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174 posts categorized "Oral history"

06 December 2018

The unseen work of the oral history summariser

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Oral History Curator Mary Stewart reflects on the contributions of volunteers to the oral history collections, particularly remembering the sterling work of Audrie Mundy.

Anyone who has ever made use of the oral history collections will have used the interview content summary – the sometimes rather clunky piece of prose that acts as the main search tool to navigate around the (often lengthy) recordings that we make. Who writes these summaries, you might ask? Nowadays it’s standard practice in the oral history team for the interviewer to write up the summary, to allow them to reflect on the content and questions already covered in the interview, and prepare the topic areas to cover in their next visit to the interviewee. In earlier decades this practice was not so carefully enforced, and there was often a heap of cassettes waiting to be summarised. Helping to whittle down this pile, through careful listening and summarising, were several dedicated volunteers – unseen by the eventual researcher – whose efforts are often unsung. Marking International Volunteering Day, it seems apt to highlight some of the volunteers whose efforts have helped develop the Library’s oral history collections.

In the last 18 months we have seen the deaths of two of these stalwart volunteers for the BL oral history team, following the death of fellow longstanding volunteer Brenda Corti in 2010. We still reap the benefits of Katherine Thompson’s time as a volunteer. In addition to summarising many interviews, Katherine worked as an interviewer on City Lives and The Living Memory of the Jewish Community. The recordings Katherine made with scientists Aaron Klug, Max Perutz and Joseph Rotblat laid the foundations for the project An Oral History of British Science two decades later.

Katherine Thompson 2014-07-06 12.17.50_resized

Katherine Thompson, 2014. Courtesy of Jenny Thompson.

When I joined the British Library in 2006 Katherine and Brenda had stopped volunteering, but I did have the absolute pleasure of working alongside Audrie Mundy, who volunteered until 2011, by which time she was in her early nineties.

Audrie recorded a few interviews, but her main task for over a decade was to summarise interviews from across the collections, particularly relishing working on Artists’ Lives, a project that married well with her own interests.

Audrie Mundy on writing summaries of oral history interviews

Although both Anthony Caro and Elsbeth Juda’s interviews are currently closed to public access, clips from Anthony Caro’s interview are accessible in our new Voices of art web resource. If you’ve ever had the pleasure of listening to the long interviews with Anthony Fry, Frank Bowling, Denis Bowen and Paula Rego – then please say a quiet thank you to Audrie as without her excellent content summaries you would be unable to navigate through the mountains of audio. If you’ve sampled interviews from our Food: From Source to Salespoint collection not only did Audrie summarise several interviews, she also invented the project title.

Audrie was never anything less than kind, direct and hardworking each time she trekked into the NLS office – no mean feat by the time I met her as it was quite a lengthy journey from her home in Kew Bridge to St Pancras. Always immaculately turned out, she would quietly put on her headphones and set to work. Our lunches and coffee breaks were many times the highlight of my day. It mattered not the great age difference. Audrie was inquisitive and interested – and through these times together I was privileged to hear snippets of her extraordinary life – her early adoption of yoga in post-war London, her love of languages as she taught herself French and Portuguese, her pride in her family and thoughts on theatre, books and culture.

Audrie Mundy and her art

Audrie visit 04_resized

Audrie Mundy, 2004. Photograph: Ali Musa.

We missed Audrie greatly in recent years when her mobility meant she could no longer come into the office – though she remained the champion proof-reader of our Annual Review – and we all stayed in touch with her, marvelling at her deft and newly acquired email skills.

Audrie Mundy on the wonders of email

Although she played hard to get, in 2012, to our delight, Audrie agreed to record some of her own life story with Cathy Courtney, and we are especially pleased that this is now available online at https://sounds.bl.uk/Oral-history/Oral-historians.

