THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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95 posts categorized "Interviews"

18 September 2019

Ernö Goldfinger at Open House 2019

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‘He was rational about absolutely everything, down to how you sharpened your pencil.’

British architects and architecture in Britain have long been affected by influences from overseas. In the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, a traditional training was based on the classical architecture of Greece and Rome and students spent hours painstakingly copying capitals and columns. Classical orders from the Encyclopedie, engravings of capitals and columns

Capitals and columns. Classical orders, engraving from the Encyclopédie vol. 18. 18th-century French engraving, 1761

By the early twentieth century, some architects responded to the technological changes occurring in infrastructure, communications and engineering. They argued that architecture should reflect these changes by using new forms and materials, and by mirroring how people lived in the present, rather than looking to the past. In this period, Britain experienced the arrival of a small but significant wave of European architects such as Berthold Lubetkin and Serge Chermayeff from Russia, and Ernö Goldfinger from Hungary. These architects created some of the most important buildings of the modern movement in Britain: Highpoint in Highgate, the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill and Willow Road in Hampstead. A small and inter-connected group, they knew each other and even lived in each other’s houses. Ernö Goldfinger lived in Highpoint in North London before creating his family home nearby at 2 Willow Road. This home, built in 1939, received much public criticism when built, but has now become a local landmark and was opened to the public in 1996. Iris Strachan remembers her first visit to the house, ‘it was a revelation!’

Iris Strachan describes 2 Willow Road (C467/60)

2 Willow Road, Hampstead. Photographed by Niamh Dillon.

2 Willow Road, Hampstead. Photographed by Niamh Dillon.

Later, after the Second World War, Goldfinger designed larger residential blocks in London, notably the Trellick and Balfron Towers, both of which are open as part of Open House 2019. Often fiercely criticised when built, Goldfinger’s works are now increasingly in demand both as homes and visitor attractions. Here, long-time collaborator Jacob Blacker recalls working with Goldfinger, ‘he was a geometrician’.

Jacob Blacker describes Goldfinger as a geometrician (C467/52)

Trellick Tower. Photographed by Mark Ramsay.

Trellick Tower. Photographed courtesy Mark Ramsay. Licensed under CC BY 2.0

Open House London takes place this weekend, 21-22 September 2019. Hundreds of buildings will be open to the public for free – including five designed by Ernö Goldfinger (1902-1987). For information about visiting 2 Willow Road see the National Trust website. For information about visiting Trellick Tower see the Open House London website.

Blog by Dr Niamh Dillon, Architects' Lives Project Interviewer

09 September 2019

Recording of the week: representing Britain at the Venice Biennale

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

Every two years since 1895 the Venice Biennale has been bringing together artists from across the globe to take part in an almighty exhibition. This year is the 58th exhibition, and 89 countries are taking part. For our Recording of the Week we’re returning to 1956, when Lynn Chadwick (1914-2003) won the International Prize for Sculpture.

Chadwick was described as the ‘breakthrough artist’ when he first exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 1952, and in 1956, Alan Bowness described him as ‘a figure of international artistic importance’.[1]

Lynn Chadwick, surrounded by sculptures, at his home in GloucestershireLynn Chadwick, surrounded by sculptures, at home in Lypiatt Park, Gloucestershire, where his Artists' Lives recording took place. Courtesy Cathy Courtney.

Despite being awarded such a prestigious prize, when asked about the Biennale Chadwick’s response is humble. Clearly delighted for his work to be exhibited internationally, he remembers how it felt to be the centre of attention.

Lynn Chadwick on the Venice Biennale and the life of an artist (C466/28)

The second half of this audio extract comes from a different part of Chadwick’s interview – and reveals a different side to the life of an artist. Chadwick recalls a conversation shared with German surrealist Max Ernst, and reflects on how artists fall in and out of fashion.

Lynn Chadwick CBE RA was interviewed for the National Life Stories project Artists’ Lives in 1995. Despite his wish to go to art school, which was refused by his parents, Chadwick began his working life in an architect’s office through a placement organised by his school headmaster. He trained to be an architectural draughtsman before realising that he would not succeed as an architect, and after the war moved to a small cottage in Gloucestershire where he began experimenting with mobiles (partly inspired by the work of fellow artist Alexander Calder). Gradually Chadwick’s work became more fixed as he developed his own techniques for working with metal, and is he known today for his distinctive sculptures in bronze and steel.

