ’cause my family is medical so we’re gonnna do vocal autopsies so everyone is… ah! nah he’s gonna rip em apart... nah I’m gonna do it clinically, ’cause mum’s a health visitor.”

Throughout these interviews it becomes clear that writing ‘out loud’ and ‘on the page’ are not differentiated practices, that performance is as much a part of ‘writing’ as writing is performance.

Here’s Anthony Joseph discussing how vocalising a poem can connect you to “other musical ideas”:

Anthony Joseph [47.55-48.24] ref. C1874_1

Download Anthony Joseph transcript.

Vocalisation is a way of embodying writing, engaging not just the ears in listening, but the breath, diaphragm, larynx, and vocal folds. Malika Booker comments that she likes to walk whilst she writes: “because I need to get the rhythm, I need to hear things I need to feel things […] writing is not just a solitary sitting down act.”

In the padded windowless room David J is looking at me, “you see Hannah” and looking around: “you see: speaker” and now he’s inhaling the words and mixing them with “what’s inside of you… your thought.”

David J [17.56-18.33] ref. C1874_15

Download David J transcript.

Kayo Chingonyi comments that “the label of ‘poetry’ has shrunk over the centuries”, that performance has often not been accorded the same importance as “dancing that intellect on the page.” He analyses the racialised aspect of labels such as spoken word and performance poetry and how this is linked “to having bodies”:

Kayo Chingonyi [26.37-27.30] ref. C1874_9

Download Kayo Chingonyi transcript.

Jacob Sam-La Rose discusses the importance of having spoken word and performance poetry in archives that can be accessed by poets developing their craft:

Jacob Sam-La Rose [19.50-20.40] ref. C1874_16

Download Jacob Sam-La Rose transcript.

This is that kind of resource.

These interviews feel groundbreaking because of the depth to which each poet discusses their craft. As Malika Booker says, this is “an artform that needs to be interrogated.” Every interview is over an hour long, and is accompanied by readings. We discuss how labels can exclude, and conversely how self-naming can be a creative act. We have conversations about the Black British voice, the Lyric I, presence, audiences, artistic development, performance poetry criticism, and poetry within theatre. We discuss influences and inspirations, and zoom in on moments of writing and performing.

Booker writes on her feet both at the early compositional stage, and sometimes in performance. In our interview she explains that her poem ‘My Mother’s Blues’ was edited in performance in response to her audience. Initially she wasn’t “sure how to use the ‘pain’.” She wrote “twenty-six drafts, trying to figure it out.” It was only when she did it for an audience that she realised the poem was “important.” Her description provides an example of how the body, voice and audience can all play a part in the writing of poetry, she treated “the performance space as a laboratory.” It also illustrates the interactive joys of a poetry night:

Malika Booker [45.50-52.00] ref. C1847_12

Download Malika Booker transcript.

Other unforgettable moments in this archive include Paula Varjack revealing that her name and performance persona were constructed around a pair of sunglasses. Lemn Sissay, whom I interviewed by a pool in Brazil, demonstrating how he started to deconstruct the moment of performance as it happens, and how he uses gesture as part of his writing (read more here: Lemn Sissay: Defamiliarsation and Performed Palimpsests. There’s Inua Ellams on guerrilla gardening, Karen McCarthy Woolf on vulnerability and hybridity and how trauma made her especially sensitive to sound, and a chat with Raymond Antrobus and Deanna Rodger behind the Latitude Poetry Tent (already a historical event).

Also – we had fun. Here’s Joshua Idehen parodying poetry styles and prosodies:

Joshua Idehen [55.28-56.28] ref. C1874_5

Download Joshua Idehen transcript.

The poets in this archive are there because I wanted to talk to them, and because they were willing to talk to me. My own research interests and my connections and friendships inevitably shaped it. The interviews were recorded several years ago and the poets would record different interviews today, but this archive enables us to, as Sam-La Rose puts it, “chase back movements and ways of thinking.” It is by no means a finished project and I hope it continues to be expanded and that the interviews are an exciting resource that supports further research.

Thank you to all the poets who agreed to talk to me for the archive, and all those who talked to me outside of the British Library context too. So far this archive contains interviews with Raymond Antrobus, Dean Atta, Malika Booker, Kayo Chingonyi, Inua Ellams, Anthony Joseph, Ria Jade Hartley, Joshua Idehen, Keith Jarrett, David J, Chanje Kunda, Deanna Rodgers, Jacob Sam-La Rose, Andra Simons, Lemn Sissay, Mark Mace Smith, Paula Varjack, Indigo Williams and Karen McCarthy Woolf.

