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222 posts categorized "Oral history"

08 September 2020

The Political Lives of Postwar British MPs: An Oral History of Parliament

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Emma Peplow and Priscila Pivatto write about the History of Parliament Oral History Project and their new book 'The Political Lives of Postwar British MPs'.

Front cover of the book 'The Political Lives of Postwar British MPs'

It may seem strange to explore the lives of politicians through oral history. More often it is used to create sources for communities whose narratives are traditionally unheard, whereas MPs are some of the most well-recorded individuals in our society.

We have Hansard, voting records, press reports, memoirs and media interviews. Yet there are many aspects of life in Westminster and beyond that these records can’t quite capture. To try to fill these gaps, since 2011 the History of Parliament Trust’s oral history project, in collaboration with the British Library, has been interviewing former MPs about their experiences.

Out last month, The Political Lives of Postwar British MPs acts as an introduction and guide to the archive of over 175 ‘life story’ interviews with people who witnessed British politics at first hand and offer unique perspectives on parliament’s history.

There are certainly particular challenges to overcome that emerge from interviewing those who are used to public scrutiny. In our experience, working with politicians means that we regularly encounter well-known issues for oral historians such as ‘practiced narratives’ and ‘legacy building’. Politicians are used to speaking in public and well aware that their words will shape the writing of British history. Many interviewees have their favourite stories rehearsed and retell them frequently. When asked about her first impressions of parliament, Diana Maddock (Liberal Democrat, 1993-97) recognises her own practiced narrative:

Diana Maddock, C1503/157, Track 3 [00:09:05 - 00:09:35]

Because I won the by-election […] I had to go and talk to every local party dinner everywhere about what we did, and they used to ask “what’s it like?” And I used to say, I had a sort of patter after a while, and I said: “well, it’s a bit strange. I’m not a lawyer, I wasn’t in the guards, I didn’t go to a public school and I’m not a man. So it’s a pretty strange place.”

Previous research helps our interviewers to notice these stories and then, if possible, begin to unpack them. Some politicians might also be tempted to use the interview to portray their actions in the best possible light. Again, we encourage our interviewers to question these narratives and pursue deeper reflections. The way they justify a controversial vote, the reasons why they accepted a post, their involvement in scandals or even how they dealt with everyday life in Westminster are valuable to analyse how they understand the past and the gradual changes in acceptable and unacceptable behaviours inside the institution (for more see our recent article in Oral History Journal, 47, 2).

Despite these issues, our archive sheds light on a wide range of political experiences and offers a glimpse of life ‘behind the scenes’ at Westminster not captured elsewhere. It is an intimate perspective on British politics and Westminster’s culture in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

The archive includes as many former MPs as possible – not only the famous, not only the long-serving, but also those whose contribution is little known. Even in the case of prominent politicians, the whole life story approach gives us the most lively sense of what these people were like, their motivations, ambitions, achievements and regrets. There is a great sense of character in the interviews.

Photograph of John Cartwright standing in front of a houseJohn Cartwright, Labour/SDP, 1974-92

One example was the formation of the Social Democrat Party (SDP) in 1981 and why moderate Labour MPs chose to leave or remain in the party. MPs had to decide based on their personal loyalties, their calculations for their political future and also take into account the nature of their constituency party. Each decision was an individual one, as described by John Cartwright (Labour/SDP, 1974-92):

John Cartwright, C1503/94 [00:34:05 - 00:35:50]

That was the key thing, the Limehouse Declaration, and it was a question of who joined and who didn’t after that. I wrestled with it for a long time. I found it incredibly difficult because, as I said, I grew up in the Labour Party and I couldn’t see what life was going to be like outside the Labour Party. I also thought the chances of holding a safe seat like Woolwich, for this curious new organisation, were about nil. […] There were two issues, one: the left had been ganging up on my constituency for quite some time. Not just the Tribunite left, I could handle them, but the hard left, the Trotskyite left. […] My friends were saying to me “look, it’s getting difficult, more and more of them are arriving, we are losing control of various committees, you need to do this, you need to do that.” I said: “hang on a minute, yes I will do all those things, but what you are going to do?” “Oh, it is very difficult for us, we are borough councillors.” I thought “why should I? Nobody is going to fight for me.” And then I thought, well I could wait and if they deselect me I could jump then, then I thought well I am damaged goods if I do that, that is not very sensible. But what it came down to in the end was that I felt I couldn’t stay in one political party if my heart was in another. And once I was convinced they really were serious about establishing a new political party I knew that’s where my heart was. And come hell or high water that’s where I had to go.

