THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Sound and vision blog

116 posts categorized "Interviews"

15 January 2021

Grace Robertson, a pioneer of women’s documentary photography

Add comment

It was when Glenda Jackson fixed me with her frankly intimidating glare and barked, ‘Is that enough for you?’ that I knew I was in way above my head. What on earth was I doing on London’s South Bank, not only with a national icon of stage and screen but with one of the pioneers of documentary photography, Grace Robertson? What on earth did I think I was doing? Luckily Grace (who sadly died on 11 January aged 90) came to my assistance, accustomed no doubt to dealing with tricky customers, and calmly said that yes she’d got the images she needed, thank you. Glenda was pacified.

Those times in 1993 took us around the country for the National Life Story Awards, part of the International Year of Older People, to meet and photograph ‘champions’. Jackson, Richard Branson and Lord Soper were amongst them, and it was a huge learning curve for a young and relatively inexperienced oral history curator. Grace, then aged 63, agreed to take part in the project to ‘celebrate the role of older women photographers’ and I got to know her gentle and unobtrusive technique (despite her considerable height: she was six feet two inches).

Lord Donald Soper being interviewed by his granddaughter as part of the 1993 National Life Story Awards
Lord Donald Soper being interviewed by his granddaughter as part of the 1993 National Life Story Awards. Image courtesy of Grace Robertson/British Library

Grace was fearless but great fun and with her husband, photographer Thurston Hopkins, was enormously generous to me when Val Williams and I were starting up our Oral History of British Photography (OHBP) project at the British Library in 1990. At exhibition openings she’d say to me: ‘Have you met XYZ [famous photographer]’, and then whisk me off to meet my heroes. She and Thurston played an important part in OHBP: both were interviewed themselves (see the BL Sounds website at Grace Robertson and Thurston Hopkins), and Grace trained up to become an interviewer herself, capturing recordings for the collection with Mark Gerson, Penelope Anne Tweedie, Humphrey Spender and Margaret Harker.

Born in 1930, the daughter of journalist Fyfe Robertson, Grace Robertson was one of the few women photographers to work for the magazine Picture Post, which did so much to promote documentary photography’s role in documenting ‘ordinary’ lives before, during and after the Second World War. Her father gave her a Leica camera in 1949 and Grace worked as a freelance photojournalist for Picture Post (initially under the pseudonym Dick Muir) from 1951 until it closed in 1957. She was often allocated commissions about women’s lives. Her 1955 images of childbirth were truly pioneering and she later remarked that ‘I felt I was an observer of society. I never thought about my presence in it. My driving force in photographing women was to find out what made them tick.’

Photograph of women from ‘Mothers’ Day Off’, Picture Post 1954
From ‘Mothers’ Day Off’, Picture Post 1954. Image courtesy of Grace Robertson

Grace went on to work for other British and American publications including Life, retraining as a teacher in the mid-1960s, and only returning to photography in the 1980s. Latterly she lectured on women photographers and published an autobiographical monograph, entitled Grace Robertson – Photojournalist of the ‘50s. Shirley Read, another OHBP interviewer, remembers that Grace was also the Chair of ‘Signals, the Festival of Women Photographers’ in 1996, and ‘she could be formidable in that role’. In retirement she and Thurston moved to Seaford in Sussex where he died aged 101 in 2014.

Grace Robertson was interviewed by Alan Dein in 1993 for An Oral History of British Photography.

Blogpost by Dr Rob Perks, Lead Curator of Oral History @BL_OralHistory

17 December 2020

Public libraries in a pandemic year

Add comment

Hand drawn collage illustration of people using a public libraryLiving Libraries Project Illustration

In the last days of January, as the first two Covid-19 cases were confirmed in the UK, I visited Newcastle City Library. I shared the lift with a tired-looking man hugging a rolled-up sleeping bag. He’d lost his job as a builder, and with that, his home, he told me; his mum had died suddenly and his “head was all over the place”. He was looking for Citizens Advice on the fourth floor.

In times of crisis, it turns out, people often head to their local library.