The archive was constructed as part of an AHRC collaborative doctoral award with Stirling University and The British Library.

This collection is available in the Library's Reading Rooms and will be online next year. If you would like to browse the collection online, please enter C1874 into the Library's Sound and Moving Image Catalogue.

22 September 2020

Nuclear history: Triangulating sources and government secrecy.

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Joshua McMullan examines the ongoing security review of the ES and AB series at the National Archives in the context of oral history interviews recorded for 'An Oral History of the Electricity Supply 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

On the 13th July 2018, senior civil servants from the Ministry of Defence requested that files pertaining to the UK nuclear programme, located within the ES and AB series at the National Archives, be ‘temporarily withdrawn’ from public viewing. The MOD stated this was necessary in order to conduct a security review of said files and, while reviews of this nature are common, the scale is not. As someone researching the UK’s civil nuclear programme’s public relations strategy, the review put a significant hurdle in the way of my work. However, by listening to oral history interviews held at the British Library and conducted with people who worked for the nuclear industry I have been able to continue my research. I have also been able to connect these interviews to other archival sources, including files at the National Archives I was able to access before they were closed off for review. From this work I suggest the government will find it difficult to make secret aspects of nuclear history that were, and are, public. 

In particular the interviews with former managing director of the Central Electricity Generating Board, Sir John Baker, and former head of public relations at the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority and then CEGB, Peter Vey, have added a lot to my research and my understanding of how the industry worked, both from an organisational and technical point of view. This includes John Baker’s remarks on storing nuclear waste; including the industry’s policy on storing low level nuclear waste, as well as discussions over where future waste disposal sites might be located. In Peter Vey’s interview we learn of how he arranged lunches between Chairman of the UKAEA Sir John Hill and journalists, as well as how the UKAEA believed the BBC held a bias against them. Due to his past work for the UKAEA, Vey’s insights show us what kind of information might be held within the AB files. 

John Baker on storing nuclear waste (C1495/14/07)

Download John Baker on storing nuclear waste transcript

Peter Vey on the BBC (C1495/51/07)

Download Peter Vey on the BBC transcript

We can further summarise this is the kind of information held in the AB files by looking at other archival records held at the National Archives, including PREM 19/3656 that details the UK response to the Chernobyl disaster. This file includes comments from former Deputy Chairman of the UKAEA, and at the time Chairman of the CEGB, Lord Walter Marshall, who wrote to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher advising her what to say and, crucially, what not to say regarding the design of UK nuclear plants. Lord Marshall’s advice was intended to avoid potentially awkward comparisons between the UK’s nuclear programme and that of the Soviet Union. We can also look at reviewed AB files such as AB 38/2164, which details the UKAEA’s public relations response to Chernobyl. In this file we can see the institutional mindset of the UKAEA, which had created a video claiming that an accident like Chernobyl, ‘could not happen here in the UK.’ Internal memos state that the video was not for the general public as it was ‘too technical’, and that an alternative video produced by the CEGB was more appropriate. Vey’s interview brings these documents together when he speaks of how the organisations that made up the industry collaborated to mitigate public concern over the dangers of nuclear power. We learn of how members of the industry viewed the public as well as which technical aspects of UK reactors they believed the public might be concerned with if the information became common knowledge. All of this is information I expected to find in the AB files.

Peter Vey on UK response to Chernobyl (C1495/51/11)

Download Peter Vey on UK response to Chernobyl transcript

By triangulating a variety of sources, including the oral histories held the British Library I have been able to continue with my research despite the ongoing security review of the AB files. However, the availability of so many other sources of evidence does raise an important conundrum for researchers and the government. Even with the MODs decision to retract what was once public information it will prove very difficult to remake the information into a secret when there are thousands of other sources available. Academics such as myself have been able to read and listen to a multitude of different people who know a multitude of different things and to distil it into our work. I am not the first to research the UK nuclear industry, and there are other researchers who are faced with this same hurdle. However, the real challenge is not for us who must navigate around this hurdle, but for the government. If they do decide to re-make swathes of information secret, they will face an impossible challenge of tracking down every source of recorded information in an attempt to close them off. This would include oral history interviews such as those with Sir John Baker and Peter Vey.