These clips and image are taken from Michael Bird’s essay, ‘Opening up to international influences: British art in the 20th century’ on the website Voices of art.

[1] UK Artists at the Venice Biennale in the 1950s. British Council.

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

19 August 2019

Recording of the week: securing the right to read

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

Along with many other libraries around the world, the British Library celebrated LGBTQ+ Pride this summer, with staff from St Pancras and Boston Spa joining the parades in York and London.

This Recording of the Week takes us back to 1985, when Pride was a very different kind of event with a much stronger political tone. With around 10,000 people in attendance, the 1985 march was considered to be the biggest to date. In comparison, an estimated 1.5 million people gathered in central London to mark the annual parade this year.

This recording comes from a collection of brief street interviews conducted at the 1985 Pride March, through which we can gain an insight into the atmosphere of the event and the thoughts and preoccupations of those attending. A recurring concern were the raids and seizure of imported books by UK Customs and Excise, which most famously involved independent bookseller Gay’s the Word in Bloomsbury, but also affected other organisations that sold or distributed gay and lesbian reading material. More than one hundred imported titles were deemed ‘indecent or obscene’ under the 1876 Customs Consolidation Act, and confiscated.

Photograph of rows of books in a bookshopPhoto of neatly stacked books placed in front of a wall of bookshelves by Jessica Ruscello on Unsplash. Click here to view image credit.

In this short clip, a marcher from the Gay Christian Movement, a charity founded in 1976, describes the impact  of this state censorship and the expensive legal battle against it, and shares their thoughts on our right as people in a free society to read and, most importantly, to choose what we read.

Securing the right to read (C456/121)

Both the Gay Christian Movement and Gay’s the Word faced charges of conspiring to import indecent material, but mounted successful opposition to these acts of repression with the strong support of both authors and publishers and the wider community of readers.

Technology has altered the way in which many of us engage with and access reading material, but the sense of community and solidarity that can be created through literature, particularly for LGBTQ+ and other marginalised populations, remains just as important. This theme will be explored over several events at the British Library in the upcoming season, including Banned Books Week in September, which examines censorship and other barriers to self-expression. More information and tickets can be found on our events page.

Discover more LGBTQ history at the British Library.

This recording belongs to the Hall Carpenter Oral History Archive, which has been digitised as part of the British Library's Unlocking our Sound Heritage project

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

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12 August 2019

Recording of the week: women conscientious objectors of WW2

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

C880 is a fabulously intriguing collection of interviews, conducted by Rena Feld, of twenty-nine women who either were or are conscientious objectors. Their reasons varied – religious, moral, political – but they held firm in the belief that war, for any reason, was intrinsically wrong.

Before I began listening to this collection, my knowledge of conscientious objectors during the Second World War was limited. I just knew they were men.

Weirdly, the concept of women conscientious objectors never occurred to me, simply for the reason that they were exempt from conscription. What I didn’t know though, was that any single woman between the ages of 20 and 30 could be called upon to report for war work.[1]

British Women's Land Army recruitment posterBritish Women's Land Army recruitment poster, depicting a woman with pitchfork, captioned 'For a healthy, happy job join the Women's Land Army', circa 1940 (via Wikimedia Commons)

Some found that this was in direct opposition to their personal beliefs and refused. The results varied from fines to job loss and for some, like Barbara Roads (C880/02), imprisonment. And then there are others, like Angela Sinclair-Loutit (C880/23) who worked in war hospitals during air raids.

All of the interviews in this collection have some great stories behind them. They really highlight what living and working during WW2 was like, as seen through the eyes of people who just wanted peace. However, I would like to talk about just one of these women.

Enter Diana McClelland (C880/04).

Diana McClelland  (C880/04)

Diana McClelland was a physiotherapist, so exempt from war work summons, who specialised in treating children. From her interview, it’s not clear whether or not she actually managed to register as a conscientious objector, but she definitely wanted to.