Together with my colleague Professor Shelley Trower, I spent several months in late 2019 and early 2020 visiting libraries across the UK: in Falmouth, Colliers Wood, Newcastle, Peterborough and Chester. The primary aim of our project, Living Libraries, was to investigate the changes – both positive and negative – that public libraries have gone through, particularly over the last ten years. We set out to understand and communicate something of the multifaceted, responsive nature of contemporary public libraries in the twenty-first century.

Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, run by the University of Roehampton, and supported by National Life Stories and five public libraries across the country, Living Libraries has assembled an archive of oral histories focused explicitly on public libraries and the people who use, work in, and run them. We interviewed forty-seven people in total: library assistants and Heads of Service, librarians and volunteers, security and janitorial staff, and other professionals in the sector, as well as library users of all ages. The archive, which will be made available by the British Library in 2021, preserves these voices in perpetuity – all speaking up in various ways for public libraries and their unique, and perhaps unexpectedly complex, societal role.

At Chester’s multi-million pound library and arts centre, Storyhouse, I met Jolyne, a young woman who explained how visiting the library had eased her severe anxiety and agoraphobia: without the library in her life, she said, she’d be missing “an actual life... there would be just a huge hole”.

Jolyne Thomas on Storyhouse, Chester (C1868/21)

Download Jolyne Thomas on Storyhouse Chester Transcript

Alan, a Digital Inclusion specialist who had recently taken on a new, paid role at Newcastle City Library after a long stint as a volunteer, talked me through the need for access to technology that many take for granted.

Alan Robinson on Newcastle City Library (C1868/39)

Download Alan Robinson on Newcastle City Library Transcript

In Colliers Wood Library, in South West London, I spoke to Baha, who came to the UK as an adult, teaching himself English from the autobiographies of “footballers and pop stars... Arsene Wenger, Cristiano Ronaldo, Messi, George Michael”. As the library’s security guard, he takes on some library assistant duties too, such as reshelving books, switching the computers on in the morning. Growing up in Sudan, without a public library system, Baha is now a staunch advocate for libraries: the government, he explains, “should send someone to public libraries just to listen. The elderly would come and talk to you, the young would come and talk to you. Everyone here has their own story.”

Baha Sideek on Colliers Wood Library (C1868/15)

Download Baha Sideek on Colliers Wood Library Transcript

Since my encounter in the lift in Newcastle, back in January, the pandemic has pulled everyone’s year off course. Public libraries shut their doors in March, before gradually re-opening from July, and adapting speedily to the current uncertain present: operating click-and-collect services, limiting browsing, reducing fines, making it easier to join from home. Yet, even as physical library buildings were closed, libraries and library workers continued to provide for their communities. And not only by performing the kind of public service you might anticipate: diligently sharing accurate information about Covid in the early days of the pandemic, moving toddler ‘Rhyme Times’ online from the start of lockdown, and supporting older, vulnerable or marginalised members of their communities with phone calls, e-books and audiobooks. The Dudley Home Library service distributed urgent prescription medicine. Cambridgeshire’s mobile library took hot meals to rough sleepers. In Aberdeenshire and Gateshead, libraries’ 3D printers were repurposed to make visors for Personal Protective Equipment.

The assembled voices of the Living Libraries archive illustrate that libraries are valuable not only for the vital resources they offer – accurate information, printing facilities, the internet – but for other, less tangible reasons too. For community. For comfort. Libraries are warm, safe spaces where everyone is welcome and no one has to pay. At least, that’s the ideal. Interviewees speak of a reality compromised by budget cuts, restructuring and increasing pressures stemming from other public services being closed. Many workers are, as one interviewee put it, “sick and tired of managing decline, and constantly having to find more and more, to the detriment of the service”.

Yet even as Covid-19 exacerbates an already stretched and difficult situation, libraries continue to provide a space for all kinds of people to come together, even briefly, virtually, or at a distance. People take problems of all shapes and sizes to the library – personal, practical, environmental, epistemological – searching for answers, advice or support that they are often unable to access anywhere else. “Libraries are alive”, Jayne from Falmouth Library told us – and they’re essential to our post-pandemic future.