Joshua McMullan is an AHRC CDP PhD candidate at the University of Leicester and the National Archives looking at civil nuclear public relations in the 1970s and 1980s

Sir John Baker and Peter Vey were interviewed for the National Life Stories project 'An Oral History of the Electricity Supply Industry'. Their interviews can be listened to at BL Sounds. For more information on the UK response to the Chernobyl disaster see the blog 'Chernobyl: Perspectives from the British Nuclear Industry

08 September 2020

The Political Lives of Postwar British MPs: An Oral History of Parliament

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Emma Peplow and Priscila Pivatto write about the History of Parliament Oral History Project and their new book 'The Political Lives of Postwar British MPs'.

Front cover of the book 'The Political Lives of Postwar British MPs'

It may seem strange to explore the lives of politicians through oral history. More often it is used to create sources for communities whose narratives are traditionally unheard, whereas MPs are some of the most well-recorded individuals in our society.

We have Hansard, voting records, press reports, memoirs and media interviews. Yet there are many aspects of life in Westminster and beyond that these records can’t quite capture. To try to fill these gaps, since 2011 the History of Parliament Trust’s oral history project, in collaboration with the British Library, has been interviewing former MPs about their experiences.

Out last month, The Political Lives of Postwar British MPs acts as an introduction and guide to the archive of over 175 ‘life story’ interviews with people who witnessed British politics at first hand and offer unique perspectives on parliament’s history.

There are certainly particular challenges to overcome that emerge from interviewing those who are used to public scrutiny. In our experience, working with politicians means that we regularly encounter well-known issues for oral historians such as ‘practiced narratives’ and ‘legacy building’. Politicians are used to speaking in public and well aware that their words will shape the writing of British history. Many interviewees have their favourite stories rehearsed and retell them frequently. When asked about her first impressions of parliament, Diana Maddock (Liberal Democrat, 1993-97) recognises her own practiced narrative:

Diana Maddock, C1503/157, Track 3 [00:09:05 - 00:09:35]

Because I won the by-election […] I had to go and talk to every local party dinner everywhere about what we did, and they used to ask “what’s it like?” And I used to say, I had a sort of patter after a while, and I said: “well, it’s a bit strange. I’m not a lawyer, I wasn’t in the guards, I didn’t go to a public school and I’m not a man. So it’s a pretty strange place.”

Previous research helps our interviewers to notice these stories and then, if possible, begin to unpack them. Some politicians might also be tempted to use the interview to portray their actions in the best possible light. Again, we encourage our interviewers to question these narratives and pursue deeper reflections. The way they justify a controversial vote, the reasons why they accepted a post, their involvement in scandals or even how they dealt with everyday life in Westminster are valuable to analyse how they understand the past and the gradual changes in acceptable and unacceptable behaviours inside the institution (for more see our recent article in Oral History Journal, 47, 2).

Despite these issues, our archive sheds light on a wide range of political experiences and offers a glimpse of life ‘behind the scenes’ at Westminster not captured elsewhere. It is an intimate perspective on British politics and Westminster’s culture in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

The archive includes as many former MPs as possible – not only the famous, not only the long-serving, but also those whose contribution is little known. Even in the case of prominent politicians, the whole life story approach gives us the most lively sense of what these people were like, their motivations, ambitions, achievements and regrets. There is a great sense of character in the interviews.

Photograph of John Cartwright standing in front of a houseJohn Cartwright, Labour/SDP, 1974-92

One example was the formation of the Social Democrat Party (SDP) in 1981 and why moderate Labour MPs chose to leave or remain in the party. MPs had to decide based on their personal loyalties, their calculations for their political future and also take into account the nature of their constituency party. Each decision was an individual one, as described by John Cartwright (Labour/SDP, 1974-92):

John Cartwright, C1503/94 [00:34:05 - 00:35:50]

That was the key thing, the Limehouse Declaration, and it was a question of who joined and who didn’t after that. I wrestled with it for a long time. I found it incredibly difficult because, as I said, I grew up in the Labour Party and I couldn’t see what life was going to be like outside the Labour Party. I also thought the chances of holding a safe seat like Woolwich, for this curious new organisation, were about nil. […] There were two issues, one: the left had been ganging up on my constituency for quite some time. Not just the Tribunite left, I could handle them, but the hard left, the Trotskyite left. […] My friends were saying to me “look, it’s getting difficult, more and more of them are arriving, we are losing control of various committees, you need to do this, you need to do that.” I said: “hang on a minute, yes I will do all those things, but what you are going to do?” “Oh, it is very difficult for us, we are borough councillors.” I thought “why should I? Nobody is going to fight for me.” And then I thought, well I could wait and if they deselect me I could jump then, then I thought well I am damaged goods if I do that, that is not very sensible. But what it came down to in the end was that I felt I couldn’t stay in one political party if my heart was in another. And once I was convinced they really were serious about establishing a new political party I knew that’s where my heart was. And come hell or high water that’s where I had to go.