The archive provides a sense of emotion in politics, what things meant to politicians and the diversity of their personal understandings of the role of an MP. In the extracts collected in the book, MPs describe being fascinated, delighted, passionate, excited, angry, nervous, frightened, disillusioned, exhausted and many other emotions. Some narrators’ voices still broke years later when speaking about specific pieces of legislation, constituents’ casework or the impact of a political life on their families. If some were cynical political operators, most entered politics with ideals in mind. Despite different political views and life experiences, the voices valued parliamentary democracy, as John Allan Stewart (Conservative, 1979–97) remembers:

John Allan Stewart, C1503/72, Track 2 [00:02:10 - 00:02:55]

People in the House of Commons generally believe in politics. I believe there is only two ways to run society: you either run society by politicians or men with sub-machine guns, there’s no other way. So I have a great respect for the process of politics and therefore the people who practice it. Now that’s not a very fashionable thing, the fashionable thing is to attack politicians and say they’re all in it for themselves and so on and so forth. I think that some of them are, but generally that’s not true. Generally people are there because they believe in things, and/or they believe in the process of politics.

The stories build a picture of British politics over the period, from manoeuvring at constituency party meetings to Northern Irish Republicans and Unionists singing carols together in Westminster bars. Parliament’s distinct and at times baffling mixture of conventions, precedents and ‘the way things were done’ are put on full display in the interviews, as are the reactions, both positive and negative, to them. MPs could fit in and use this culture, try to subvert it, or try to meet it head on, all in order to make their mark or further their political causes.

The memories included in the book The Political Lives of Postwar British MPs are just a flavour of the History of Parliament Trust’s growing archive in the British Library, many of which can be listened to online at British Library Sounds. We hope it will be a guide for others to explore the recordings for themselves: to listen to the voices, the significant pauses and the emotions that give first-hand experiences of life in Westminster.

Dr Emma Peplow is Head of Development at the History of Parliament Trust, with responsibility for developing the Oral History Project. Emma has worked on the project since joining the Trust in 2012, conducting interviews and speaking and publishing on the project. She has previously coordinated oral history projects for the Marylebone Cricket Club Museum/University of Glamorgan and has a PhD in International History from the London School of Economics.

Dr Priscila Pivatto is a Research Associate at the History of Parliament Trust and since 2011 has coordinated to the Oral History Project. She has also conducted interviews, trained interviewers, published and presented papers on oral history, parliamentary proceedings and history of political thought. She has a PhD in Public Law from the University of São Paulo, Brazil.

31 August 2020

Recording of the week: Kathy Stobart interviewed by Jen Wilson

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

In the late 1980s, Jen Wilson, pianist and founder of Jazz Heritage Wales, interviewed saxophonist and bandleader Kathy Stobart (1925 – 2014). Now part of the British Library collection Oral history of jazz in Britain (C122), the audio recording of this interview has recently been cleared for online release as part of Unlocking Our Sound Heritage.

As Data Protection and Rights Clearance Officer, my job involves contacting rights holders and their representatives, in recordings such as this one, to request permission. It’s an extraordinary opportunity to learn more about the voices in the recordings, and as in the case of the Oral history of jazz in Britain collection, discover the rich history of jazz music making in the UK.

Kathy Stobart playing the saxophone
Kathy Stobart, photographed by Derek Gabriel for Jazz Heritage Wales

Born on 1 April, 1925 in South Shields, England, Florence Kathleen Stobart was the daughter of a pianist and a police officer. In her interview she describes a musical upbringing, and a talent for memorising piano pieces. Her early performance career included singing, dancing and impersonating artists such as Gracie Fields, but it was as a saxophonist and later bandleader that she became best known.