Blog by Dr Sarah Pyke, formerly Impact and Engagement Officer for the AHRC-funded Living Libraries project, University of Roehampton, which ran from 2019 to 2020. To find out more about the project, please visit the Living Libraries project website or search C1868 at the Sound and Moving Image catalogue.

Oral History of Jazz in Britain: Max Jones interviews Adelaide Hall

Add comment

By Sarah Coggrave, Data Protection and Rights Clearance Officer, Unlocking Our Sound Heritage (UOSH) Project.

In 1988, jazz author, radio host and journalist Max Jones (1917–1993) interviewed jazz singer Adelaide Hall (1901–1993) for the British Library project Oral History of Jazz in Britain (British Library ref. C122). The audio recording of this interview has recently been cleared for online release as part of our National Lottery Heritage Fund-supported Unlocking Our Sound Heritage (UOSH) project. Previous blogs about this collection focused on Kathy Stobart, Major James Howe and Champion Jack Dupree.

Adelaide Hall was born in 1901, in Brooklyn, New York, where her father, a piano teacher, introduced her to music from an early age. Hall describes an upbringing filled with musicians, instruments and music. Sadly she lost both her father and sister at a young age, and sought out work to support her mother. Her early successes in theatre enabled her to do this, and more.

In her interview with Max Jones, Hall describes three of the professional jobs that kick-started her career. The first, Shuffle Along, was a hit Broadway musical by Noble Sissie and Eubie Blake, which according to Hall, involved some dancing and a few leading parts. This was performed in New York in 1921. She later became part of an all-black revue called Chocolate Kiddies, and the group toured Europe in 1925. Some of the songs were written by Duke Ellington, with whom she would later collaborate on a career-defining recording of the song Creole Love Call in 1927. In this excerpt from the interview, she describes how this came about.

Adelaide Hall - excerpt 1

Download Adelaide Hall and Max Jones transcript - excerpt 1

The third show that helped to cement Hall’s reputation as a performer was the Blackbirds production of 1928. Based on a production staged in London in 1926, starring Florence Mills, Blackbirds was created by Lew Leslie, who planned to develop the show on Broadway. However, his main star, Mills, died in 1927, aged just 31. Adelaide Hall took her place and became one of the show’s biggest stars in 1928, along with Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson, who she is pictured with below.

Adelaide Hall and Bill 'Bojangles' Robinson

Adelaide Hall with Bill Robinson. Image from the Richmond Planet, 15 November 1930, sourced via Wikimedia Commons and licensed by CC-SA 4.0.

Blackbirds, like Chocolate Kiddies, took Hall back to Europe. This time her destination was the famous Moulin Rouge in Paris, France, where the show was a great success. She then spent much of the early 1930s on tour, both in Europe and in the U.S.A. on the RKO circuit. During this period Hall performed at the renowned Cotton Club, as well as being accompanied by a young Art Tatum on the piano, before he found fame. She recalls encouraging Tatum to accept his first big offer, in spite of knowing that she would lose a fine accompanist in the process.

Hall's accompanists also included Francis Carter and Bernard Edison, and the piano, as an object, became an important stage prop, when Hall began to request not one, but two pianos on stage when she performed.

Adelaide Hall - excerpt 2

Download Adelaide Hall and Max Jones transcript - excerpt 2

Adelaide Hall cites her husband Bert Hicks (1924-1963), a British sailor born in Trinidad and Tobago, as a major support and collaborator in her career. Together they devised clever, creative ways to present her performances, and thanks to his language skills (which included French), they were able to buy and run a club called the Big Apple (La Grosse Pomme) in France. Between 1935 and 1938 the couple made this venue into a success with visitors and locals alike. Hall was the resident star, performing a cabaret show nightly. Here she describes making a dramatic entrance, from a spiral staircase repurposed by her husband:

Adelaide Hall - excerpt 3

Download Adelaide Hall and Max Jones transcript - excerpt 3

Such was Hall's popularity, it would not have been practical to keep the club open without her, so when she decided to take up performance opportunities in the U.K., her husband came with her and they closed the club in 1938. They soon found a new home in the Old Havana Club in London, which they took over and renamed the Florida Club.