The archive provides a sense of emotion in politics, what things meant to politicians and the diversity of their personal understandings of the role of an MP. In the extracts collected in the book, MPs describe being fascinated, delighted, passionate, excited, angry, nervous, frightened, disillusioned, exhausted and many other emotions. Some narrators’ voices still broke years later when speaking about specific pieces of legislation, constituents’ casework or the impact of a political life on their families. If some were cynical political operators, most entered politics with ideals in mind. Despite different political views and life experiences, the voices valued parliamentary democracy, as John Allan Stewart (Conservative, 1979–97) remembers:

John Allan Stewart, C1503/72, Track 2 [00:02:10 - 00:02:55]

People in the House of Commons generally believe in politics. I believe there is only two ways to run society: you either run society by politicians or men with sub-machine guns, there’s no other way. So I have a great respect for the process of politics and therefore the people who practice it. Now that’s not a very fashionable thing, the fashionable thing is to attack politicians and say they’re all in it for themselves and so on and so forth. I think that some of them are, but generally that’s not true. Generally people are there because they believe in things, and/or they believe in the process of politics.

The stories build a picture of British politics over the period, from manoeuvring at constituency party meetings to Northern Irish Republicans and Unionists singing carols together in Westminster bars. Parliament’s distinct and at times baffling mixture of conventions, precedents and ‘the way things were done’ are put on full display in the interviews, as are the reactions, both positive and negative, to them. MPs could fit in and use this culture, try to subvert it, or try to meet it head on, all in order to make their mark or further their political causes.

The memories included in the book The Political Lives of Postwar British MPs are just a flavour of the History of Parliament Trust’s growing archive in the British Library, many of which can be listened to online at British Library Sounds. We hope it will be a guide for others to explore the recordings for themselves: to listen to the voices, the significant pauses and the emotions that give first-hand experiences of life in Westminster.

Dr Emma Peplow is Head of Development at the History of Parliament Trust, with responsibility for developing the Oral History Project. Emma has worked on the project since joining the Trust in 2012, conducting interviews and speaking and publishing on the project. She has previously coordinated oral history projects for the Marylebone Cricket Club Museum/University of Glamorgan and has a PhD in International History from the London School of Economics.

Dr Priscila Pivatto is a Research Associate at the History of Parliament Trust and since 2011 has coordinated to the Oral History Project. She has also conducted interviews, trained interviewers, published and presented papers on oral history, parliamentary proceedings and history of political thought. She has a PhD in Public Law from the University of São Paulo, Brazil.

31 August 2020

Recording of the week: Kathy Stobart interviewed by Jen Wilson

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This week's selection comes from Sarah Coggrave, Rights Clearance Officer for Unlocking our Sound Heritage.

In the late 1980s, Jen Wilson, pianist and founder of Jazz Heritage Wales, interviewed saxophonist and bandleader Kathy Stobart (1925 – 2014). Now part of the British Library collection Oral history of jazz in Britain (C122), the audio recording of this interview has recently been cleared for online release as part of Unlocking Our Sound Heritage.

As Data Protection and Rights Clearance Officer, my job involves contacting rights holders and their representatives, in recordings such as this one, to request permission. It’s an extraordinary opportunity to learn more about the voices in the recordings, and as in the case of the Oral history of jazz in Britain collection, discover the rich history of jazz music making in the UK.

Kathy Stobart playing the saxophone
Kathy Stobart, photographed by Derek Gabriel for Jazz Heritage Wales

Born on 1 April, 1925 in South Shields, England, Florence Kathleen Stobart was the daughter of a pianist and a police officer. In her interview she describes a musical upbringing, and a talent for memorising piano pieces. Her early performance career included singing, dancing and impersonating artists such as Gracie Fields, but it was as a saxophonist and later bandleader that she became best known.

In this excerpt from the interview she describes her induction into life as a working jazz musician.

Kathy Stobart on her early experiences playing jazz

Kathy was only a teenager when her career began, and as a musician she travelled up and down the United Kingdom even touring abroad, working with musicians such as Denis Rose, Ted Heath, Jimmy Skidmore, Art Pepper, Peanuts Hucko, Vic Lewis, Humphrey Lyttleton, just to name a few.