During the Battle of Britain, there was a Government supported organisation called the Children’s Overseas Reception Board (C.O.R.B). This group evacuated children to the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, with the plan that when the war was over they would return home to their families.[2] 

In 1940, in her own words, Diana just wanted a short holiday to Canada. So, she boarded a C.O.R.B ship as a volunteer to accompany the children. Unfortunately, she boarded the SS Volendam and never made it to Canada.[3]

Auxiliary Territorial Services recruitment posterAuxiliary Territorial Services (ATS) recruitment poster (The National Archives via Wikimedia Commons)

Spoiler alert: she did make it to Glasgow and none of the kids on board were lost.

The ship was torpedoed by the German submarine U-60, and the passengers and crew had to be evacuated and rescued by the accompanying ships. She gives quite a frank description of the events; the ship listing, waiting for the lifeboats, of the crew shouting in Dutch and the children oblivious to the danger. According to the captain, it was the most orderly evacuation he’d ever overseen, something he attributed to the passengers not knowing Dutch. 

When Diana McClelland returned to Glasgow, holiday attempt foiled, she was asked if she would be willing to try again.

Naturally, she said yes.

The only reason she didn’t was because by the time she was meant to sail, the SS City of Benares had also been attacked, this time with a large number of casualties.[4]

I won't lie, if I’d been on a torpedoed ship I don’t think I’d be willing to run the risk again. No matter how pretty Canada is. Which I suppose means these women were braver than I’ll ever be, and I admire that.

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[1] Women of the Second World War https://www.gov.uk/government/news/the-women-of-the-second-world-war

[2] National Archives Catalogue https://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/r/C493

[3] BBC WW2 People’s Archive newspaper https://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ww2peopleswar/stories/34/a4297034.shtml

[4] “Remembering the SS City of Benares tragedy 70 years on” by Michelle Murphy, BBC News, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-merseyside-11332108

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

This recording has been digitised as part of the library's Unlocking our Sound Heritage project.

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09 August 2019

The nightingale sings again - the life, career, and recordings of Beatrice Harrison

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Beatrice Harrison with celloBeatrice Harrison with cello (BL Collections)

Guest blog by Edison Fellow Chas Helge who is currently writing his dissertation on Beatrice Harrison

Suddenly, the door opened and the King came in. He was quite alone. He came up to me… saying, 'Nightingale, nightingale,' he said, 'you have done what I have not yet been able to do. You have encircled the empire with the song of the nightingale with your cello.'

These are the words spoken by the cello virtuoso Beatrice Harrison (1892-1965) in 1955 for the BBC Home Service programme Scrapbook for 1924. Harrison, who was once a household name at the height of Great Britain’s colonial empire, lent her first-hand account to help create an historical snapshot of 1924. The monarch she is referencing is King George V. This interview is just one of the rare resources found in the Sound and Moving Image collection at the British Library. My Edison Fellowship facilitated travel to London to access this and many more primary sources for my dissertation exploring the career, life, and recordings of this outstanding early 20th century performer.

Beatrice Harrison’s development was meteoric. She was second of four prodigiously talented sisters: May, Beatrice, Margaret, and Monica. Their early musical studies were supervised by their firebrand of a mother, Annie Harrison. Annie was a talented amateur singer and pianist, and perhaps because she was not able to pursue a musical career herself, mobilized all of her family’s resources to the careers of her children as professional musicians. One of the most fascinating windows into the Harrison family’s lives are their practice journals. The girls were expected to keep meticulous records to document every hour of every day’s productivity. Annie’s devotion and tenacity paid off. Beatrice received exceptional training at the Royal College of Music, the Frankfurt Hoch Conservatory, and the Hochschule für Musik in Berlin. While studying with the famous German cello pedagogue Hugo Becker (1863-1941), she won the Mendelssohn Prize at age seventeen.

In their early 20s, Beatrice and her elder sister May Harrison toured Europe and Russia performing the Brahms Concerto for Violin and Cello some fifty-nine times. During their travels, they met Gabriel Fauré, Sergei Rachmaninov, Alexander Glazunov, Gustav Holst, and David Popper. The Harrison sisters also brushed shoulders with the world’s political elite including European royalty, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, and in England, King George V and his sister Princess Victoria. 

