THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Sound and vision blog

245 posts categorized "Oral history"

22 June 2021

Windrush Day: Bristol’s Princess Campbell

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Today is Windrush Day, a day which honours the contributions and hardships of the British Caribbean community and those who travelled to the UK after the Second World War to help rebuild Britain and start a new life. To mark the day we have a guest blog from one of the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage’s (UOSH) hub partners Bristol Archives, to tell the inspiring story of one of Bristol’s members of the Windrush generation, Princess Campbell.

Princess Campbell was born in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1939. As a young woman, she became one of the estimated half-a-million people from Commonwealth countries who answered the call for migrant workers in England. She came to Bristol in 1962, where she trained as a nurse and became the city’s first black ward sister.

In recent years, she became one of Bristol’s best-known members of the Windrush generation. Through the UOSH project, we can now hear about Princess’s life in England in her own words.

Photo of Princess Campbell

Pictured above: Princess Campbell in her nurse’s uniform (Bristol Archives, 44459/Ph/2/4).

In 2007, schoolchildren, involved in the ‘Easton and Us’ local heritage project, interviewed local residents to find out about their lives in Easton from the 1930s to the present day.

These oral histories, held at Bristol Archives, were recently made available for research through UOSH. Originally held on minicassettes, the recordings have been digitised so that we can once again hear the voices and experiences of the people who took part.

Princess Campbell was one of those interviewed and her story is compelling, from her experiences of racism to the many ways she fought against discrimination.

Keen to establish herself in a profession, Princess considered becoming a teacher before choosing to train as a nurse. Once qualified, she worked for years but encountered barriers when she sought to progress her career. She tells the children who interviewed her how hard black people have to work to prove themselves; in this clip, she talks about working hard to gain as many qualifications as she could.

Listen to Princess Campbell - clip one

Download Princess Campbell clip one transcript

Despite her skills in both general nursing and psychiatric nursing, Princess was passed over for promotion to ward sister. She describes how support from fellow staff helped her to overcome resistance to appointing a black woman and she was eventually appointed to this role.

Listen to Princess Campbell - clip two

Download Princess Campbell clip two transcript

Princess also talks about wider problems of discrimination for the growing black community. As she explains in this clip, she arrived in Bristol to find black people had little access to good jobs or decent homes. To solve the housing problem, she was involved in setting up a housing association to help both black and white people to find affordable accommodation.

Listen to Princess Campbell - clip three

Download Princess Campbell clip three transcript

Through her determination to bring about change, Princess was also involved in other movements. Soon after her arrival in England, she was involved in the Bristol bus boycott, a campaign against the local bus company’s refusal to employ black drivers and conductors.

The boycott was led by the activist Paul Stephenson but as Princess says, ‘I was one of the protestors - I can't help it... we would have our banners out there and protest peacefully and decently’. Ultimately, the bus company changed their policy and began to recruit black staff, although racism from other passengers was also a common experience.

Listen to Princess Campbell - clip four

Download Princess Campbell clip four transcript

Later on, Princess was also active in the aftermath of another high-profile protest. In April 1980, the St Paul’s riots in Bristol were a response to police treatment of young black people. Princess described attending Parliament to lobby MPs for improved facilities to young people, leading to the creation of a new youth centre.

Towards the end of her life, Princess’s achievements were recognised and celebrated. A few years after this interview was recorded, she received an OBE for services to the community. In Bristol, she was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Bristol and a nurses’ training centre was named after her at the University of the West of England. When she died in 2015, crowds lined the streets of Easton for her funeral procession.

This recording complements other material documenting the experiences of black people that can be found in the collections at Bristol Archives. Princess was a founder member of the Bristol Black Archives Partnership. Through this venture, people and organisations from Bristol’s African-Caribbean community - including people involved in the bus boycott - deposited records and personal papers with the archives. Available for research alongside these records, Princess’s interview adds a personal insight into the lives of people from the Windrush generation who made their home here.

Three logos - UOSH - Heritage Fund - Bristol Archives

This post was written by Allie Dillon from Bristol Archives.

Follow @BLSoundHeritage and @bristolarchives for more updates from the UOSH project teams.

18 June 2021

Walk in their footsteps: Windrush Voices, a new digital education programme at the British Library

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I still remember it like it was yesterday. The 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony. The level of excitement about us as the host nation was at a fever pitch. There was a lot of talk around Danny Boyle’s plans for an very epic opening ceremony and what an amazing performance it was. There was one particular moment that has stayed with me the most in my memories of that event.

