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237 posts categorized "Oral history"

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

27 January 2021

'Tell the world what was happening': Uprising at Auschwitz

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At Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp on 7 October 1944 there was an event that confounds many people’s assumptions about Nazi death camps: that resistance was impossible. In fact Jews did resist Nazi oppression throughout the 1930s and 1940s.

In a carefully-planned operation a group of prisoners known as the Sonderkommando – those who were forced on threat of their own deaths to dispose of gas chamber victims – fought back against their captors.

For months young Jewish women had been smuggling gunpowder to the camp resistance from the munitions factory within the Birkenau complex, and this was used to create makeshift bombs and grenades. On 7 October, having learned that the SS was going to liquidate much of the squad, the Sonderkommando at Crematorium IV rose in revolt during a roll call. One of the prisoners calmly walked up to a Nazi officer and struck him with a hammer. In the ensuing chaos SS guards were attacked with knives, stones and explosives. Crematorium IV was set alight. Three guards were killed and many injured. But although some of the prisoners managed to cut their way through the barbed wire to flee into the woods, the revolt was short-lived. The escapees were recaptured, and they and as many as 450 more were executed.

Freda Wineman, then aged 21, witnessed the aftermath, as she remembered in an interview for National Life Stories in 1988/9 (C410/13). Born in Metz in France, she and her family were evacuated to south-west France in 1939. Following the Nazi invasion of 1940 Freda’s whole family were arrested and sent to Drancy concentration camp near Paris. From there they were taken to Auschwitz-Birkenau where Freda was separated and sent to work.

Black and white photo of child survivors of Auschwitz standing behind barbed wireChild survivors of Auschwitz. Source: USHMM/Belarusian State Archive of Documentary Film and Photography via Wikimedia

Freda Wineman 'tell the world what was happening' (C410/013)

Download Freda Wineman 'tell the world what was happening' Transcript

Soon afterwards Freda was taken to Bergen-Belsen until February 1945 and from there to Raguhn camp and Theresienstadt, from where she was liberated in May 1945. Freda subsequently discovered that her parents and her brother, Marcel, had been killed at Auschwitz. She returned to Lyon in June 1945 where, despite being hospitalised with typhoid, she attended Klaus Barbie’s trial. In August 1945 she was finally reunited with her brothers David and Armand and in 1950 Freda married and moved to the UK.

In 2018 Freda, who has received a British Empire Medal for her extensive work with the Holocaust Education Trust, issued her own message on the importance of Holocaust education in an interview with CNN:

We have to be aware there are some right-wing movements that have to be stopped and eliminated… We must not let them get to the top because they are evil. Let's hope somebody will fight them. In several countries it has been happening and it is very worrying indeed.

We have testimonies in many museums and we hope that some of these young people will look up some of these and learn from them…Of course it won't be the same because they won't hear us speak about it and tell our own experiences. It will be different but we have to trust the future generation

If we don't live with hope we are finished.

Colour photograph of people holding candlesBe the light in the darkness. Source: Holocaust Memorial Day Trust

27 January is Holocaust Memorial Day. The theme for Holocaust Memorial Day 2021 is Be the light in the darkness. It encourages everyone to reflect on the depths humanity can sink to, but also the ways individuals and communities resisted that darkness to ‘be the light’ before, during and after genocide.

Freda Wineman was interviewed for ‘The Living Memory of the Jewish Community’ in 1988-89 by Taffy Sassoon and her full interview is available at the British Library Sounds Website.

The British Library Learning resource ‘Voices of the Holocaust’ is currently being updated and redesigned.

Blog by Rob Perks, Lead Curator of Oral History.

15 January 2021

Grace Robertson, a pioneer of women’s documentary photography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

06 January 2021

Albert Roux (1935-2021)

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Albert Roux was interviewed in 2007-08 for 'Food: From Source to Salespoint', a National Life Stories oral history project. The full interview with Albert Roux can be listened to online at the British Library Sounds website.

Black and white photo of Albert and Michel Roux in the kitchenAlbert and Michel Roux in the kitchen

Albert Roux, born in 1935, has died today. As a young man, his classmates dismissed his desire to become a chef as ‘woman’s work’. Now eating out is a regular social activity for many people and chefs and cooking programmes feature frequently on primetime television. When he arrived in the 1950s, most food eaten in Britain was locally produced. Now we have embraced dishes from across the globe. Albert was not just a witness but also a protagonist in these changes.

His knowledge of food began early, as both his father and grandfather were charcutiers in rural France. After training as a chef, Albert arrived in Britain in 1953. This was before the European Union and the Eurotunnel linked us with Europe so emphatically. Albert had to apply for a travel permit and have a medical before being allowed entry. Imported goods such as oranges and bananas were the exception. A greater proportion of the weekly budget was spent on food and shopping was done several times a week as domestic refrigeration was limited. Albert worked for the wealthy Astor family at their estate in Cliveden. He noted how class played into diet:

“On the day off, I would go into town … it didn’t take me too long to realise… there was a very strong division; there was the super rich, who I was working for, who lived like kings. Then you had the middle class, who lived nicely but the food was not an important subject for them. And then you had the majority who were not rich, making ends meet.”

He was also struck by the limited availability of items he assumed were kitchen essentials.

“There were commodities that we could not get in this country. If you wanted olive oil there was one or two places that sold it, otherwise you went to the chemist and bought a little bottle to put in your ears. I remember going in to a chemist shop and asking for all that they had, twelve bottles. He looked at me as though I was an elephant!”