Volunteer effort is still greatly valued by the oral history team and this autumn we have been delighted to welcome the first two curatorial volunteers as part of the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project. Anna Savory wrote a fascinating blog on Ghosts in the Collections, and Laurie Green-Eames is hard at work, including some sleuthing for one early 1990s collection attempting to match up pseudonyms used in a book with the recordings we have in the archive. Rest assured, however, we won’t be expecting them to volunteer into their nineties!

This blog is by Mary Stewart, Oral History Curator at the British Library.

28 November 2018

Valuing religion without believing

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Although we don’t go regularly to church [...] my wife would still feel, and I think I would still have a hankering feeling, that ceremonies like marriage ought to be blessed with a sacramental service of some sort or other. [409/01]

10997835545_bb47ba3ce1_cdmitryzhkov on VisualHunt.com / CC BY-NC-SA

In a recent collaboration between National Life Stories at the British Library and the Understanding Unbelief programme at the University of Kent, I have been exploring three collections of oral history interviews at the British Library for moments when interviewees talk about not believing in God or gods, lack of interest in and/or engagement with religion, and existential beliefs held in the absence of religious belief: C1364 ‘An Oral History of the Water Industry’, C409 ‘NLSC: City Lives’ and C900 ‘Millennium Memory Bank’.

This may, at first glance, seem a curious, even eccentric endeavour. But unbelief itself is far from eccentric – the majority of people living in the UK say they have ‘no religion’ and all evidence suggests that most of these are also either atheist or agnostic. Furthermore, as the ‘background’ to the Understanding Unbelief programme makes clear, the work is necessary as very little is known about religious unbelief, beyond the well-known public arguments of the New Atheists and other high-profile commentators.

In this blog, which follows my previous blogs ‘English Atheist’ and ‘Religious unbelief in the life of Professor Sir Fred Holliday’, I focus on ways on which interviewees in the collections I have used value religion in spite of their own unbelief.

Being there

Certain interviewees who say that they are themselves not religious and/or do not believe in God or gods nevertheless value the presence – in social and physical space – of religion. This extract articulates this position especially clearly:

"You can see the nice side of the church" C409/134

The reference of this interviewee to ‘wonderful cathedrals’, ‘glorious buildings’ that are ‘so uplifting’ is echoed rather closely by another interviewee:

"There's no pollution in the place as such"  C900/00631

This second speaker was born in Kenya in 1945 into a practising Hindu family, had moved to the UK alone as a teenager, and was – at the time of interview in 1999 – the Chairman of the Bristol Hindu temple. Though he regarded himself as ‘not religious’ and doubtful about the value of rituals performed in the temple, he was nevertheless clear about the value of the existence of the temple and the rituals: ‘I don’t want to knock it down: I don’t say that this is all rubbish because I don’t believe in it, then nobody should do it. [...] Those rituals must take place if that’s what the community want’ [C900/00631]. We tend to forget, perhaps because we are attuned to ‘New Atheism’, that not believing in God (or gods) is not the same thing as opposing religion.

Already implied in the extracts above, the existence of religion, physically and socially, is valued especially at certain times of life, especially at the end of others’ lives. The first speaker referred to the role of the church ‘when people get born and married and die’ and later in his interview, says of funerals: ‘the Church does it better [...] it's much nicer to have a beautiful service with well-known hymns and a lovely anthem, you know [...] it doesn't do the dead person any good, but it helps the survivors to carry on’ [409/134]. Another interviewee, equally clear about his own lack of religious belief, speaks (with evident emotion I think) of missing, and not missing, Christian funeral services. As the clips begins, he is speaking of his father:

"You need that kind of closure" C1364/19

Alternative imageAdvert for the BBC's Millennium Oral History Project 'The Century Speaks'

Passing-on religion

More common than the valuing of the buildings, music or social role of religion, is a feeling that religion contains ‘values’ that are worth passing-on to the next generation. In the case of Christianity, the next two clips paint much of the picture:

"I encouraged the children always to go" C409/10

"To make absolutely sure that they got the exposure to that kind of values" C409/28