At the center of the multi-media stage was a recreation of the industrial revolution. Circling the stage were different moving milestones of British history to be proud of. Amongst this comes a large prop of a boat, smoke billowing from its engines and a gathered group of black men and women striding forward:

And others would come from other lands. In particular from the West Indies

These words were said by a BBC commenter as we watched in awe. It felt incredibly significant to include a generation who answered the call of the ‘mother country’‘ in Britain’s hour of need. My grandparents were part of that generation. Travelling from Barbados and Jamaica to Britain during the 1960s. However I found their stories were rarely taught or spoken about in school when I was a student. As a Learning Facilitator and co-ordinator of the Windrush Voices educational programme, I do feel a sense of pride in providing a very unique opportunity for their stories to be heard by a new generation of students.

On Windrush Day as we celebrate the efforts of this generation in our society, the Windrush Voices team will host a special online event perfect for secondary and sixth form history teachers.

Windrush Voices is a digital education programme based on the themes of the exhibition ‘Songs in A Strange Land’ which featured at The British Library in 2018. With the use of oral history, learners are able to analyse and dissect the lived experiences of the Windrush Generation. The event is designed to support and inspire teachers to use the ‘Windrush Voices’ resource in schools with 15-18 year old's. Places are still available to book.

Using stories from the Library’s oral history enables you to share people’s personal stories as they witnessed them. Not only do we hear them in their words but we are able to gain an understanding of what impact this moment has had on them today. With the use of oral history, learners are able to analyse and dissect the lived experiences of the Windrush Generation, perspectives that they may never before have considered.

Our programme breaks down into three areas, so we can focus on the Windrush Generation and the second generation’s lived experiences in regards to childhood, work and activism. By encouraging in-depth listening, we then post these questions to the students:

  • What it was like to arrive in Britain? What was school like?
  • What was it working in Britain?
  • What challenges did the Windrush Generation face in Britain?
  • What steps did Windrush Generation take to make a difference?

As learners are encouraged to dissect personal accounts, there is also space to further understand how oral history is produced and may inspire them to talk more to members of their own families and communities.

Portrait photograph of Vanley Burke in front of framed photographsVanley Burke, Image Courtesy of Birmingham Post & Mail, 2014

Vanley Burke was born in 1951 in Jamaica and came to Britain in 1965 at age of 14. He is considered to be the godfather of black British photography. In his oral history recording about his career as a photographer, he gave a window into what he was going to school in Britain as a child.

Vanley Burke on going to school in Britain as a child (C459/217)

Download Vanley Burke on going to school in Britain as a child Transcript

In this very short account we discover there is quite a lot for us to unpack. Burke’s words paint a very clear picture of a lawless rough environment where he did not feel safe. By noting the silence, the laughter and his choice of words we are able to gain far more than if we simply read Burke’s account.

Portrait image of Sonia McIntosh sitting on a chairSonia McIntosh, Image from Caribeean Social Forum video, a partnership project between the British Library, Caribbean Social Forum and Chocolate Films

Alongside the bad experience of racism and prejudice, we are able to see the resolve many within the Windrush Generation took to make a real systemic change in UK society. Sonia McIntosh began working as a civil servant at Parliament. To combat the fact that not enough black people were ascending to higher positions or work in parliament, she and her colleagues formed a group to encourage black people in the workplace.

Sonia McIntosh on founding ParliREACH

Download Sonia McIntosh on founding ParliREACH Transcript

Sonia McIntosh was one of many traversing uncharted waters to make lasting change for the generations to come.

The lasting impact of the Windrush scandal is also reflected in our final portion of our resources. With the context of the past, learners & educators can see a full picture as to why this betrayal cuts in incredibly deeply for the Windrush Generation. We are hopeful that learning the stories of their personal lived experiences can have a positive impact on future chapters of Windrush Generation’s story.

The Windrush Generation came to Britain at a crucial time. Their efforts have been woven into the fabric of what makes Britain great. It has been an honour and privilege for the team and I to provide a platform for their incredible stories to be heard. We greatly look forward to this event on 22 June, and hope that teachers and students are inspired to use Windrush Stories in the classroom.

Blog by Reuben Massiah, Learning Facilitator and co-ordinator of Windrush Voices, British Library Learning

24 May 2021

Recording of the week: On architecture and identity

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This week's selection comes from Giulia Baldorilli, Reference Specialist.