However, tastes were changing. As more people were able to enjoy foreign travel, they were exposed to a variety of new tastes and textures, and were becoming increasingly adventurous in what they ate. In the same period, increased migration, particularly from the Commonwealth, meant wider availability of food from across the globe. When Albert and his brother Michel (1941-2020) established Le Gavroche restaurant in central London in 1967 they were aware of changing attitudes both inside and outside the kitchen.

“Nobody knew the name of the chef. They stayed at the stove and they cooked. The maitre d’s were luminaries. They were well known, you went to see John of The Connaught, or Paul of the ... the idea of the chef plating the food was unknown. That would have been scandalous to get food plated from the kitchen, cheap! There was a ceremony when the food came out, presented; put on the gueridon (trolley) there was a lot of flambé, of carving…”

The Roux brothers were at the forefront of turning chefs into national figures through their cookbooks and particularly their television series, which received several million views in the 1980s. They also influenced a generation of young chefs who passed through the kitchens of Le Gavroche: Marcus Wareing, Marco Pierre White, Pierre Koffmann, Gordon Ramsay and others. Training was hard, Albert commented, “the kitchen is the SAS of catering. It is painful. It is hard, precision work.” Despite this comment – or perhaps because of it - during Albert’s lifetime, Britain transformed itself from a ‘culinary desert’ and can now boast of some of the most diverse and adventurous cuisine in the world.

Blog by Niamh Dillon.

'Food: From Source to Salespoint' documented the changes at every level of the UK food sector through interviews with some 300 people involved in the production, distribution and retailing of food, including ready meals, poultry, sugar, meat and fish, the UK wine trade, cookery writers, restaurateurs and chefs, and employees of Tesco, Sainsbury, Safeway, Northern Foods and Nestlé. Interviews from the collection can be listened to online at the British Library Sounds Website.

17 December 2020

Public libraries in a pandemic year

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jolyne Thomas on Storyhouse, Chester (C1868/21)

Download Jolyne Thomas on Storyhouse Chester Transcript

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

Alan Robinson on Newcastle City Library (C1868/39)

Download Alan Robinson on Newcastle City Library Transcript

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

Baha Sideek on Colliers Wood Library (C1868/15)

Download Baha Sideek on Colliers Wood Library Transcript

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adelaide Hall - excerpt 1

Download Adelaide Hall and Max Jones transcript - excerpt 1

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

Adelaide Hall and Bill 'Bojangles' Robinson

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

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

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

Adelaide Hall - excerpt 2

Download Adelaide Hall and Max Jones transcript - excerpt 2

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

Adelaide Hall - excerpt 3

Download Adelaide Hall and Max Jones transcript - excerpt 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

14 December 2020

Recording of the week: Gut feelings in weather forecasting

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

Portrait photograph of Julia Slingo
Julia Slingo at the Meteorological Office in Exeter as its Chief Scientist, 2013

In her oral history interview Professor Dame Julia Slingo describes many aspects of her life and work as a climate modeller. Her research has focused on tropical climate variability and its impact on the global climate. She started her career at the Meteorological Office, where she received training in weather forecasting – developing a ‘gut feeling’ for the weather:

Julia Slingo speaking about 'gut feelings' in weather forecasting [C1379/61] 

Could you now then describe the practical training on this Met Office course at Shinfield Park?

Yes, so every afternoon we would take the current weather patterns and what we’d learn to do was to actually plot the charts, so in those days you learnt how to plot all the symbols that describe the weather at a particular location and then you’d draw up the chart with the pressure pat – the isobars and you’d use the observations to decide where the weather fronts must be from things about what the observations were telling you. And we learnt to work out things like … the difference between what the weather’s doing at the surface and what the weather’s doing in the middle of the troposphere, it would also tell you about how weather patterns would change with time. But we – it was all very practical because at that stage none of this was computerised; there was a lot of hand drawing and – and plotting observations and thinking about – and interpreting what they mean and so we would – that was – that was what we spent the afternoons doing and then we would make our own forecasts: what we thought was going to happen to the weather patterns over the UK the following day. And it was fascinating, because what you also learn is that – is that expert judgement comes into this as well, that it’s not just purely theory, there’s actually all sorts of local knowledge comes in. And I can still remember having drawn up this beautiful chart and put a cold front in where I thought it ought to be ‘cause of what the winds were doing and all of that and I remember the tutor, the guy who was taking the class coming round and he’d say – he’d say, ‘Well Julia, why do you think the cold front’s there?’ and I’d say, ‘Oh well that’s because, you know, the winds are doing this and the pressure’s doing that,’ and blah-de-blah-de-blah. And he’d say, ‘Well I think it’s probably going to be more over here,’ and I’d say, ‘But why?’ he said, ‘Well just because I just know.’ And there was all that – there was also that – all that element of experience that comes in so this idea that, you know, when you watch the weather day after day after day you learn about … you get a gut feeling for it, which has never left me actually. So it’s – it’s not only having the theoretical base but it’s also that sort of experience and the fact that we do experience the weather from day to day which so much of physics you can’t get that sort of feeling. And, you know, now I can sort of look at a weather map or I can look at a satellite picture and I just say, I've got that feeling that it’s going to do this.

This clip features on the website Voices of Science. Further extracts from Julia Slingo’s interview are available on her interviewee page. Voices of Science tells the stories of some of the most remarkable scientific and engineering discoveries of the past century, featuring extracts from over 100 oral history interviews.

Julia Slingo was recorded by interviewer Paul Merchant in 2011 for the National Life Stories project An Oral History of British Science. Listen to the recording in full on BL Sounds.

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

11 December 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blogpost by Tom Lean