There is some evidence, in Millennium Memory Bank interviews with those with non-Christian religious backgrounds, of a somewhat similar wish to pass on religion in spite of personal unbelief. These three clips cover much of the ground. The first two speakers discuss a strong urge to pass-on to their children aspects of Judaism that they themselves have tended to live without. The third refers to the syncretic Sikh-Hindu upbringing of her children in the context of doubts about whether she can be described as ‘religious’:

"So we decided that we would like to celebrate the major festivals" C900/15067

"...and yet I want them to know those things" C900/05598

"I just practice it my own way" C900/09149

What this ‘passing-on’ might look like from the child’s point of view may be suggested – without claiming any perfect match up across very different lives and religions – in certain Millennium Memory Bank interviews with children and very young adults. In the next clip, a seventeen year old born in Bosnia, who had migrated to the UK to escape the Bosnian war, suggests that her mother was keen to pass on a Muslim inheritance or identity, without being ‘religious’ herself:

"My mum always educated me 'this is what you are'" C900/03085

In the final clip, a thirteen year old, born in Cambridge into a family that he regards as ‘normally’ non-religious, suggests that his parents have passed-on a positive regard for Christianity, along with certain ‘values’:

"I've got a rough idea, but I can't really explain it" C900/01066

Conclusion

In 1994 Grace Davie published her book Religion in Britain since 1945. It was very successful, and is especially well known for the argument that religion in Britain at the end of the twentieth century should be understood in terms of ‘believing without belonging’. Indeed, Davie’s position strongly influenced the text for the ‘Beliefs and Fears’ theme in the research guide used by BBC interviewers in the project – ‘The Century Speaks’ – that produced the Millennium Memory Bank collection. What we seem to have in the extracts in the blog are features of the partly reversed, and much less catchy, ‘valuing religion without believing’.

For more on unbelief, visit the website of the Understanding Unbelief project: https://research.kent.ac.uk/understandingunbelief/

This blog is by Dr Paul Merchant, Oral History Interviewer, National Life Stories, The British Library. More information on Millennium Memory Bank can be found in our collection guide to Major national oral history projects and surveys.

23 November 2018

'We had to get out': 80 years since the Kindertransport

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Eighty years ago on the 2nd December 1938 nearly 200 German Jewish refugee children arrived at Harwich in Essex; they were the first arrivals of what became known as the Kindertransport (children's transport).

The Kindertransport scheme emerged in the aftermath of the Kristallnacht Pogrom of 9th November 1938 in Germany when it became apparent that Nazi antisemitism was a national and structural phenomenon and that Jewish life in the Third Reich was untenable. Led by The Central British Fund for German Jewry (now World Jewish Relief) the scheme allowed nearly 10,000 Jewish children and children of other Nazi victims into Great Britain and placed them in British foster homes.

Many countries had strict quotas and, although many Jews escaped before the start of the war, some Jews were sent back to Nazi Europe. The Kindertransport provided a means for families to save their loved ones but it involved a terrible choice: whether to send their children abroad to safety or to keep the family together. Most of the 9,354 Kindertransport children never saw their parents again.

Resized for blogA child prepares to leave as part of the Kindertransport. Credit: The Hulton Deutsch Collection

At the British Library we hold multiple Oral histories of Jewish experience and Holocaust testimonies and within this are many testimonies of the Kindertransport. Through these oral histories we can begin to understand the human impact of the scheme and how it was experienced by those children who were saved by it.