In this excerpt from the interview she describes her induction into life as a working jazz musician.

Kathy Stobart on her early experiences playing jazz

Kathy was only a teenager when her career began, and as a musician she travelled up and down the United Kingdom even touring abroad, working with musicians such as Denis Rose, Ted Heath, Jimmy Skidmore, Art Pepper, Peanuts Hucko, Vic Lewis, Humphrey Lyttleton, just to name a few.

While investigating the rights for this recording, I corresponded with Kathy’s son Peter by email, and in these exchanges he described her life as ‘long and full of some pretty amazing events’, highlighting the WW2 years in particular. In his words:

At the beginning as a very young girl 14 I think… travelling with an all-girl cabaret band (but run by a bloke! Don Rico) down to London and round the time of the Blitz through to… returning to London, again during the war, but around 1943, to actually take a real step into the Jazz World, travelling to west-end and Soho clubs at night, playing at the Embassy Club… with the likes of Clark Gable, Glenn Miller, Bob Hope sitting in the audience…then travelling back to Ealing amongst the sometimes bombed streets etc.

Peter goes on to describe how Kathy became ‘a ‘proper’ respected working jazz musician’, who was ‘very often on the cover of Melody Maker hailed as a real star…not that Kath would ever show off about stuff like that… she wasn't like that at all.’ His emails and the interview reveal a modest and witty Kathy Stobart, as you can hear in the next excerpt, in which she matter-of-factly talks about forming her own band, something that was a rare achievement for a woman at the time.

Kathy Stobart on working as a female band leader

Kathy married Art Thompson, a fellow musician, in 1943, then later trumpeter Bert Courtley in 1951. Around the same time she was leading her own band, which included Bert, Derek Humble and Dill Jones. As Peter mentions above, being a female bandleader for an all-male band was highly unusual, and is testament to Kathy’s determination and enthusiasm to do what she loved, and do it well.

The interview provides valuable insight into Kathy Stobart’s life as a working musician, including scaling back professional work to have three children in the 1950s and 1960s - although she continued to perform and tour throughout this period.

Kathy Stobart on juggling work and children

Sadly Kathy’s husband Bert passed away in 1969, and the interview reflects on some of the more challenging aspects of the jazz world, which professional musicians such as Kathy and Bert faced.

In the 1970s, she created the Kathy Stobart Quintet, one of the original members being Harry Beckett (trumpet), who was also interviewed for the Oral history of jazz in Britain collection. During this time Kathy was also playing in Humphrey Lyttelton’s band, as well as teaching adult music classes at City Literary Institute in Holborn, London.

There isn’t really enough space in one blog to list all of her achievements (you can read more about them on her website), but it is worth mentioning that she was also a regular guest musician on BBC Radio 1’s Sounds of Jazz, a headliner at Britain's first women's jazz festival in 1982, and even taught Dame Judi Dench saxophone in preparation for a role in a TV play. She continued to perform and make guest appearances with bands until her early 80s, long after most people would be considering retirement and a well-earned rest!

Freedom Music
Cover of Jen Wilson's book Freedom Music

A trailblazer who inspired many people, Kathy was a key influence in fellow musician Jen Wilson’s life. Jen is a pianist and the founder of Jazz Heritage Wales, formerly known as the Women’s Jazz Archive, and has kindly shared her own perspective on the interview and how she met Kathy:

I first saw Kathy Stobart on stage with Humphrey Lyttelton’s Band at Swansea’s Brangwyn Hall in about 1957/8? She was not sitting on the side in a fancy frock waiting to be called to sing. She was standing in the front line blowing our socks off. I was about 13/14 and transfixed. My brother John was a drummer, but also owned a tenor sax on which I tried to play blues riffs. Now here was the real thing. I never forget that first impression.