However, this new life in the UK had a turbulent start, and coincided with the start of the Second World War. The couple’s club was destroyed by a landmine in 1939, and Hall remembers an eerie premonition before the event, which earned her the nickname 'Miss Ouija Board'. Feeling somehow that something bad was about to happen, she told everyone to leave the club. Her husband Bert was in the cellar when the explosion occurred, although miraculously survived.

In spite of the war, Hall’s career continued to go from strength to strength, with recordings, performances, broadcasts and even her own radio show with the BBC. She appeared in an Oscar-winning film (The Thief of Baghdad), and later added television appearances to her credits. The interview also covers her stage performances in the 1950s, including Kiss Me Kate and Love From Judy, as well as the Duke Ellington Memorial and Eubie Blake's 99th birthday. She describes visiting Billie Holiday shortly before the talented singer’s premature death, as well as her friendship with Louis Armstrong and his then wife Lil.

At the time of the interview, conducted in 1988, Hall would have been in her eighties, and was still actively performing, with plans to record an album the following year. She describes having to take more care with health and sleep, but otherwise feeling as fit as a woman in her fifties!

The interview reveals a warm, funny and talented artist, with a great zest for life. In one of many touching moments she sings a song with friend and interviewer Max Jones and suggests they have a drink together.

I would like to thank Nick Jones for help with the rights to this collection (you can read more about Max Jones’s work on the Max Jones Archive web site), and would encourage everyone to check out Adelaide Hall's remarkable career. The British Library’s collections include other interviews, copies of Hall’s many recordings and even some recordings of live performances, as well as Iain Cameron Williams’s book Underneath a Harlem Moon: The Harlem to Paris Years of Adelaide Hall (2002). Materials about her life and work can be found in various archives, including Indiana University (U.S.), Yale University Library and Archives (U.S.) and the National Jazz Archives in the U.K.

11 December 2020

The untold story of the birth of World Wide Web: putting the record straight

Add comment

Tim Berners-Lee's original CERN proposal with the 'Vague but exciting...' annotationTim Berners-Lee's original CERN proposal with the 'Vague but exciting...' annotation. Source: http://info.cern.ch/Proposal.html

In 1984 the CERN scientist Dr Elsie ‛Peggie’ Rimmer made a staff appointment that would change history. She helped recruit a young British computer scientist named Tim Berners-Lee to join her group. A rare woman physicist in a male dominated field, Peggie was an expert in computer standards and became Berners-Lee’s supervisor during the years when he was developing his concept of a World Wide Web. In 2019 Peggie recorded her life story for An Oral History of British Science, covering her memories of the birth of the web, and a short interview for the latest National Life Stories Annual Review.

Peggie Rimmer on her role in the history of the World Wide Web (C1379/135/06)

Download Peggie Rimmer on her role in the history of the World Wide Web Transcript

There are lots of good ideas that never get the time, resources or chance to change the world. But over the 1980s Peggie and group leader Mike Sendall, later her husband, created an environment that nurtured Berners-Lee’s early work on the Web and gave him the opportunity to get his idea off the ground. As Peggie recalled:

“CERN was a physics lab, not a computing lab. But the ground there was fertile because of the need for global interworking and I was a champion of computing standardisation, perhaps the strongest one at CERN, so it was a good place for Tim to be. That’s what the Web is, a standard way of sharing information all around the world. Mike and I together somehow made it possible for Tim to do his work. Not technically, but actually. We kept it quiet and got him what he needed. Mike, in charge of the purse strings, got Tim the NeXT computer that he used for the Web stuff, encouraged him, and I gave Tim suitable jobs, sent him off to relevant meetings and so on. Somebody had to do that.”