In these extracts from an oral history interview, architect Edward Jones talks about his approach to architecture, and what it means to build houses in both London and the rest of England. The interview was recorded in 2012 by the National Life Stories and is part of the Architect’s Lives collection.

Architecture is the living culture of a city life. We relate to the shapes of buildings and public spaces while we walk along the streets.

In trying to explain the gap between the design of buildings in the post-war period and the desires of people who would live in them, Edward reflects on a professional attitude that led to urban spaces being represented as miserable, inspiring a sort of urban blues.

A feeling of vulnerability from unsupervised spaces also arises from within the city’s voids: what is the relationship, or the lack of relationship with those spaces?

Traditional English house [BL REF C467/98]

Jones often gets asked what the best type of dwelling for the city would be, but in this interview, he shows how different urban histories led to different types of housing.

England has a very different architectural tradition to the Continent. Historically, England never experienced major land invasions so there wasn’t a need for walls or for intervening areas between the door and the street. London, Jones continues, never needed any defensive walls. Thus, the house-type building was the predominant housing solution that worked for England and flats only become more widely used in the 19th century.

Row of brick houses in London
Photo by Gonzalo Facello on Unsplash

In contrast, continental Europe adopted apartment blocks to house life in the cities. Paris or Brussels are architectural conglomerates with different levels of defence. Likewise, Glasgow has the same architectural structure. But not England.

Architecture as a reflection of a cliché: housing solutions become a representation of the ideal of a good life. Thus, the design of houses becomes part of the tradition, it reveals the relationship between spaces and the people who inhabit them.

Not only do houses create an identity, but cultural norms also play an important role in defining the geometry of cities across the country.

The celebration of private life in English culture is reflected in the strong residential character of London. The uniqueness of many of the green spaces in the city illustrates English cultural affection for the countryside. New York City doesn’t have that green character, Jones continues, but he still might prefer that urban arrangement as an experience of city life (although he admits he is probably an outsider to this).

The City's green spaces [BL REF C467/98]

Download Transcript for Edward Jones interview

Some distance is needed to observe the peculiarity of a city. Edward Jones reminds us that 'it might take the eyes of a foreigner to kind of see it'.

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

13 May 2021

Eid Mubarak: Celebrations marking the end of Ramadan and the beginning of a new month

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In today’s blog, Charlotte Wardley, Project Support Officer for Unlocking Our Sound Heritage (UOSH), shares some recordings from our sound archive related to Eid. Charlotte is joined by Saba Syed, Chair of the British Library’s BAME Network, to talk about Ramadan and Eid.

Today is Eid, marking the end of Ramadan. Eid Mubarak!

The Islamic calendar is a lunar calendar and each month is 29 or 30 days long. Ramadan is the name of the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. It is observed by Muslims across the UK and worldwide as a month of fasting, prayer, community and reflection.

Eid al-Fitr is the celebratory festival which marks the end of Ramadan and the beginning of a new month. That makes ‘Eid eve’, otherwise called ‘Chand Raat’ (meaning ‘night of the moon’) in the Indian sub-continent, an exciting time. Everyone checks in with each other to see whether a new moon - which marks the new month and start of Eid - has been sighted.

New moon at sunset - photo by bartb_pt

Above: New moon at sunset,  'Ramadan رمضان' by bartb_pt  - licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In some Islamic communities you will find people on the rooftops, eagerly scouting the sky for signs of a thin new crescent moon. If it is sighted, then Eid is declared for the following day by local mosques. If a new moon hasn’t been sighted, then it’s another day of fasting with confirmation that Eid will follow the day after.

In the following recording from 2008 from the Moroccan Memories in Britain collection (C1237), interviewee Fatima Serroukh recalls how Ramadan was an exciting time for her as a young girl and she describes the traditional Moroccan foods her family would eat during Iftar. These include dishes such as ‘harira’, which is a soup with lentils, tomato and chickpeas, and ‘chebakia’ which are sesame and honey cookies. Iftar is the meal served after sunset during Ramadan, to break the day’s fast. Iftar is often a social event where many friends and family come together.

Listen to Fatima Serroukh interview - clip 1

Shelfmark: C1237/118 © Migrant and Refugee Communities Forum, now called Migrants Organise. Download Transcript - clip 1

Fatima then describes the anticipation of Eid and how her family would prepare for celebrations. She describes the traditional Moroccan outfit called ‘takchita’ that she would plan on wearing. Then on the day of Eid her family would celebrate together by eating breakfast and going to meet friends and family.