In 1980 Ursula Masson with a MA in history, formed the Swansea Women’s History Group. Gail Allen and myself joined and we went on to tour photographic exhibitions and make video documentaries about women’s lives in Wales. In 1985 after finishing our video on Welsh women in the miner’s strike, Ursula said to me “you are a jazz musician, what is the story of jazz in Wales?” I said I didn’t know. She said “then find out.” I spent 18 months writing to archives and libraries asking for material on British women jazz musicians. I got the occasional letter saying “we don’t hold anything here”, or “if you find anything could you let us have it?” Then Swansea’s Glanmor Jazz Club booked Kathy Stobart to play with the Russ Jones house band. So I thought, if no archive or library had any stories about British women jazz musicians, I’d better start with Kathy if I want to know our history.

After the gig, I nervously approached her to ask if I could interview her. “Of course, love. Thank you for asking. Come to the B&B in the morning for a chat.” I borrowed the History Group’s Marantz broadcast quality tape recorder. That first chat took us to 1939; she had to drive off to her next gig. I transcribed it over the next week – I was a fast typist, trained at my school’s secretarial course. Enthralled and excited, I told Ursula and Gail “I think I have just started the Women’s Jazz Archive.” “About time” said Ursula.

Years later I managed to catch up again with Kathy. Mike (husband) and I drove down to Axmouth and a lovely welcome. She talked non-stop. Halfway she rushed to the kitchen to make a pile of tuna sandwiches, cake and tea. Then she gently eased us out of her house as she had to drive to London for a gig. A truly, lovely lady.

I was intrigued as to how this full-time jazz musician, married to a full-time trumpet player, could travel the UK and bring up three sons and produce that quality of music. Kathy simply said “my mum, we all need our mums.” She had to call in her mum as when Bert Courtley was instructed to look after the boys for a week, she had returned home from a tour to find a pile of soiled nappies out in the backyard.

I am enormously grateful to Peter and Jen for providing more context for the interview, and for archivist David Nathan at the National Jazz Archive, for helping with contacts for this recording and the collection.

You can read more about Kathy Stobart on her website and Jen Wilson’s also provides more information. Jazz Heritage Wales is based at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David (UWTSD).

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

23 July 2020

Oral History of British Science and transnational history

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Dr Sally Horrocks writes about her recent talk at the Global Digital History of Science Festival.

Earlier this month the British Society for the History of Science hosted a successful online ‘Global Digital History of Science Festival’ in place of is usual annual conference. This event prompted me to reflect on how the interviews collected for An Oral History of British Science might be used to explore transnational histories of science and to think about what happens when we view our interviewees as nodes in transnational networks rather than as ‘British scientists’. I was also interested to see what oral history, particularly the extended life story approach used in An Oral History of British Science, might contribute to the project of writing transnational histories of science.

Interviews reveal the ways in which individuals moved across borders at all stages of their lives and for many reasons, sometimes several times- as child refugees, as students, as postdocs, to take up new employment opportunities, as a consequence of the regulatory state.

As a collection these interviews show how individual, family and state decisions, accrete to create a transnational scientific community that is constantly in flux. They also reveal the individual costs of these moves and the barriers that had to be navigated during such transitions that are often not discussed elsewhere.

Oral histories also reveal how individuals who make these moves create their own sense of individual identity. Lithuanian born, South Africa raised Aaron Klug, 1982 Nobel Prize winner for chemistry, reflected on his multiple identities: ‘All these things co-existed. But I didn’t feel any contradiction between feeling Jewish and being South African and also a British subject.’

The ways in which personal relationships were developed and sustained across national borders, and how these relationships acted as facilitators of knowledge exchange also emerge strongly. The cartoon below, presented to physicist Mike Forrest by his Soviet colleague Boris Kadomtsev, a Lenin Prize winner, suggests a sense of fun and camaraderie which also emerges from the interview and shows us a different side of prominent figures:

A black and white cartoon of scientists on a train

Mike Forrest on his first day in the USSR (C1379/48)