In this clip Milena Roth, interviewed for the Living Memory of the Jewish Community project, describes how at the age of seven her mother made the decision to send her on a Kindertransport train but had to keep it a secret from her grandmother:

"I just understood we had to get out" (C410/007)

In the above clip Milena speaks of how she didn’t fully understand why she had to leave, but just knew she did. The magnitude of this comes into play when Milena looks back at a photograph from the Sunday before she left and describes the fate of her family who had to stay:

"I was about to get on a train" (C410/007)

Testimonies of the Kindertransport are not just found in oral history collections that look specifically at Jewish refugees and Holocaust survivors. Dame Stephanie Shirley completed a life story interview for An Oral History of British Science about her work in computer science and philanthropy, but also discussed her early life and her escape from Germany. This clip is especially powerful in conveying Stephanie’s immediate experience of the Kindertransport train , as well the impact it had upon her later life:

"Its effects are as important to me today as they were seventy years ago" (C1379/28)

These clips are just a small selection of the oral histories we hold related to the Kindertransport. Of specific note are the Central British Fund Kindertransport Interviews, a project run by World Jewish Relief and recently digitised as part of Unlocking Our Sound Heritage. Extracts from the interview in this collection with Frank Henley will be part of the A Thousand Kisses exhibition at Harwich International Terminal.

Martin Winstone from the Holocaust Educational Trust described the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht as “probably the last landmark anniversary where there are still living witnesses to what happened” and the same might be said of the Kindertransport. Yet when there are no longer any living survivors to the events themselves, we hope that through oral histories their recorded voices with stand as testimony to a moment in history when Britain warmly welcomed child refugees.

Blog by Charlie Morgan, Oral History Archivist. The clips with Milena Roth can be heard on the web resource Voices of the Holocaust, the clip with Stephanie Shirley can be heard on the web resource Voices of Science. For more information consult the collection guide Oral histories of Jewish experience and Holocaust testimonies.

21 November 2018

Choosing to stand: what makes women run for Parliament?

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On 21 November 1918, women gained the right to stand as parliamentary candidates with the passage of the one-page Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act, 1918.

Blog image 1Credit: Parliamentary Archives

In the hundred years since the Act was passed, 491 women have been elected as MPs; that figure is only just higher than the 441 male MPs in the current Parliament alone. Understanding those numbers is not just about analysing how the electorate behaves at the ballot box or studying the preferences of party selection committees. It involves an appreciation of what comes before all that, an individual’s decision to step forward as a candidate.

A recent survey in the UK [‘An Analysis of Political Ambition in Britain’, Allen and Cutts 2018] showed that only 10% of the population have ever considered running for political office or think they would run for office in the future. Within that 10%, there is a clear gender gap in political ambition, with British men more than twice as likely as British women to consider putting themselves forward as a candidate.

Women who were MPs during the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, and interviewed for the History of Parliament Oral History Project (C1503), speak about the thought processes and critical influences that drove or inhibited their political aspirations. Their stories demonstrate that the concept of ‘political ambition’ usually develops out of factors such as family upbringing, level of education, occupational background, age, minority status and recruitment by their peers.

Growing up in a politically active family is a consistent predictor of political ambition, and many of these interviewees had relatives in the House of Commons, but this sometimes added to the challenge of entering national politics.

Hilary Armstrong 1Hilary Armstrong, credit: The British Library

Hilary Armstrong (North West Durham, 1987-2010) felt her biggest hurdle to becoming an MP was demonstrating she had independent views to her father, Ernest Armstrong, who she succeeded in the seat, while Emma Nicholson (Torridge and West Devon, 1987-97) decided to bide her time until her father Sir Godfrey Nicholson retired from political life.

Hilary Armstrong 1Emma Nicholson, credit: The British Library

“Well my father was still in Parliament and there was nothing I could do … because the whole task was to support my father’s work first and foremost. I waited until my father left completely before thinking well, maybe I can now have a go.”
[Interview with Emma Nicholson, C1503/62 Track 1, 0:51:50 - 0:52:24]

As a child Llin Golding (Newcastle-under-Lyme, 1986-2001) was teased because her father, Ness Edwards, was the local MP, making her very wary of becoming one herself.

Interview with Llinn Golding, C1503/60 Track 1, 0:17:00 - 0:17:32

Only a few of those interviewed for the collection spoke about wanting to become an MP from an early age. Marion Roe (Broxbourne, 1983-2005) started thinking about it when her family commitments began to ease off.