While investigating the rights for this recording, I corresponded with Kathy’s son Peter by email, and in these exchanges he described her life as ‘long and full of some pretty amazing events’, highlighting the WW2 years in particular. In his words:

At the beginning as a very young girl 14 I think… travelling with an all-girl cabaret band (but run by a bloke! Don Rico) down to London and round the time of the Blitz through to… returning to London, again during the war, but around 1943, to actually take a real step into the Jazz World, travelling to west-end and Soho clubs at night, playing at the Embassy Club… with the likes of Clark Gable, Glenn Miller, Bob Hope sitting in the audience…then travelling back to Ealing amongst the sometimes bombed streets etc.

Peter goes on to describe how Kathy became ‘a ‘proper’ respected working jazz musician’, who was ‘very often on the cover of Melody Maker hailed as a real star…not that Kath would ever show off about stuff like that… she wasn't like that at all.’ His emails and the interview reveal a modest and witty Kathy Stobart, as you can hear in the next excerpt, in which she matter-of-factly talks about forming her own band, something that was a rare achievement for a woman at the time.

Kathy Stobart on working as a female band leader

Kathy married Art Thompson, a fellow musician, in 1943, then later trumpeter Bert Courtley in 1951. Around the same time she was leading her own band, which included Bert, Derek Humble and Dill Jones. As Peter mentions above, being a female bandleader for an all-male band was highly unusual, and is testament to Kathy’s determination and enthusiasm to do what she loved, and do it well.

The interview provides valuable insight into Kathy Stobart’s life as a working musician, including scaling back professional work to have three children in the 1950s and 1960s - although she continued to perform and tour throughout this period.

Kathy Stobart on juggling work and children

Sadly Kathy’s husband Bert passed away in 1969, and the interview reflects on some of the more challenging aspects of the jazz world, which professional musicians such as Kathy and Bert faced.

In the 1970s, she created the Kathy Stobart Quintet, one of the original members being Harry Beckett (trumpet), who was also interviewed for the Oral history of jazz in Britain collection. During this time Kathy was also playing in Humphrey Lyttelton’s band, as well as teaching adult music classes at City Literary Institute in Holborn, London.

There isn’t really enough space in one blog to list all of her achievements (you can read more about them on her website), but it is worth mentioning that she was also a regular guest musician on BBC Radio 1’s Sounds of Jazz, a headliner at Britain's first women's jazz festival in 1982, and even taught Dame Judi Dench saxophone in preparation for a role in a TV play. She continued to perform and make guest appearances with bands until her early 80s, long after most people would be considering retirement and a well-earned rest!

Freedom Music
Cover of Jen Wilson's book Freedom Music

A trailblazer who inspired many people, Kathy was a key influence in fellow musician Jen Wilson’s life. Jen is a pianist and the founder of Jazz Heritage Wales, formerly known as the Women’s Jazz Archive, and has kindly shared her own perspective on the interview and how she met Kathy:

I first saw Kathy Stobart on stage with Humphrey Lyttelton’s Band at Swansea’s Brangwyn Hall in about 1957/8? She was not sitting on the side in a fancy frock waiting to be called to sing. She was standing in the front line blowing our socks off. I was about 13/14 and transfixed. My brother John was a drummer, but also owned a tenor sax on which I tried to play blues riffs. Now here was the real thing. I never forget that first impression.

In 1980 Ursula Masson with a MA in history, formed the Swansea Women’s History Group. Gail Allen and myself joined and we went on to tour photographic exhibitions and make video documentaries about women’s lives in Wales. In 1985 after finishing our video on Welsh women in the miner’s strike, Ursula said to me “you are a jazz musician, what is the story of jazz in Wales?” I said I didn’t know. She said “then find out.” I spent 18 months writing to archives and libraries asking for material on British women jazz musicians. I got the occasional letter saying “we don’t hold anything here”, or “if you find anything could you let us have it?” Then Swansea’s Glanmor Jazz Club booked Kathy Stobart to play with the Russ Jones house band. So I thought, if no archive or library had any stories about British women jazz musicians, I’d better start with Kathy if I want to know our history.