So we had this very formal invitation from the Russians, and that was my first trip to Russia. We were met at the airport by Volodiya Sannikov the young Russian who was going to work with us. I think it was December the ninth, so it was a type of deepest Russian winter, a cold one as well, quite a blast when you got off the plane, and even more so when we got out the car to go into the hotel. The first day, I think the first day we went out to see the Park of Achievements, and the second day we went to the lab. Peter Wilcock has a different [laughs] he has a complete reverse, so this is one of these memory things where we remember totally different things. My version, this chap Dennis Ivanov who was the engineer physicist who designed T3, he picked up us up at the hotel and took us to the Park of Achievements in Moscow. This is where they show off all the latest – exhibitions of all the latest stuff. And of course then it was all space. So we actually saw Gagarin’s space capsule, which is fairly horrific. It was like a cannonball with leather straps inside, you just couldn’t imagine, you know, going inside that. I think – it’s a huge, it must have been about a 100 acre site, and it’s the middle of winter, and I think we were about the only tourists there. Anyway, Dennis said “lets go and eat and we'll start talking about the project.” So he took us to this restaurant and plied us with vodka. By the time the food had come [laughs] we were getting a bit sloshed, I think is the right word. Anyway, and then we started chatting, you know, technicalities and we ended up drawing – we didn’t have any drawings of the machine there, so we ended up drawing things on the paper tablecloth. In fact I can recollect carrying bits of this back so we’d have a record, because we honestly wouldn’t have remembered the conversation [laughs].

Oral histories also reveal the significance and involvement of scientists families in these relationships. Dennis Higton, who spent time as technical liaison to the British Embassy in Washington recalled the significance of his wife to his career, describing her as ‘the heroine of the whole trip’:

Dennis Higton on dinner parties in the USA (C1379/41)

I was posted to America in a hurry, but the reason for the hurry was the chap I was replacing had been thrown back home. I was told when I got there – well, I was told by the Foreign Office before I left. They said, ‘Look, we’re bringing you over, the last chap in the world we want to see really, but the real reason for getting you there, what they called the social side, was crashing fast and your task is to put that straight. It doesn’t matter what you do on the technical side.’ But they worried about my wife, but they shouldn’t have done. They thought she was – unable to cope with dinner parties every other night and go out nicely dressed, but she was – she was the heroine of the whole trip, I’m pleased to say. In fact the Americans, they all said, ‘We don’t want to see you, Dennis,’ they said, ‘We want old Joy Bells back, you see.’ And these parties, you see, they not only enable you to talk to people in your discipline, but you’ll meet all sorts of people in all the other disciplines, you see. They’d always be... In your house you’ll always have a meal. Sometimes there are little parties. Sometimes the house would be full of people drinking and eating.

What reasons do you have for throwing a party?

Well, to get to know people. There’s no point in shaking hands at the airport, you’ve got to know them so that they talk to you and you can talk to them. It’s all about talking to people and people that you trust and they trust you. And you’ve got the energy to do it. That’s the – that’s the requirement of a Washington chap.

These personal relationships helped when it became necessary to circumvent the regulatory state. Interviews with John Scott-Scott and John Nye capture details that out of necessity would never have been committed to paper; of clandestine meetings on benches between British and US scientists, or with Soviet dissidents:

John Scott-Scott on a trip to California (C1379/32)

But they were jolly good, and that’s where you can meet these informal people in the corridor over a cup of tea, where we’d pretend to forget all about security. Yeah, well you’d check that the fellow’s not Russian for a start, but generally speaking you can have a better meeting than you have in a formal sense. Now on one of these things I fixed up with someone to go and see them another day, after the conference, and in the meanwhile some wretch, I don’t know whether it was the British Embassy who used to play us up a lot, had decided, they’d found out about me, and they were going to ban my visit. So I had to turn up at the gate of this place, and they said, ‘You can’t come in, John, sorry, we’re not allowed to do this, that and the other.’ I said, ‘Well that’s a bit daft, I’ve come 6,000 miles,’ because it was on the far side, ‘to have a chat with you.’ ‘Ah, don’t worry about it,’ he said, ‘you just can’t come on site.’ I said, ‘What am I going to do then?’ He says, ‘Drive back half a mile,’ he says, ‘and you’ll find there’s a sort of park area with one or two benches. Just go and park down there.’ I said, ‘All right,’ try anything once. Well you won’t believe it, by the time I got down there half the bushes had got blokes in them. And these blokes all walk out, and they come and sit on these benches round in a circle, and we have a wonderful meeting out there, where someone brought a cold box so we got something cold to drink, and we had our meeting outside in the sun of California. So it just shows, if you know a few people, you know, and they were always very good to me that way.