Interview with Marion Roe, C1503/71 Track 1, 0:04:36 – 0:05:45

For the majority of these women however, the idea of running for Parliament was planted by someone else, and the current campaign for a 50:50 Parliament recognises the impact that being asked can have on a woman’s political aspirations, as illustrated by Alice Mahon.

“I got persuaded really by trade unions, I was on the trades council and … I went to the regional Labour party in 1980 and I just got bombarded with people saying you’ve got to stand. Tony Benn was there … he said the same. Barbara Castle came up to Halifax …. she came straight out with it, she said ‘Well they’re talking about somebody for the seat, I hope you’re going to put in for it?’”
[Interview with Alice Mahon, (Halifax, 1987-2005). C1503/30 Track 1, 0:17:18 - 0:18:15]

Ann TaylorAnn Taylor, credit: The British Library

Other women such as Ann Taylor (Bolton West 1974-1983, Dewsbury 1987-2005) and Helen Jackson (Sheffield Hillsborough, 1992-2005) realised they could do as good a job as any other candidate, becoming more confident in their own capabilities.

Interview with Ann Taylor, C1503/81 Track 1, 0:46:11 – 0:46:53

Interview with Helen Jackson, C1503/124 Track 1, 1:15:46 -1:16:33

Rosie BarnesRosie Barnes, credit: The British Library

Then there is the chance opportunity when a by-election comes along, from Nancy Astor winning the Plymouth Sutton by-election in 1919 to Rosie Barnes’ success in Greenwich in 1987 (Greenwich, 1987-92).

“And then of course events being as they are, they don’t always follow the pre-conceived plan so there was the by-election and I won and Jo wasn’t even two. It was a bit of a shock to the system actually ...because I had never thought of being an MP, I’d never been a councillor, I hadn’t had any ambitions to be an MP, I was just supporting the Social Democratic Party by standing. But of course when the election came I thought to myself I’ve got to behave like a winner because unless you behave like a winner you couldn’t possibly win.”
[Interview with Rosie Barnes, C1503/132 Track 1, 0:47:14 - 0:47:54]

As Barnes’s story confirms, what we call political ambition is often the product of chance, and for many of these interviewees, their journeys to Westminster started with a simple question: ‘Have you thought about standing?’

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. All the interviews featured are from The History of Parliament Oral History Project and can be listened to online at Bl Sounds.

19 November 2018

Recording of the week: Sheila Girling describes fellow painter, Helen Frankenthaler

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

To celebrate the launch of Voices of art we're listening to artist Sheila Girling's (1924-2015) description of fellow painter, Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011). 

Helen Frankenthaler was an American abstract expressionist artist. Girling gives a detailed illustration of Frankenthaler's gestural and 'spontaneous' painting style. She mentions that Frankenthaler was one of 'Clem's' protegées. This was Clement Greenberg, the influential and at times contentious American art critic.

Sheila Girling was a painter and collagist known for her large abstract paintings and her sensitive use of colour. Born in Birmingham, she lived in Vermont for a short time with her family while her husband, the sculptor Anthony Caro, taught at Bennington College. The couple returned there many times. At Bennington, Girling and Caro were part of a close circle of artists who were experimenting with new artistic techniques. These included Kenneth Noland, Helen Frankenthaler and Jules Olitski.

Sheila Girling on Helen Frankenthaler (C466/296)

539_sheila_with_scrfSheila Girling. Courtesy Barford Sculptures Limited

This clip features on the Voices of art website. Voices of art is a new British Library resource that explores the art world behind the scenes through life story recordings with artists, curators and writers. Extracts from oral history recordings accompany a series of essays by writers who have been immersed in the art world of the 20th and 21st centuries. To hear more from Sheila Girling, see Hester Westley's article Coaching from the side lines: Sheila Girling and Anthony Caro.