Peggie Rimmer in 2019, indicating her Read-Out Architecture RA section on the first of the three proposals for what became the World Wide WebPeggie Rimmer in 2019, indicating her Read-Out Architecture RA section on the first of the three proposals for what became the World Wide Web. Source: Peggie Rimmer

In March 1989 Berners-Lee’s first draft proposal for what would eventually become the World Wide Web landed Sendall’s desk. In the corner Sendall jotted a phrase that has entered the history books as the understatement of the century: “vague but exciting…” But as Peggie now reveals, it was never a comment that was meant to be seen, and in the crucial months that followed personal revelations and tragedy would see Peggie and Sendall unexpectedly step back from an idea that was about to change the world. It is a story that has remained untold until now:

“In April 1989 Mike told me that he thought he was gay – though we didn’t use that word then – homosexual…. in the ‘80s it was not the sort of thing that you easily discussed or admitted, not in Europe. It was tough. We considered what Mike should do… After a week or two had passed in turmoil, I said to Mike, ‘Would you please go through Tim’s proposal [the first draft of his proposal for the Web, though it wasn’t called that yet] because he’s waiting for your answer’. Mike did that and on the cover page he wrote what has become a worldwide slogan ‘Vague but exciting...’ We looked at it together and I said, ‘Right now, how am I going to put a phrase like that to some guy? I cannot discuss it with Tim’. So Mike agreed to change it… But a short while later he was diagnosed with a form of bone cancer and given 18 months to two years to live. So that rather changed things. And once again – [you] don’t tell anybody because when you’re dying your career is finished.”

“The reason that Tim’s first proposal was not shown to him - Mike’s troubles - was immensely important to me. And also it left me looking rather peculiar as I walked away from everything. Almost no one, and most people still, have no idea why that happened, and I don’t wish to go down in history as someone who chickened out because she wasn’t up to it!.. The fact that the document was later published, after Mike was dead and without my knowledge, including ‘Vague but exciting …’ now printed on T-shirts, distressed me no end because Mike had promised me he wouldn’t show that to Tim, and he didn’t. And because it’s history, it’s important. If there is someone still alive who can tell it like it really was and there is no other witness to what happened, then they should tell it. Even Tim didn’t know.”

To find out more, read Peggie’s article in the latest NLS Annual Review (pp.28-29). Her full life story interview can be found by searching C1379/135 at the Sound and Moving Image catalogue and can be listened to onsite at the British Library at St Pancras and at Boston Spa by contacting the Listening and Viewing Service.

Blogpost by Tom Lean

07 December 2020

Recording of the week: Screaming Lord Sutch talks Cyprus, Tony Blair and an open top dome

Add comment

This week's selection comes from George Brierley, Audio Project Cataloguer for Unlocking our Sound Heritage.

If current world politics are getting you down, this recording provides a fun and fascinating glimpse into the quirky world of UK politics and pop culture. David Edward Sutch (1940-1999), better known as Screaming Lord Sutch, was an English rock musician and politician. His macabre but tongue-in-cheek rock act involved dressing up as Jack the Ripper and emerging from a coffin on stage (he didn’t always emerge – he once got trapped inside it!). His political career began when he stood against Harold Wilson in 1963, but it wasn’t until he founded the Official Monster Raving Loony Party in 1983 that he rose to widespread political fame.

Black and white photograph of Screaming Lord Sutch
Above: A young Sutch in his famous leopard-print suit and top hat

C955: Radio Napa is a British Library Pop Music collection consisting of one item: a seven minute telephone interview with Sutch recorded onto minidisc by Radio Napa, an English language radio station based in Ayia Napa, Cyprus. In the interview, Sutch talks to presenter Nathan Morley about his relationships with several prime ministers, including Harold Wilson, Ted Heath, Margaret Thatcher, and John Major (he is especially complimentary about Wilson and Major). He also explains the current agenda of the Loony Party: replacing the pound with the Loony pound and Loony million pound note, and moving the Millennium Dome to Cyprus – open top, of course!