Beatrice and May HarrisonBeatrice and May Harrison (BL Collections)

Beatrice became close friends with Princess Victoria, so close, that it was Princess Victoria who paid for Harrison’s beloved cello, the great ‘Pietro Guarnieri’.  In August 1928 HMV made some private recordings for the Princess.  Here is one of the third movement of Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E Minor featuring Beatrice on the cello and Princess Victoria accompanying her on the piano.

Elgar Adagio with Princess Victoria

Another recording, which can be heard at the British Library, is an interview conducted in 1986 with Margaret Harrison (1899-1995), Beatrice’s younger sister. Margaret herself was a prodigy as the youngest pupil of the Royal College of Music (age 4) and her piano skills were extensive enough that she toured with Beatrice in the United States (they even made it to Texas). Here, we can listen to Margaret create a portal, not only into the life of the Harrison family, but also into the private life of Princess Victoria.

Margaret Harrison interview

Harrison’s greatest claims to fame straddle two different sides of the music world during the 1920s. Today, Harrison’s legacy endures for her recordings of the Elgar Cello Concerto recorded under the baton of Sir Edward Elgar himself. She was his preferred cellist for the concerto and he credited her for popularizing it after its disastrous premiere.  They first recorded it together in 1919 and 1920 by the old acoustic process.

Elgar and Beatrice Harrison recording for HMV in 1920Elgar and Beatrice Harrison recording for HMV in 1920

A new recording was made by the electric process on 23rd March 1928 where two turntables were recording simultaneously.  Using modern digital technology, these two recordings made at the same session have been combined to create a new stereo version.  It also stands as the most accurate representation of what Elgar intended his famous concerto to express.

Elgar Cello Concerto 1928

The second contribution Harrison made was as an international radio superstar.  In 1924, she had a 'hard tussle' (her words) to convince managing director of the BBC Sir John Reith to have sound engineers go to her garden near Oxted in Surrey.  Her vision was to recreate on live radio what she had successfully accomplished herself many times: marry the rich sound of her cello with the song of the nightingale.  In the dark, positioned under an oak tree, surrounded by rabbits, microphones, and wires, Harrison performed Rimsky-Korsakov’s Chant Hindu accompanied by the sound of nightingales to a radio audience of a million people.  Four years later she recreated this for the HMV microphone.

Chant Hindu

HMV label of B2470Label of HMV B 2470 (BL Collections)

Meanwhile, the live broadcast was a hit. It was the first time the BBC had broadcast the sound of birds in their natural habitat. Harrison received more than fifty thousand fan letters and welcomed hundreds of visitors to her estate from every corner of the British Empire. They all hoped to meet ‘The Lady of the Nightingales.’ Harrison and the BBC recreated their broadcast every springtime for twelve consecutive years and later, in the 1955 Scrapbook programme mentioned above.  Here is an excerpt from that broadcast describing what happened in 1924 and ending with her recollection of the King's comments mentioned above.

Scrapbook for 1924 excerpt

Harrison’s success even led to her appearing as herself in the 1943 British propaganda film The Demi-Paradise, and extraordinary scene where she plays in a garden with nightingales during an air raid for a radio broadcast.

Harrison embraced her status as an international British cultural icon and thus named her memoir The Cello and the Nightingales

As an American, the Edison Fellowship was my ticket to accessing not only the British Library’s resources, but many institutions and individuals in London. The Harrison Sisters’ scores at the Royal College of Music and Harrison’s correspondence (contracts, internal memos, and letters) with the BBC at their archives in Caversham. Both the RCM and the BBC Archives were so very kind and helpful, especially the RCM librarians who made dozens of trips into the basement to pull up heavy boxes of music, I thank you for helping this helpless American. 