Listen to Fatima Serroukh interview - clip 2

Shelfmark: C1237/118 © Migrant and Refugee Communities Forum, now called Migrants Organise. Download Transcript - clip 2

Saba recalls similar feelings of excitement ahead of Eid and when the new moon sighting was finally announced and celebrations would begin:

Growing up, I remember the flurry of activity and excitement that would follow the declaration of the sighting of the moon. My sister and I would pull out new clothes and set about ironing them for the family. My mum would be in the kitchen preparing favourite food items for the next day. New outfit, new underwear and bangles, and anything else festive would be laid out in preparation. Then we would sit down to apply henna on each other’s hands. My dad would be liaising with friends as to which morning service we would all aim for. When I was younger, we would all attend Eid prayer at London Central Mosque on Regent Street, and the car journey there would be an event in itself. More recently, we coordinate and attend one of the hourly services at Harrow mosque, or one of the prayers organised in a local park.

Following the prayer we gather and meet other friends and families, enjoy the food stalls and ice cream. Then we head off to the graveyard, to pay our respects and offer a prayer to the recently deceased, followed by visiting loads of people and eating lots of lovely delicious food. As children we would also look forward to ‘Eidi’ – money handed out by the elders. Now our tradition has shifted and my family buys each other gifts, and so there will be one point in the day when immediate family will get together, hand out gifts and enjoy watching everyone rip off the wrapping and delight in their new presents.

The final recording featured on this blog comes from our Head of Sound and Vision, Janet Topp Fargion’s collection, which was recently digitised by the UOSH project. It was recorded at a fairground in Zanzibar in 1989 during Iddi Mossi (Eid al-Fitr) celebrations, where many people from the town and rural areas gathered for festivities, food and lots of fun. You can hear the celebratory atmosphere, with the adhan in the background, which is the Islamic call to prayer, and the Beni brass band in procession around the fairground. Beni is one of Zanzibar’s best-loved celebratory musics and is performed at special occasions.

Listen to Iddi Mossi fairground - Janet Topp Fargion collection

Shelfmark: C724/2/6 © Janet Topp Fargion.

It is the second year Eid celebrations will be different for many Muslims across the world because of the coronavirus pandemic. Here, Saba reflects on the ways in which her family have been finding moments to celebrate together during the lockdown:

This is the second year Ramadan has passed during lockdown, and last year there was no congregational prayers in mosques. Instead, we had our own family prayer with our immediate families socially distanced in the garden. Last year, my parents stayed indoors and observed us in the garden through the window of their house, until the final moment when they came out to pray before dashing back inside afterwards. My mum had prepared her usual feast for us, which was laid out in the conservatory, and we all helped ourselves and sat in the garden to eat as she watched us through the window, happy in the knowledge that her children were still with her on Eid, even with social distancing.

We wish our Muslim friends and family Eid Mubarak and despite the sadness, loss and difficulties many have experienced since last Eid, we hope those of you reading this blog and listening to these recordings will come together in a moment of celebration.

Follow @BLSoundHeritage for updates from the UOSH Project team.

Thank you to Saba Syed for generously sharing her memories and knowledge, to those who feature in the sound recordings, and thank you to Jonnie Robinson, Andrea Zarza, Janet Topp Fargion and Mary Stewart for their help preparing this blog.

10 May 2021

Recording of the Week: ‘We showed them that we could do it as good as them’

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This week's selection comes from Dr Rob Perks, formerly Lead Curator of Oral History.

Women_of_steel_web
Women of Steel (2017), Barker's Pool, Sheffield. Women of Steel is a bronze sculpture that commemorates the women of Sheffield who worked in the city's steel industry during the First World War and Second World War. A work of the sculptor Martin Jennings, it was unveiled in June 2016. Image credit: Artaxerxes100, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

With many men conscripted and away from home during the Second World War, women were for the first time recruited to work in the steel works of northern England.

Edna McDonald on women steelworkers

Download transcript

Born in 1921, Edna McDonald talks about starting work aged twenty at the Workington steelworks in Cumbria, arriving on her first day wearing her best jumper and polished clogs. The Workington steelworks was mainly making shell casings during the war though the area was better known for making railway tracks. The last Mossbay works closed in 2006 after 129 years.

This is a short extract from an oral history interview recorded by Alan Dein for National Life Stories’ ‘Lives in Steel’ project (ref C532/041).