John Nye on handing over offprints on a bench (C1379/22)

I also discovered that there was a Geophysics Seminar on similar lands in Moscow, and I was invited to, er, address them. I went out there, and we sat round a table and talked about geophysics. And one of the chaps there said please could he have reprints. And I said, ‘Of course, certainly I can, but I’ve left them, I’ve got them all in the hotel.’ ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘I’ll pick them up tomorrow morning.’ I was staying in the big hotel where all the foreigners stayed at that time, near the Kremlin. And I said, 'well, I’ll give them to you at my hotel'. ‘No, I can’t come into your hotel,’ he said, ‘we’ll meet outside.’ So we met outside. And he had this carrier bag that all Russians carry around with them in case there’s a bargain going in the shops, so something just come in. And he said, ‘We will walk,’ and we walked, and we walked, and we walked to a park. And traditionally we sat down [laughs] on the park bench. And I took the reprints out of my briefcase and he put them into his carrier bag, just like [laughs] they do in the movies. [Laughs] And I’m sure we were not being observed, but that was his concern. And I went back to my hotel and he went back to his lab.

Written records tell us much about how transnational communities and institutional structures have been constructed and maintained, interviews reveal the practical everyday tasks required to sustain longstanding collaborations such as the International Geophysical Year (1957-58) or World Ocean Circulation Experiment. They also show the many individual contributions that enabled some institutions to develop a reputation as important nodes in international networks

David Davies, editor of Nature from 1973 to 1980, noted of the Department of Geodesy and Geophysics in Cambridge during the early 1970s, ‘they need somebody in a department who will make things happen. You know, who will organise the symposia, who will meet the visitors, who will organise the expeditions’:

David Davies on doing departmental donkey work (C1379/60)

My – I think my job at the department was [laughs] – I sort of knew I wasn’t going to be a brilliant scientist, I sort of knew, I knew I wasn’t, I’d be – and I knew that there were good, really good people coming through all the time like – like Dan for instance who – but all departments in every scientific discipline, every discipline, they need somebody in a department who will make things happen. You know, who will organise the symposia, who will meet the visitors, who will organise the expeditions, this that and the other. And I think – I sort of knew at that stage that that was my role, read the stuff in the library and tell other people about. Being the – being the sort of gatekeeper in a way, friendly gatekeeper, not an unfriendly gatekeeper, and I sort of fitted into that role. I mean Teddy, Teddy sort of was brilliant in all sorts of directions but somebody needed to sort of take onto his bright ideas and move them somewhere else or say, no it wouldn’t work, or let’s try it out. And everybody else really, all the research students, said you needed some – somebody in the department who just knew broadly what was going on and could organise things. And I suppose I slipped into that role ‘cause nobody else did it but, you know, inviting speakers to colloquium and driving people from the station [laughs] and all that kind of stuff. So – and departments do need that as well as brilliant minds, they do need people who will do the donkey work.

Interviews also capture how these practices have changed over time. Physicist Ann Wintle reflected on how email and Skype had enabled her to remain active in her field after retirement, remarking ‘you can discuss things with anybody anywhere’ - allowing her to participate in a transnational research community without leaving her own home in the same way that I was able to do as an attendee at the Festival.