In the short but funny excerpt below, Sutch refers to Tony Blair’s 1997 landslide election victory:

BL C955 excerpt

The interview was recorded on 9 June 1999, and is the last known interview with Sutch before his death. He committed suicide on 16 June 1999, exactly one week after this was recorded. He sounds remarkably upbeat in the recording as he reminisces about the past and discusses his future plans. He seems to have a genuine fondness for the country and people of Cyprus, and speaks with enthusiasm about his desire to perform a live gig on the island in the not too distant future. This interview provides a brief but important insight into Sutch’s personality. He comes across as passionate, kind-hearted and quick-witted. This is how he should be remembered.

The full recording has been digitised as part of the British Library’s Unlocking our Sound Heritage project, funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund.

UOSH_Footer_2019_Magenta (004)

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

20 November 2020

Nazis on trial: Nuremberg 75 years ago

Add comment

Seventy-five years ago today, on 20 November 1945, the first of the Nuremberg trials began in the German city that had been the setting for the huge Nazi rallies addressed by Adolf Hitler in the 1930s. The military tribunals, presided over by judges from Britain, the US, France and the Soviet Union, aimed to prosecute prominent members of the political, military, judicial, and economic leadership of Nazi Germany who had carried out the Holocaust and other war crimes during the Second World War.

Amongst the twenty-four defendants were Hermann Goering, Hitler’s chosen successor, Rudolf Hess, Joachim von Ribbentrop and Albert Speer. Twelve were eventually sentenced to death, seven received prison sentences, three were acquitted, and in two cases there was no decision.

Hartley Shawcross (1902-2003) was the lead British prosecutor at Nuremberg and was interviewed by Kathy Burk for National Life Stories in 1991. His opening speech in July 1946 lasted two days and in this clip he particularly remembers Hermann Goering, and offers some tips on the art of effective courtroom cross-examination.

Hartley Shawcross describes Hermann Goering (C465/05) 

Download Transcript – Hartley Shawcross describes Hermann Goering

Goering was found guilty but committed suicide the night before his scheduled execution, begging the question whether he had escaped justice.

Image of Nuremberg Trials defendants in the dock 1945Nuremberg defendants in the dock on 22 November 1945. Centre row, left to right: Hermann Goering, Joachim von Ribbentrop, Wilhelm Keitel, and Alfred Rosenberg. Back row, left to right: Karl Doenitz, Erich Raeder, Baldur von Schirach, Fritz Sauckel, and Alfred Jodl. Image courtesy of the Harvard Law School Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. United States Army Signal Corps photographer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Nuremberg trials were a milestone in international criminal law, whereby individuals and organisations were held accountable for terrible crimes against humanity. They paved the way to the establishment of a permanent international court, which has dealt with later instances of genocide and war crimes.

Shawcross was later Attorney General in the 1945 Attlee's Labour government and successfully prosecuted British fascist and Nazi propagandist William Joyce ('Lord Haw-Haw'), the last person to be hanged for treason in the UK.

Hartley Shawcross's oral history recording was digitised from cassette as part of the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project.

Blogpost by Dr Rob Perks, Lead Curator of Oral History @BL_OralHistory

08 November 2020

An interview with Major James Howe

Add comment

By Sarah Coggrave, Data Protection and Rights Clearance Officer, Unlocking Our Sound Heritage Project.

In 1996, Les Back (Professor of Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London), interviewed Major James Howe, MBE (1917- 2005), a musician and bandleader who led a dance band in a German POW (prisoner of war) camp during the Second World War.

Major Howe with his band in Berlin  1943

Above: Major Howe (centre, kneeling) with his band in Berlin, 1943. Used with permission from Alan Howe (photographer unknown).

The audio recording of this interview is  now part of the British Library collection, Oral history of Jazz in Britain. It has recently been cleared for online release as part of the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project.

The interview brings to life a fascinating tale of creativity and survival against the odds. This blog post features selected excerpts.

James Howe in London  November 1943

Above: James Howe in London, November 1943. Used with permission from Alan Howe (photographer unknown).