After the gig, I nervously approached her to ask if I could interview her. “Of course, love. Thank you for asking. Come to the B&B in the morning for a chat.” I borrowed the History Group’s Marantz broadcast quality tape recorder. That first chat took us to 1939; she had to drive off to her next gig. I transcribed it over the next week – I was a fast typist, trained at my school’s secretarial course. Enthralled and excited, I told Ursula and Gail “I think I have just started the Women’s Jazz Archive.” “About time” said Ursula.

Years later I managed to catch up again with Kathy. Mike (husband) and I drove down to Axmouth and a lovely welcome. She talked non-stop. Halfway she rushed to the kitchen to make a pile of tuna sandwiches, cake and tea. Then she gently eased us out of her house as she had to drive to London for a gig. A truly, lovely lady.

I was intrigued as to how this full-time jazz musician, married to a full-time trumpet player, could travel the UK and bring up three sons and produce that quality of music. Kathy simply said “my mum, we all need our mums.” She had to call in her mum as when Bert Courtley was instructed to look after the boys for a week, she had returned home from a tour to find a pile of soiled nappies out in the backyard.

I am enormously grateful to Peter and Jen for providing more context for the interview, and for archivist David Nathan at the National Jazz Archive, for helping with contacts for this recording and the collection.

You can read more about Kathy Stobart on her website and Jen Wilson’s also provides more information. Jazz Heritage Wales is based at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David (UWTSD).

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

24 August 2020

Recording of the week: Lubaina Himid and Griselda Pollock in conversation (ICA, 1988)

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This week's selection comes from Dr Eva del Rey, Curator of Drama and Literature Recordings and Digital Performance.

Listen to artist Lubaina Himid in conversation with the art historian Griselda Pollock, recorded in 1988 at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA), London.

The discussion focuses on the impact of feminism in visual arts in the 1970s and early 1980s. It also addresses the under-representation of black women artists in the history of feminist art practice. There is a Q&A at the end of the talk, which includes remarks by artist and writer Maud Sulter, who started the Blackwomen Creativity Project in 1982.

Detail of ‘A Fashionable Marriage’ (1986) by Lubaina Himid. Photo credit: David Perry
Detail of ‘A Fashionable Marriage’ (1986) by Lubaina Himid. Photo credit: David Perry 

Lubaina Himid ICA London 1988

Griselda Pollock introduces Framing Feminism: Art and the Women’s Movement 1970-1985. This is an anthology of essays she has co-edited with Roszika Parker, documenting feminist art practices in the UK.

The book includes press releases, newspaper articles and reviews from events and exhibitions of the time. It became a seminal text in the discipline of art history in the UK. Lubaina Himid argues that the book, and feminist art history, is white-female-dominated and lacks a meaningful inclusion of black women artists:

I don’t really know that much about publishing really, except that I find that I can’t find myself - myself meaning ourselves: black women – in books very much written by black women, saying the things that we want to say, and that chronicle our experience as we had it.

Lubaina Himid MBE, CBE, is an artist, curator, writer and Professor of Contemporary Art at the University of Central Lancashire. She trained as a theatre designer followed by an MA in Cultural History at the Royal College of Art. Her dissertation title was Young Black Artists in Britain Today (1984).

Himid won the Turner Prize in 2017 and has exhibited all over the world. Her work is in major public collections, such as Tate Britain, the Victoria & Albert Museum and the Arts Council Collection.

Since the start of her career she has both made art and curated exhibitions. She was a leading figure in the British Black Arts Movement of the 1980s and 1990s, and helped bring public attention to her generation of black women artists.

In her 2006-2007 interview for the British Library, National Life Stories project Artists’ Lives she said:

‘We wanted to shift how we as black people were seen in the world - and we were using art to do it.’

Himid works in painting, drawing, installation and printmaking. She makes art to open up conversations about race, gender, class and to ‘fill in the gaps of history’. Through her work, she reclaims the histories and contributions of black people in the history of Europe from the colonial times to the present.

‘We made art to make ourselves visible, to be part of a bigger history.’

She has created projects to challenge the representation of black people in the media and culture, such as the Guardian series. She also has reached out to institutions and archives to influence the inclusion of artists of colour in their collections.

At the time of this 1988 recording at the ICA, Himid had already curated four exhibitions of black women artists and had had two solo exhibitions.

5 Black Women at the Africa Centre (1983) Covent Garden London.
Black Woman Time Now (1983/4) Battersea Arts Centre London.
The Thin Black Line (1985) Institute of Contemporary Art London.
Unrecorded Truths (1986) The Elbow Room Gallery, Borough, London.
A Fashionable Marriage (1986) Pentonville Gallery, London (solo exhibition).
New Robes for MaShulan (1987) Rochdale Art Gallery, Lancashire, England (solo exhibition which included a collaborative work with Maud Sulter).