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

01 April 2021

Guy Brett: Ideas in Motion

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One of the more delicate questions we ask our interviewees in a life story interview is how they feel about death. When I posed this question to art writer Guy Brett (1942 – 2021) in 2008, he gave an answer which succinctly encapsulated our own collaborative endeavour in that moment: ‘I believe in human memory. If nobody remembers you, then you’ve gone, but if people remember you, you live on in some form or another […] that is the afterlife’.

Guy had recently returned from a writing residency in New Zealand and was fascinated by Maori culture and their value system. He lingered on the ideas behind Maori attitudes to life informed by their belief in ancestor worship. The Maori people, Guy explained, are conscious all the time of the genealogy of their families and those who are no longer alive: their ancestors have a present quality and are always being invoked, so their sense of the past remains ever present.

At the end of recording Guy’s life story for ‘Art World Professionals’ as part of 'Artists' Lives' [shelf-mark C466-270], I told him that National Life Stories had made a life story recording with his own father, the architect, town planner and writer, Lionel Brett (Lord Esher), for the ‘Architect’s Lives’ archive [shelf-mark C467/14], a decade earlier. Guy found the discovery of his father’s narration of his own life journey profoundly moving. As a thinker, Guy insisted on the clear understanding of the beginnings of things: ‘it’s like a seed’, he said, ‘tracing back to where things originate’. Perhaps this perspective was why the intergenerational exchange of father to son through life story testimony became such a moving moment; through Lionel Brett’s reflections, Guy returned to his own beginnings.

Black and white photo of Guy Brett in front of an art work which is a series of written questions each beginning with 'Is Art?'Guy Brett at the Serpentine Gallery, London, in 1975, with part of Lea Lublin’s Question on Art

The Bretts enjoyed tremendous privilege, but they were acutely aware of their sense of responsibility outside themselves. Even though father and son pursued radically different paths in their lives, their recordings testify to a mutual devotion to public service. Guy took the freedoms he inherited and used them deliberately, responsibly: he dedicated his life to championing the work of marginalised artists and worked tirelessly to reorient the art world’s gaze to the innovations and contributions of artists from the Southern Hemisphere.

Sometimes Guy’s concerns meant turning his back on the art world altogether. About his 1986 book, Through our Own Eyes: Popular Art and Modern History, he confesses that ‘my interest in those popular forms were connected not with disillusionment, but a disappointment, with the professional art world […] I wanted to use my writing to make an intervention in the political process through art. It wasn’t to do with any particular political movement. The theme of the book was lived experience—the strange connection between an untutored practice or language dealing with overwhelmingly powerful social experiences’.

In order to pursue the causes in which he ardently believed, Guy had to operate independently. and it was perhaps due to his early life that he had the inner confidence to operate outside of the academy or institution, to shun dominant ideology. In this audio clip, Guy Brett explains how his response to art and artists were in opposition to the forces and mechanics of the art world at large.

Guy Brett on defending artists not recognised by the mainstream (C466/270)

Download Guy Brett on defending artists not recognised by the mainstream transcript

Guy’s deliberate choice of ‘unjust’ in his description of neglected artists is significant: justice becomes a kind of leitmotif of Guy’s recording and lies at the heart of his personal motivation. From an early age, he identified his commitment to social justice—but the art world, as he emphatically reminds us, is a very unjust place. In his autobiography, Our Selves Unknown, Lionel Brett described his son as belonging to ‘the generation of Marcusean alienation’—that is, a generation of young people eager to break out of the ‘one dimensionality’ of a culture that meant that people found themselves in the commodities they purchased, not the ideas they thought. Looking at Guy Brett’s lifework, it becomes clear that his choices were informed by political convictions that, in his own words, ‘permeate your whole consciousness: it’s simply the pursuit of some idea of freedom, freedom from oppression’. Guy’s younger brother, the Chilean-based Human Rights activist, Sebastian Brett, observes that ‘the alienation of which my father wrote attracted us both to what in those days was optimistically called ‘The Third World’ […] we romantically identified with its liberation movements, and barely a few years later, with the movement of solidarity with victims of the military repression that swept the continent in the 1970s.’

Black and white photo of four men sitting on the floor mailing a news bulletinGuy Brett (centre) with (from left to right) Paul Keeler, Sergio de Camargo, Christopher Walker and David Medalla mailing the Signals news bulletin from Cornwall Gardens in 1964. © Clay Perry

Guy’s understanding of the social and cultural forces that shape our contemporary moment illuminates his excitement for the promise of a more inclusive, multi-cultural, and cosmopolitan London that was in its infancy as Guy came of age. From his earliest days in professional life, Guy aligned himself with a completely international notion of art and art practice that would undermine an art history predicated on a colonial gaze. He wanted to capture what, in his words, was the ‘extraordinary diversity, which is multi-racial, multi-national, multi-genre, and ebbs and flows with the comings and goings of artists themselves’.