Voices of art is supported by the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art.

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

13 November 2018

Sound Seating: Colin St John Wilson’s Library Furniture

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In 1995, the British Library began documenting oral histories of British architects through the National Life Stories series Architects’ Lives. The following year the project looked close to home and published an interview with the architect of the library’s St. Pancras location. In twenty-seven parts available on the BL’s Sounds website, the librarian and curator Jill Lever (1935-2017) speaks with Colin St John (Sandy) Wilson (1922-2007), covering a wide range of subjects including his career, past projects and approach to creating public spaces.

Initially this series had been recommended to me by Oral History curator Mary Stewart after I asked colleagues if anyone knew anything about some wooden benches I had seen at the library. Simple and sturdy, reminiscent of mid-century modern Scandinavian design, initially I had just wanted to know who made them – was there a small British furniture company still making them? Had a well-known designer made a little-known range of furniture for the library? While still largely a mystery despite the enthusiasm of colleagues, I found something more interesting through this research. The original furniture to the building, much of it still here twenty years after its official opening, was a crucial part of fulfilling Wilson’s overall vision for the building and his idea of how a library should work and make its readers feel.

Bench1

Largely designed by Wilson himself, the original furnishings, built-in nooks, and other seating were important parts of his approach to scale. In one section of the interview, he describes the point of preserving a balance between a grand, large, space coming in at two hundred thousand square metres and one scaled for individuals:

“Eventually you have to accept that a lot of other Readers and the architecture makes the sort of spaces in which you can read, you can spend the whole day, you don’t feel claustrophobic, you have the chance of looking up from the close range of a book to the long distance of a big space.”

Readingroom

Wilson designed tactile, personal elements throughout the building in order to balance the large scale demanded of a building with innumerable collection items, which now greet over 1.5 million people annually through the compact front entrance into the spacious multi-storey lobby. Portholes throughout the building provide small windows onto the grand area of the main lobby on its main and upper ground floors.

One of the ways Wilson attempted to create this balance, and thus serve what he saw as the larger purpose of a public building, was through his use of tactile, natural materials. Inspired by architects of the English Free School, among them Sir George Gilbert Scott who designed St Pancras Chambers next door, William Morris, and John Ruskin, he chose wood panelling, leather-covered wooden benches and booths on nearly every floor of public space outside the reading rooms, and leather-wrapped brass railings a la Aalto, and carved person-sized seating into marble wall detailing on multiple floors.1

Other designers were commissioned to help create this balance. The reading room chairs still in use today are original to the library, designed by Ronald Carter. This was one of his largest commissions, although he also designed furniture for other cultural institutions in London like the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Shelflife st p_003 Oct 1996 cropped

Wilson thought that if this balance was struck correctly, he could create the kind of public building in which an initial feeling of getting lost would soon be replaced with an ability to “help yourself and get on with it,” much as many do every day at the library, arriving at the front door with their clear plastic reading room bags, ready to use for second, third, and forth times in the workspaces readers often come to think of as their own.

1The British Library by Colin St John Wilson, YK.2009.a.21930

Mary Caple is a postgraduate student in History of Art and Visual Culture at the University of Oxford, formerly Digitisation Workflow Administrator for the British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership. Special thanks to Dave Stevens for scanning the copies of Shelf Life, the British Library staff newsletter, from which images of St Pancras came from. 

 

31 October 2018

Ghosts in the collections

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It’s Halloween, so what better time to delve into our oral history collections in search of accounts of the eldritch, mysterious and paranormal? In a branch of history often focused on the details and routines of everyday life it’s interesting to note the number of supernatural experiences that crop up in an average life story interview – especially when we consider that interviewees are rarely, if ever, asked directly for this sort of story. Accounts of spooky legends or personal encounters with the supernatural find their way into everything from descriptions of family dynamics in the Artists' Lives collection to accounts of rural postal routes in An Oral History of the Post Office. I selected four of my favourite ghostly clips I encountered during my time as an Unlocking our Sound Heritage volunteer at the British Library.