This recording is part of the ICA collection C95, available online on the British Library Sounds website. It contains 889 talks and discussions held at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, during the period 1982-1993, featuring leading writers, artists and filmmakers.

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

References:

Lubaina Himid (1990). Mapping: A Decade of Black Women Artists 1980-1990.
Maud Sulter 1990, Passion: Discourses On Blackwomen's Creativity, Hebden Bridge: Urban Fox Press.

Making Histories Visible. An interdisciplinary visual art research project based in the Centre for Contemporary Art (School of Art, Design and Fashion) at the University of Central Lancashire (website).

The Thin Black Line(s).Tate Britain 2011-2012 (exhibition catalogue).

Lubaina Himid (2006-2007). National Life Stories: Artists' Lives C466/249. An oral history of Lubaina Himid interviewed by Anna Dyke at the artist’s home in Preston. Available online with full transcript.

In Conversation: Lubaina Himid & Courtney J. Martin (17 Feb 2017). A talk on the occasion of Invisible Strategies, the first major survey exhibition by British artist Lubaina Himid at the Modern Art Oxford gallery (20 Jan - 30 April 2017).

Modern Art Oxford - Lubaina Himid: Invisible Strategies (2017). 3D view of the exhibition presented by Vroom 360.co.uk

24 June 2020

Working from home

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For those of us who usually travel to work every day, working from home takes some getting used to. Fortunately we’ve been able to consult our collections for some advice. The British Library’s Sound and Moving Image catalogue lists 56 oral history recordings, across 19 different collections, that mention ‘working from home’. In interviews recorded for the National Life Stories project An Oral History of British Science, three interviewees describe their approach to being productive, creative, and professional in a domestic environment.

Stephanie 'Steve' Shirley

Portrait of Stephanie 'Steve' Shirley
Stephanie ‘Steve’ Shirley as the first ever national Ambassador for Philanthropy, 2009. Photo credit: Unlimited Photography

Dame Stephanie Steve Shirley set up a tech company in the 1960s to enable women with children to work as programmers from home. She had a novel approach to creating a professional atmosphere, which included playing pre-recorded office sounds while making phone calls. In her recording she describes how she got her business off the ground at a time when women with families were expected to forego their careers.

'…I recorded sort of, office type noises… so whenever the phone went I would put this on in the background so that I’d got this busy office buzz behind me. Now, I really sort of think how very naïve, but it wasn’t naïve, it actually got us going…' (C1379/28)

Audio clip: Stephanie Shirley on programming from home (C1379/28)

At the end of January in ’64, or something like that, we had a tiny mention in the Guardian newspaper, Manchester Guardian it probably still was then, that mentioned this extraordinary woman, Steve Shirley, writing computer programs in Chesham in between feeding her baby and washing the nappies. And that was really the sort of phraseology that was used. And that brought in a flood of women who liked the idea of working from home, and had computer skills, and had, as I always projected I suppose, the need or the – or might be financial need of course, to go on working without being a conventional employee. I had a secretary who came in one afternoon a week and, erm, engaged her through an agency that specialised in part-time work which largely meant women. And, so I got hold of this secretary, who’s still a friend today, called Barbara Edwards, and she arrived, was at home, in my home. She brought her own little portable typewriter. Later on she brought her own baby in a carrycot. And she was instructed really to make sure that I looked – that the correspondence and stuff went out looking as if it came out of a chairman’s office. And I know if I had difficult phone calls to make, or senior phone calls to make, I would wait until Barbara was in, so that she could connect me and give the impression of some sort of infrastructure behind me. The phone was pretty well how business was done, and sometimes of course there would be very domestic noises going on in the background. And so I took a tape recording, which we had a large tape recording then, tape recorder then, which I was using for dictation and other things like that. But I recorded sort of, office type noises, I recorded Barbara at her typewriter, so whenever the phone went I would put this on in the background so that I’d got this busy office buzz behind me. Now, I really sort of think how very naïve, but it wasn’t naïve, it actually got us going, because although there was a market there, although I did have skills, it wasn’t developed, and I did not have the commercial skills, but I sort of had some marketing skills. I changed my name from Stephanie to Steve, because I felt that I wasn’t really getting any responses from the letters that I was sending out to people offering services. My husband actually suggested that perhaps it was the good old-fashioned sexism, they saw a letter from Stephanie Shirley and it just went in the bin. So I started writing as Steve Shirley. And it seemed to me that I was getting some better response, well I was getting some responses and the work did start slowly to flow in as distinct from just all those private introductions.