Guy Brett on cultural interchange and national ideology (C466/270)

Download Guy Brett on cultural interchange and national ideology transcript

In collaboration with Philippine artist David Medalla and Paul Keeler, Guy helped set up the radical and short-lived Signals Gallery in 1964. This space provided a platform to a host of Brazilian artists—among them, Lygia Clark, Mira Schendel, Sergio Camargo—as well as Venezuelan artists Jesus Rafael Soto and Carlos Cruz-Diez. While London museums and galleries promoted British formal abstraction and embraced American-oriented material culture, Guy was busy writing about bubble machines made by David Medalla. Generally perceived at the time as mad experiments, these temporal sculptures were, for Guy, a ludic riposte to the new forms in British sculpture: whatever forms the bubble machine made immediately evaporated—thus contradicting the notion of a permanent piece of sculpture. In this next audio clip, Guy articulates his response to seeing kinetic artwork produced by the Greek artist, Takis, for the first time. Guy’s spoken expression captures the sense of quizzical intrigue and excitement with which he received these new forms of art. When the rest of the world caught up several decades later, Guy curated Takis’s retrospective at the Tate Modern in 2019.

Black and white photo of Guy Brett standing upright and holding a magnet towards Takis who is also standing uprightGuy Brett holding a magnet with Greek artist Takis, circa 1964 © Clay Perry

Guy Brett's response to sculpture of Greek artist Takis and his use of magnetism in art (C466/270)

Download Guy Brett’s response to sculpture of Greek artist Takis and his use of magnetism in art transcript

Guy’s receptive sensibility meant that his writing existed in a symbiotic relationship to the artwork he sought to explain. In his recording, Guy describes the process of identification he felt with certain artists when he responded to their work. He explains how Brazilian artist Helio Oiticica’s attitude made so much sense to him that it became ingrained in his own way of looking at things. Guy’s sometimes humourous, always poignant, recounting of organising Oiticica’s groundbreaking 1969 exhibition, the ‘Whitechapel Experience’, in the face of mounting establishment opposition, reminds us of the battles fought by this generation who innovated radical new propositions in art. The panoply of experiences on offer—the staged beach experience; human-sized nesting boxes; and a billiard table that invited the participation of local youths—was a far cry from the self-contained art objects usually on quiet display.

Guy’s lifelong commitment to the path less travelled took courage: an autodidact with no formal training, he enjoyed a curiosity uninhibited by convention. His writing about art drew not on academic jargon but on pre-verbal feelings stimulated by his engagement with both the work and the maker. He cherished intellectual freedom and made unexpected connections between cultures and disciplines—from the lived experience to the interplay of science and mystical philosophy; in his words, ‘All I have learnt about art I learnt from artists and knowing artists and talking with artists and looking at what they did and my own reading’.

Guy Brett on writing and the purpose of art criticism (C466/270)

Download Guy Brett on writing and the purpose of art criticism transcript

In keeping with his interest in Maori custom, Guy Brett’s presence will continue to be felt, not only through his finely-wrought prose and quietly radical sensibility, but also through his words as captured by his life story recording, which still have much to teach us if we make the time to listen. The gently probing, deliberately paced and stripped back audio recordings in the National Life Stories archive offer an antidote of resonant, lived reflection: they create a vital space, amongst the digital noise of our twenty-first century lives, for profoundly felt, movingly candid responses to the human condition.

Written by Hester R. Westley.

Hester R. Westley interviewed Guy Brett for the National Life Stories Project Artists’ Lives in 2007-2008. The full life story interview is available for researchers at the British Library and can be found by searching C466/270 at sami.bl.uk The interview with Lionel Brett (Lord Esher) can be listened to online at BL Sounds.

03 March 2021

Alan Bowness and Artists’ Lives

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Sir Alan Bowness, one of the most influential figures in post-war British art, has died, aged 93. His loss is keenly felt by the team at National Life Stories, where from 1990 he was continuously a member of the Advisory Committee for our oral history project, Artists’ Lives.

With NLS’ backing, in 1989 I went to see Mel Gooding with the idea of setting up a project offering an opportunity for artists to tell the story of their lives to counterbalance accounts by art historians and critics. It seemed vital there should be a forum where they could speak their own testimony, an audio document for posterity as well as for contemporaries. Two immediate problems confronted us – where to begin given the plethora of possible artists, and how to find sponsors (NLS has to raise all its funding).