Nationalarchivesghost576Ghostly sighting? National Archives

John Carey, the literary critic and Oxford professor, interviewed as part of the Authors' Lives collection, describes an average day as a student at St Johns College. Stating that he would often study in the college library ‘a lovely library… [although] half of it [was] haunted’ he recalls the university legend of the ghost and a fully-fledged (albeit tongue-in-cheek) encounter with it.

John Carey and the St Johns College ghost (C1276/49/07)

If Carey seems sceptical as to whether or not his tale is true. Susanna Richmond (Artists' Lives) has no such doubts. She remembers in detail the haunted house her father grew up in which attracted the attention of Society for Psychical Research (‘[Arthur] Conan Doyle would come and sit in the garden hoping to see the fun!’) and which none of her family doubted they shared with The Grey Lady.

Susanna Richmond and The Grey Lady (C466/295/01)

In a more whimsical brush with the other side Clifford Mewett was a telegram boy in the Post Office in the mid-60s when he met a helpful ghost on a Kentish country lane who gave him directions to the house he was trying to find.

Clifford Mewett and the postal ghost (C1007/24/05)

And organic farmer William Best describes family legends of ghosts passed to him from his mother who lived in the ‘seriously haunted’ village of Wing and points out that it wasn’t so long ago that the mystical and spooky was part and parcel of English life.

William Best and rural legends (C821/197/01)

Best’s account of his mother experiences highlights an interesting point about ghost stories and their larger context within oral history. In the UK we don’t, generally, tell and retell stories, family events or local legends to anywhere near the extent that people in other countries do, but we make an exception for unexplainable experiences. The stories of headless horsemen and disembodied footsteps that Best’s mother passes down are revealing, not because they are convincing, but because she thought it was important to pass them down. What’s more they provide an insight into her rural community and its collective mind-set that might otherwise have been lost. Ghost stories then may be of particular interest to the student of oral history as a rare example of a strong, sustained oral tradition coming out of a culture where, generally speaking, these traditions are weak.

The cultural importance of ghost stories as oral tradition and our familiarity with them as spoken narratives may also explain why, in spite of a healthy modern scepticism, and never being asked directly for a tale of terror, interviewees giving accounts of their lives stray again and again to the supernatural. The clips here are only a small sample, and many more first-hand accounts of phantom artist models, premonitory visions and boarding house poltergeists lie buried in the BL collections for those brave enough to unearth them…

Anna Savory volunteered with the British Library as part of the Heritage Lottery Funded project Unlocking Our Sound Heritage. The interview with Clifford Mewett was digitised as part of the project and, along with the interviews with John Carey and William Best, can be listened to at the British Library. The interview with Susanna Richmond can be listened to online at BL Sounds.

17 October 2018

Religious unbelief in the life of Professor Sir Fred Holliday

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Over half of respondents in the most recent British Social Attitudes survey indicated that they have ‘no religion’. All evidence suggests that the majority of this group are also either atheist or agnostic. We are able to say, then, that religious unbelief affects a very significant proportion of British people, but what else can we say about it? Religious Unbelief is little studied and not well understood, a situation that the £2.3m Understanding Unbelief project at the University of Kent seeks to change.

In a partnership with the Understanding Unbelief project, National Life Stories at the British Library is examining some of its collections of oral history recordings, with unbelief firmly in mind. What do interviewees – recorded in projects with no particular focus on religion – say about their lack of religious belief? This blog reports on one discovery: the presence of unbelief in an interview with Professor Sir Fred Holliday, recorded in a number of sessions between 2009 and 2011, part of the collection ‘An Oral History of the Water Industry’.