James Howe was born in County Durham, UK on November 11, 1917 - exactly one year before Armistice Day. The son of a brass band conductor and miner, Howe grew up in a musical family. He and his brothers played in his father’s band, and his mother taught him the piano at the age of nine.

He left school at fifteen to become band boy in the Royal Scots Regiment. He was among the first UK soldiers to be sent abroad in 1939 when the Second World War broke out, and he served as a stretcher bearer in Belgium and then France. His duties were cut short in Le Paradis, Northern France when his regiment came under fire from German soldiers in May 1940. He was lucky to escape alive – many soldiers were killed or wounded here during the Battle of Le Paradis and the subsequent massacre.

Howe and his fellow captives were marched through France, Belgium and Holland to reach a prison camp in Lamsdorf (then in Germany but now in Poland), which is now known as Łambinowice. In the following excerpt from the interview he describes this harrowing journey.

James Howe describes his journey to Lamsdorf

Download A transcript of excerpt one

Camp life in Lamsdorf was initially very difficult for Howe and his fellow POWs. In the interview he talks about sleeping on straw, problems with lice and an insubstantial diet (a bowl of soup and five black potatoes per day). Salvation eventually came when the Red Cross started sending parcels to the camp. First food, and then materials for recreation, including books, sports equipment, and, miraculously, instruments. In this next interview excerpt Howe describes what a difference these deliveries made to camp life.

James Howe describes Red Cross deliveries to the camp

Download A transcript of excerpt two

Thanks to the arrival of instruments, and records to transcribe music from, Howe ended up conducting his very own dance band in the camp. This, and the evolution of camp entertainment, was a testament to the ingenuity of all concerned. In the camp were individuals with backgrounds in stage work, carpentry and music. They built their own camp theatre, created a ticketing system and had concert parties. Prisoners danced foxtrots and waltzes with one another, and found solace in music that reminded them of home.

In the next excerpt from the interview, Howe provides some insights into the mechanics of the camp entertainment system.

James Howe describes camp entertainment

Download A transcript of excerpt three

He also describes some touching moments of shared interests with the German guards at the camp, including one who invited him to his hut to listen to records. Another guard heard Howe playing the accordion, so brought his own violin so that the two could play together in his hut. According to Howe, the guard said:
'If Churchill and Hitler could see you and I now, there wouldn’t be any wars'.

Unusually, Howe’s POW band were even escorted to Berlin, Germany to play for fellow POWs at another camp, and in 1943, Howe, as a stretcher bearer and early arrival at the camp, was fortunate enough to be included in a repatriation agreement, which took him home to the UK via Sweden, with other similarly fortunate POWs. News of the POW band had travelled, and well-known UK band leader Billy Cotton helped to get them featured on BBC Radio.

In his interview, Howe remembers frantically telegraphing all his POW bandmates to reunite them in London for the performance. In 1944 he was sent back to France with his regiment, before finishing the war in Hamburg, Germany in 1945.

After returning home, Howe studied at the Royal Military School of Music in Twickenham, UK, and was appointed Bandmaster of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders in 1949. His military band career took him all over the world, and as a band leader (later Director of Music of the Scots Guards) he travelled as far afield as the US, New Zealand, Australia and Hong Kong.

After his military career, Howe conducted the BBC Concert Orchestra, featuring on radio programmes such as Friday Night Is Music Night and Melodies For You.

Colour photo of James Howe

Above: James Howe, pictured towards the end of his life. Used with permission from Alan Howe.

Howe retired to Eastbourne, UK and channelled his musical talents into organ and conducting duties, as well as starting the massed band concerts at Croydon, UK in 1974, and organising POW reunion concerts. He continued to be actively involved with music until very late in his life (in the interview he demonstrates his skills on the cornet) and a plaque dedicated to his memory is installed at Eastbourne bandstand. After Howe passed away in 2005, his ashes were buried in the cemetery in Le Paradis, in accordance with his wishes.

06 October 2020

What if your home had ears?

Add comment

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.