While in London, I was privileged to meet the two leading Beatrice Harrison historians, David Candlin, Chairman of the Harrison Sisters Trust and Patricia Cleveland-Peck, author of many beloved children’s books and the annotator/editor of Beatrice’s autobiography, The Cello and the Nightingales. David was kind enough to invite me into his home and show me the Harrisons' church and graves and the Music House in Surrey. He also provided access to documents and countless photos I had never seen before. 

Special thanks to Jonathan Summers at the British Library Sound Archive who manages the Edison Fellowships for help and guidance during my stay in London, and for accompanying me in Anton Rubinstein’s Cello Sonata and a Beatrice Harrison manuscript!  Finally, thanks to Cheryl Tipp, curator of Wildlife & Environmental Sounds, for the use of a recording studio to finish the transcriptions of the recorded interviews. 

Thanks to Somm Recordings for permission to use the Elgar recordings

For all the latest news follow @BL_Classical

19 July 2019

Memories of the Moon Landing

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50 years ago, on 20th July 1969 Apollo 11 landed on the Moon and astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to walk on its surface. Live television pictures broadcast from the Moon turned this into a global event, memories of which are captured in numerous interviews held in the British Library Oral History collections. This blog explores just a few of the diverse perspectives on this event that these interviews reveal.

Earth Rising over the Moon's Horizon, Credit: NASA

Earth Rising over the Moon's Horizon, Credit: NASA

Gerald Myers (b. 1934) was interviewed by Jill Wormsley for the Millennium Memory Bank. He recalls that for those of his generation who grew up rarely travelling far from home, the idea of people visiting the Moon seemed ‘incredible’. This was certainly not something he expected to happen in his lifetime. For others such as Paul Ward (b. 1962), interviewed by Wendy Rickard in 2007 for the HIV/AIDS Testimonies project, watching the Moon landing was integral to his recollections of family life in the late 1960s alongside memories of family meals and birthdays.

Materials scientist Julia King (b. 1954) interviewed by Thomas Lean for An Oral History of British Science, recalled the Moon landings as part of a wider focus on the latest achievements in science and technology that permeated her childhood:

Julia King on the Moon landing in 1969 (C1379/43) [Track 1, 01:24:14 – 01:85:05]

‘Well I remember being taken to meet Valentina Tereshkova, who was the first woman in space, a Russian cosmonaut, and getting her autograph. She must have been speaking at Wigmore Hall or something like that. And of course there was, when I was at school, when I was at Godolphin, where we all sat in the hall to watch the Moon landings. So there was all that going on as well. It was a time of, of real, really intense time for discovery in science, and new, new things happening. And the papers were, were absolutely full of it. They weren’t full of footballers and, and, TV shows, talent shows on television and things; they were, they were full of, a lot of achievements in science.’

Julia King

Julia King, interviewed for An Oral History of British Science

One of the people behind this press coverage was Dennis Griffiths (1933-2015). Griffiths was the driving force behind An Oral History of the British Press, and was interviewed for the project by Louise Brodie in 2006. In 1969 he was a member of The Evening Standard production department. At a time when a lengthy setting up process was required to generate colour copy, the paper’s managing director Jocelyn Stevens took a gamble that the landing would be successful. The production team raced into action to pre-print a facsimile colour picture of Neil Armstrong walking on the Moon ahead of the event itself so that the paper’s front page was already in place before any official pictures were released. As Griffiths recalled:

Dennis Griffiths on the Evening Standard front page (C638/06) [Track 6, 00:10:42 – 00:11:20]

‘I mean the adrenaline was flowing and when I’ve given talks on newspapers all over the world when I come to the Moon landing and I show them the paper how it was actually done and they disbelieve that anybody would produce a national newspaper days before it happened and gamble and then absolutely slay the opposition. Yes, that was without doubt the highlight.’

Dennis Griffiths describes working on that day (C638/06) [Track 1, 02:28:53 – -2:29:10]

‘You would have paid to have worked on that day. It was the most exciting day of my career. And at the end of the day when they blasted back off, the editor Charles Wintour threw a champagne party in his office to celebrate.’

For his efforts Griffiths received a bonus cheque which he used to buy a pearl ring for his wife, Liz.