Fred Holliday [1935-2016] was a marine biologist who served as founding Chairman of Northumbrian Water, Vice-Chancellor and Warden of the University of Durham, Director of Shell and of British Rail. His obituaries tend to comment on his interest in science as a child, usually mentioning the decomposing snake under his mother’s bed. None that I have seen refer to his equally longstanding interest in and engagement with religion, strongly present in his British Library interview. In this interview he explains that from “about the age of twelve” he became closely involved with the family of the local Methodist minister (“they more or less adopted me [...] I learnt so much from him”) and that, because of this, he began to “announce hymns in the chapel, even try my best at a sermon”. The interviewer asks how he felt about giving these sermons, and Holliday’s reply stresses that he treated them as intellectual projects and as performances:

Fred Holliday on writing sermons (C1364/5)

FredHollidayRiverDec1960Sir Fred Holliday on the River Dee in Scotland as a young researcher, December 1960

In this clip, Holliday is keen to explain that in writing and giving the sermons, he was driven not by religious belief of his own (or even a valuing of religious belief in general), but by the enjoyment of cerebral work (“I did enjoy taking a really tough, tough Old Testament passage and – what I now know to call an exegesis – [laughs] and really unpicking it”) and the enjoyment of being looked at and listened to (“I liked attention I guess”). Nevertheless, he was clearly a Christian unbeliever (rather than, say, a nonreligious unbeliever); his unbelief was experienced through engagement with Christianity.

As the interview moves forward, Holliday confirms that he was not affected “in any [laughs] spiritual or religious sense” by the experiences in the chapel and that he differed from the Minister who “had a very, very strong inner faith” and from members of the “working class” congregation who were imagined (by himself and the Minister) as simply ‘having’ “belief”:

Fred Holliday on belief and on his scientific training (C1364/5)

In line with observations in Lois Lee’s Recognising the Non-religious (2015), we might note that while Holliday sees the (religious) worldview of others as a source of psychological comfort, he does not seem to see his own “science training” and its associated worldview as offering him anything analogous.

Holliday took his own “belief or lack of it” forward in a life that included more sermon-giving: “I’ve preached in the Church of Scotland and I’ve preached, God help me, in York Minster and Durham Cathedral since”. As Warden of the University of Durham, he interacted with the then Bishop of Durham, David Jenkins, who he says “agreed with me” on aspects of Christian non-belief but who “outraged the congregation at Durham cathedral, and he did what Mr Homer had told me never do: he attacked the widows and orphans, not willingly and knowingly but he was less willing to compromise than I was”. Holliday himself continued – at least until this first interview session in 2009 – to want to describe publically the shape of his Christian unbelief while not “upsetting” his audiences:

Fred Holliday on his belief in "Einstein’s god" (C1364/5)

FredHollidaybinocularsSir Fred Holliday

At this point in the interview, he expressed his opposition to the form of unbelief promoted by fellow biologist Richard Dawkins: “read his work, know it, sympathise with a lot of it, but why oh why does he become so evangelical in this atheism”. Two years later, in 2011, when he recorded the final interview session, his position may have shifted. A period of treatment for “quite an aggressive cancer”, involving hospitalisation, seems to have made him question the value of preserving conventional religious faith in others – an experience that runs counter to what is widely held to be the case, that personal crisis encourages religious belief (though this assumption is challenged in writing by Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and others, as well as in emerging findings of research led by Christel Manning):

Fred Holliday reflects on his approach to religion (C1364/5)

Holliday’s generosity in giving up precious time to record a final interview session has afforded a relatively rare direct view of personal change over time. He shares the particular sights and sounds that unsettled a long-held combination of personal unbelief and valuing of religion. His reflections are detailed and multi-layered, but he certainly seems to have come to question the golden rule of his mentor: “don’t undermine the peace of mind of the widows and orphans”.

This blog is by Dr Paul Merchant, Oral History Interviewer, National Life Stories, The British Library. Alison Gilmour interviewed Sir Fred Holliday for An Oral History of the Water Industry. The complete interview can be listened to on BL Sounds.