Mel suggested we go to see Alan, who was immediately supportive. We discovered that whilst Director of the Tate Gallery (1980-1988) he had begun to think of a similar project and had drawn up a list of nominees to record but the idea hadn’t been taken further. We inherited Alan’s nominees, the backbone of the first ‘wish list’ for Artists’ Lives.

Alan’s participation on the Advisory Committee gave the project instant standing. With his help the Tate Library and Archive, the Henry Moore Foundation, the Henry Moore Institute and the Yale Center for British Art became early stage supporters and have, crucially, continued ever since.

Between 2007-2010 Alan made his own Artists’ Lives recording, charting the way his personal and working lives became unified (in 1957 he married Sarah, daughter of Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson). Following a degree at Cambridge, he had studied at the Courtauld Institute of Art, going on to work for the Arts Council before returning to the Courtauld to teach, a role he loved. In an extract from his recording that forms part of an essay by his colleague and long-standing friend, the art historian Duncan Robinson, The London art world 1950-1965, Alan recalls the way in which opportunities to study art history evolved in Britain.

Alan Bowness on the small art world in the 1950s C466/179

Download transcript Alan Bowness on the small art world in the 1950s

Alan and Sarah Bowness
Alan Bowness and Sarah Bowness, 1958, Trewyn Studio garden, St Ives, Cornwall. Courtesy Bowness Collection. Image not licensed for reuse.

Alan quickly became a dominant figure, author of many catalogues, and a long-standing member of the British Council, where, for example, he was on the selection committee for the 1964 Venice Biennale. With Philip James and Lawrence Gowing he curated 54:64 Painting and Sculpture of a Decade at the Tate, one of the most referenced exhibitions in Artists’ Lives.

Alan was the first trained art historian to become Director of the Tate, as detailed in his recording, but a further extract gives a perhaps surprising view of what most mattered to him.

Alan Bowness on the role of the museum director C466/179

Download transcript Alan Bowness on the role of the museum director

Alan Bowness and Norman Reid, 1976
Alan Bowness (left), John Summerson and Norman Reid, at the opening of the Barbara Hepworth Museum, St Ives, 1976. Photographed by Peter Kinnear. Courtesy Bowness Collection. Image not licensed for reuse.

Artists’ Lives has over 400 recordings with artists and those whose careers overlap with them. Alan’s full recording will be added online later in 2021.

Blog by Cathy Courtney, Project Director for Artists’ Lives.

18 February 2021

Remote oral history interviewing at the British Library during the Covid-19 pandemic

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Soon after the first lockdown in March 2020 the British Library oral history team suspended all face to face oral history interviews. Cut off from our established workflows and working from home we were faced with the same question as everyone else, what now?

Led by Oral History Archivist Charlie Morgan, in April 2020 we issued some guidance on ‘Remote oral history interviewing during Covid-19’, kindly hosted by the Oral History Society (updated editions have followed). The guidance argued that for the majority of projects remote interviews would likely never be as good as in-person interviews – from a technical, ethical and practical perspective – and that interviewers should think twice before immediately shifting to online remote interviewing. We recommended delaying interviews that might not be urgent, and raised a number of ethical and legal issues, not the least of which was whether an interview in the midst of a global pandemic might add extra trauma and pressure for certain interviewees (and interviewers) struggling to cope.

As lockdown eased over the summer we developed new risk assessment guidelines, policies and check-lists to help interviewers safely prepare for socially-distanced in-person interviews. Led by Assistant Archivist Camille Johnston, we published ‘Recording oral history interviews in person during the COVID-19 pandemic’ and this formed the basis for a new BL/National Life Stories policy on in-person interviewing.

But no sooner had in-person interviews restarted than they were curtailed by the second and now third lockdowns, forcing us to revisit our earlier decision about remote interviews. This was especially the case for several of National Life Stories newest projects, including ‘An Oral History of Farming, Land Management and Conservation in Post-War Britain’ (generously funded by the Arcadia Trust).

Back in March 2020 the oral history community was relatively unfamiliar with remote interviewing, but since then we and others around the world have been experimenting with a host of technical options. Our own experiments, alongside Oral History Society trainers, focussed on the options we had suggested in our ‘Remote oral history interviewing during Covid-19’ guidance, and resulted in a series of how-to videos on the Oral History Society’s YouTube channel. Some options record video, some don’t. Audio quality and costs both vary. Issues like poor broadband and ‘Zoom fatigue’ persist. Unlike in-person interviewing there remains no single ‘best practice’ approach to remote recording.