Stephanie Shirley was recorded in 2010 by interviewer Thomas Lean. Listen to the recording in full on BL Sounds.

Richard West

Richard West, Quaternary botanist and geologist, continued his research into environmental change after his retirement by working from home. No longer able to access university equipment, and steering clear of distractions on the internet ('I gave it up as a bad job because it interrupted my train of thought'), he continued his work using ‘kitchen science’:

'…if you’re in post you’re – so much of your university time is taken up with committee work, going to meetings, teaching, trying to get money for research, but I can do all the things I need to do with the aid of a low power microscope and these measuring cylinders, sorting out sediment.' (C1379/34)

We moved into this house in 1958. And this part of the building was derelict. Erm, where I am sitting now were two loose boxes, and where you are now is the tack room and it was full of horse medicines and all that sort of thing. And a next door neighbour used to keep a pony in one of the loose boxes at that time. And – but in 1965 we decided to make it into living space. So this room came into operation in about 1967 I think and I used it for my writing and reprint collection and so on and books. There’s not much apparatus here. This microscope is the kind of cheapest version of a low power microscope you can get and I’ve only had it since I started working in Beachamwell. I’ve got several old microscopes going back to the 1930s which used to be used, but they’re all packed away. Those are in boxes in the room somewhere. This is the only one I use. I used to spend a lot of time looking at pollen grains underneath a high power binocular microscope but I haven’t done that for twenty years or so. The drawing board I got very early on in the early 1960s, ‘cause I was engaged in drawing a lot of drawing of sections at that time, and so that’s lasted me very well. I don’t think there’s anything else here, except this computer and so on on. I used to be on the internet and on email but I gave it up as a bad job because it interrupted my train of thought, so I’m not on the internet now, which annoys everybody ‘cause they have to write to me or ring me up. But at least I’m not constantly being bothered by things. I can also go across the road to the public library where I can use a computer and Google and so on as much as I want to. Apart from that, I don’t think [laughs] I don’t think there’s any apparatus here at all. It’s all books and reprints.

Richard West was recorded in 2010 by interviewer Paul Merchant. Listen to the recording in full on BL Sounds.

Sir John Charnley

Photograph of John Charnley in Farnborough wind tunnel
John Charnley in Farnborough wind tunnel, 2012. Photo credit: Matt Casswell, British Library

Sir John Charnley, aeronautical engineer, would continue working at home in the evening, after dinner, and after a full day in the office. 'If there was a problem that was bothering me, it would go home with me and I would wrestle with it.' In the clip below Charnley describes waiting until he was at home, late at night, to do his most creative thinking as a senior scientific civil servant:

John Charnley on problem solving at home (C1379/30)

I wasn’t of the mind that said that you didn’t take your work home with you, that you left it all behind in the office. If there was a problem that was bothering me, it would go home with me and I would wrestle with it. When I was in London, I’d catch a train home about half past six, I’d be home half past seven till eight, we’d have supper, which would've been beautiful, prepared, beautiful, drink. And if there was a problem going, there was something on my mind, Mary would go to bed and she’d leave me with a cup of coffee and I would work on. I can easily, and it isn’t a problem, to work in the night. I don’t like working first thing in the morning. There are those people who are that way inclined, but I’m a late night person - in my youth, I don’t know if I can do it now. But then I’d certainly work until one, two – and the fact that I’d been at meetings with, and particularly when I was in London, and meetings of all sorts, technical, financial, with the Treasury, you name it, lots – with the Services, I had the feeling I didn’t have time to think of where I was going, and I would do that at home. So as far as I was concerned, when I was in the office I was at the beck and call of other people, but when I wanted to be creative myself, in satisfying myself I was on the right path and I was going in the right direction, in whatever element of my job, that sort of thinking I did at home, late at night or early morning if you wish. So a) my job came home with me, I could stay late in the office if that made sense, but I’d certainly bring it home with me and work on it at home. And I had a very long suffering and forbearing wife. Bless her. Yep, oh yeah, sure, sure, sure, did a lot at home.

John Charnley was recorded in 2010 by interviewer Thomas Lean. Listen to the recording in full on BL Sounds.

Dame Stephanie Steve Shirley, Richard West, and Sir John Charnley all feature on the British Library website Voices of Science.