Buzz Aldrin on the Moon, Credit: NASA

Buzz Aldrin on the Moon, Credit: NASA

A sense of how the Moon landings continued to resonate many years later emerges from furniture designer Tom Dixon’s (b. 1959) interview with Frances Cornford, part of Crafts Lives. In 2004, as Creative Director of Habitat he developed a line of products in collaboration with celebrities. Most of them were prominent individuals from the creative industries or sport, but one of the more successful products in the range was ‘a moon lamp with Buzz Aldrin, you know, for kids’. Sold as the ‘Moonbuzz’, Dixon saw a clear story behind this product which strengthened its appeal with the public. It also suggests just how firmly embedded in popular culture the events of July 1969 remain.

Extracts from interviews with British Space Scientists can be found on our Voices of Science Rockets and Satellites theme page with full interviews on British Library Sounds under the subject heading space science and engineering.

Blogpost by Dr Sally Horrocks, Senior Academic Advisor, National Life Stories, British Library

10 July 2019

Partition memories and the power of oral testimony

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

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

Partition Voices book cover

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

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

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

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

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

25 June 2019

Michael Ryle and the development of the House of Commons select committee system

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Forty years ago, on 25 June 1979, members of the House of Commons debated proposals to restructure its select committee system to align with the way government departments were organised.

A Select Committee of the House of Commons in session at Portcullis House, circa 2010-12

A Select Committee of the House of Commons in session at Portcullis House, circa 2010-12. Courtesy of UK Parliament. Licence: CC BY 3.0

In the words of the then Leader of the House, Norman St John-Stevas, these reforms were intended 'to redress the balance of power to enable the House of Commons to do more effectively the job it has been elected to do'.

Calls to redress that balance went back to the early 1960s. Among the academics, parliamentary staff and parliamentarians advocating procedural reform at that time was Michael Ryle, a clerk in the House of Commons whose 40-year career culminated in becoming Clerk of Committees in the late 1980s.

Michael Ryle

Michael Ryle. Photograph courtesy of the Study of Parliament Group.

Ryle joined the House of Commons in 1951, and in his oral history interview recorded in 2003 he remembers how as a new clerk he was made to feel particularly welcome by a long-standing member of the House.

Michael Ryle on Churchill (C1135/13) [Part 2, 00:06:30 – 00:09:04]

Ryle describes his role as a founder member of the Study of Parliament Group (SPG) as one of his greatest achievements. In this clip he tells the story of how it came to be established in 1964 and early proposals for parliamentary reform.

Michael Ryle on the SPG (C1135/13) [Part 3, 00:19:16 – 00:22:46]

Within a few years some of those proposals were in motion when Richard Crossman, Leader of the House, introduced a handful of new select committees in the late 1960s. Some focused on a particular subject area, such as science and technology, but in 1979 the concept of specialist subject committees was shelved in favour of a system that mirrored government departments.

From his time serving in the Committee office, Ryle experienced first-hand how the work of committees changed. 'The main changes I saw during my working life in the Committee office­ – which was most of my life­ – was this move towards the select committees becoming much more public, much more influential, much more concerned with the policy matters, much more testing of Ministers than they were in the old days. I saw real significant changes, especially of course after 1979.' [Part 2, 00:11:40 – 00:12:11]

A recent Liaison Committee inquiry has examined the effectiveness and influence of the departmental select committee system. The committee’s chair, Dr Sarah Wollaston MP, will deliver the annual Michael Ryle Memorial Lecture at a conference being held later this week where delegates will reflect on how successful those 1979 changes have been in meeting the reformers’ original goals.

Michael Ryle was recorded for the House of Commons staff oral history project in 2003. The interviewer was Gloria Tyler, a member of the House of Commons Library staff @commonslibrary. These short extracts come from an in-depth interview which can be accessed in the British Library reading rooms. A written summary of the full interview can be word searched on the Sound and Moving Image catalogue.

Blogpost by Emmeline Ledgerwood (@EmmeLedgerwood), AHRC collaborative doctoral student with the University of Leicester and the British Library Oral History department. Her PhD research is looking at governments’ attitudes to the management and funding of scientific research, 1970-2005. Emmeline Ledgerwood is a member of the Study of Parliament Group @StudyofParl.