Aerial photo of a desk with a laptop, keyboard and mouse shown next to a USB microphoneRemote recording set up. Image: Liz Wright.

For our own projects we settled on using a podcasting programme Zencastr (now Zencastr Classic) which, for reasonable cost, delivers high quality uncompressed wav recordings through a ‘double-ender’ recording where all audio is recorded locally. This means that both the interviewer and the interviewee will each be recorded as they sound, and not as you would hear their voice after it has been compressed through, for example, Zoom, Teams or a telephone call. Zencastr, like all US-based software services, is no longer fully compliant with UK-EU GDPR as a result of the withdrawal of the US-EU ‘Privacy Shield’. Every institution must now make its own risk-based decision about whether or not to use US-based software services on a case-by-case basis. In this instance the BL decided that use of Zencastr was an ‘acceptable risk’, as it was crucial for the continuation of our work during the pandemic, and the data would be stored on remote servers for a minimal time period before being deleted.

While a podcasting programme such as Zencastr records high quality audio it doesn’t have any video functionality. To allow greater rapport we decided to use a video conferencing programme (in our case Zoom) on mute at the same time so both the interviewer and the interviewee can see one another. Finally, as built-in computer microphones are generally of poor quality, we purchased multiple USB microphones for interviewers and also for interviewees, who receive their microphones by post and forward them on to the next interviewee the same way. There are many USB microphones to choose between, the best quality running into hundreds of pounds apiece. For its balance of quality, cost and ease of use we decided to use the Bumblebee microphone made by Neat. The added cost of the microphones and their transit has been balanced by savings in interviewer travel costs, especially when interviewees are far away requiring overnight stays.

We produced guidance for interviewees to help them set up the microphones, check that their computers had sufficient storage space, and join the Zencastr call. And then we began interviewing.

Paul Merchant, interviewer on the farming oral history project, was one of the first in the BL team to use the new kit and remarks, ‘although this method cannot reproduce the more subtle and intangible aspects of life story interviewing, it has allowed us to record very valuable material with existing and new interviewees, with archive-quality stereo audio.’

John Marshall interviewed by Paul Merchant (C1828/23)

Download John Marshall interviewed by Paul Merchant Transcript

Paul explains that his interview technique has had to change – shorter and more precise questions tend to be needed – and feelings and emotions are more difficult to spot, especially with new interviewees whom he’s never met face to face. He has found remote interviewing sometimes lacks the emotional intimacy of in-person interviews, where the tiny signals and tells of body language and posture can often dictate a particular questioning line and are not easily seen and understood via Zoom. Asking ‘difficult’ questions becomes more challenging.

Photograph of an interviewee wearing headphones and looking at a computer screen while taking part in a remote oral history interviewRemote interview with John Marshall in Fife, Scotland, November 2020. Image: Rhona Marshall.

Liz Wright, who has also been recording remotely for another time-limited project, agrees with Paul about the difficulty of interpreting body language on-screen, and feels that the pace of an interview can be affected – especially when it comes to understanding different types of silence and how to respond to them. And practically the added technology can make interviewees initially more nervous and apprehensive, and it can take time for them to trust the process, bearing in mind that some of them may never have communicated via video call before. Despite these challenges the remote interviews, which have so far been continuations of recordings started in-person in the autumn, have recorded very interesting testimonies of high quality.

Paul, Liz, and the team have also had to develop new ways of ensuring all the interview documentation is shared and signed off: the pre-interview Participation Agreement and post-interview Recording Agreement. And our archival team have had to implement entirely new workflows for safely and securely transferring and storing audio files using a web-based file transfer service that allows for password protection (the paid-for premium service WeTransfer Pro).

At the start of the Covid-19 pandemic there were questions about whether we were entering a ‘new normal’ for oral history, where remote interviewing would become the dominant approach. Our experience so far suggests otherwise and indicates there are still many aspects of the in-person interview that can’t be replicated at a distance, especially for in-depth interviews and with new interviewees. Yet it is still true that the world of oral history has changed dramatically in the last twelve months. It is now clear that high quality remote interviews suitable for archiving can be recorded, and this in itself opens up many possibilities to interview people who live far away or in other countries. Even once we can return to in-person interviewing, remote recordings will still be a part of our oral history toolkit.

Blog by British Library Oral History team, February 2021