Ann Wintle on laboratory work via Skype (C1379/57)

I guess when I turned sixty in 2008, I was by then thinking, I’ve got to do something with my life, I can’t actually sit in Aberystwyth forever. You know, there are two perfectly competent people running a lab here but, you know, I will feel like the - you know, the sort of – the ghost that creeps in from time to time and this isn’t right, they need to be – not have me anywhere in sight. So yeah, I decided coming to Cambridge would be a good idea and just made the move, so … still have the same interests but no sort of – nobody to go talk to every day, but when you can do it on Skype or on the phone or send emails, it’s not – not a problem. I can still think and work and write, so that’s good. You know, I can download from libraries. That means that, you know, all the information is still at your fingertips. It’s only when you’re wanting to have a detailed discussion with somebody, equivalent to having a discussion with them in the room, that the Skype comes in and then you’re – you can do instant texting. You can almost write – you can almost type as fast as you can talk. So you can just, you know, talk like we are now but you’re just doing it on a keyboard. And that person is instantly there engaging with you, whereas if it’s emails it might take a little bit and they may have wandered off somewhere. But I mean, in this case it’s – it’s absolutely instant. And then we send – we’re still sending emails with files on them if we want to know, you know, 'what does that dataset look like?' and, ooh, 'go check your email box, I’ve just sent it to you'. So you can get that and then you can look at it and then you can both talk about it. That – that’s how it works. It’s really – it’s great. I mean, it’s, you know, you’d – I can see why in the past some people might have either gone very solitary when they retired or they disengaged totally from their academic field, because they didn’t have any interactions that – in this way, because you didn’t have the communication. Now you’ve got the communication, you know, you can discuss things with anybody anywhere. So you’ve I think probably got more chance of staying involved with your – with your research ideas. Though you don’t have the equipment to do it yourself, you’ve still got the ideas and if you hit it right you can persuade somebody to do the experiment you would do if you were there. They think it’s their experiment but, you know, you know you’ve just pushed them in that little direction, saying, ‘Ooh, I think I’d look at that, yeah.’ So that’s – that’s great fun. It also means they have to go off and spend physical time doing the experiments where you can go off and read a book [laughs].

Dr Sally Horrocks is the Senior Academic Advisor for the National Life Stories project An Oral History of British Science. All the clips featured in this blog can he found on the Voices of Science website.

13 July 2020

Recording of the week: Women’s workwear in the 1960s

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

Cover of 'Speeding The Mail: An Oral History of the Post Office', CD published by the British Library and the British Postal Museum and Archive, 2005.
Speeding The Mail: An Oral History of the Post Office, CD published by the British Library and the British Postal Museum and Archive, 2005.

In 1969 Morag Simpson MacDonald responded to an advert in the Sunday Times for a graduate trainee programme with the Post Office. The advert was for ‘telecoms management entrants’ and there were twelve successful applicants, including five women. Despite being managed through a modern recruitment process the trainee programme was controversial – unions hadn’t been informed that the Post Office were recruiting non-engineering graduates. Morag Simpson MacDonald was a law graduate, and she began her traineeship in the telecoms personnel department.

In her life story recording Morag describes her experiences of working for the Post Office, including reflections on encountering chauvinism from male colleagues in the 1970s. She begins with a brief but revealing description of the women’s dress code when she first joined the programme, and her reaction to it:

Morag Simpson Macdonald on the 1960s Post Office dress code (C1107/83 Part 4)

When I arrived I suppose it was late sixties. Many of the women, there were many women working in the Post Office, they were almost entirely single and they were mostly in their fifties. There was a very, there was certainly a male atmosphere in that the directors, all the senior staff that I knew when I started were all male. And women were allowed to wear trousers to work providing they asked everybody else who worked in their office if they minded or not. [laughs] And it seems quite extraordinary. Although when I complained about this to another woman, unmarried woman, she said, well you have to remember, it’s not very long since women had to leave work when they got married. So she didn’t find it extraordinary at all that I had to ask permission if I wanted to wear trousers, but that was how it was and if somebody said no, they objected, then that was it.

Morag Simpson MacDonald was interviewed by Rorie Fulton for An Oral History of the Post Office in 2002. A written summary of the full interview can be word searched on the Sound and Moving Image Catalogue.

This collection comprises 116 life story interviews with a sample of the Post Office's 200,000 staff in the UK, recorded between 2001 and 2005. The recordings cover postal sorting, transportation and deliveries; stamp design, printing and marketing; legal, purchasing and property departments; plus lesser-known aspects such as the Post Office Rifles, the Post Office Film Unit and the Lost Letter Centre. There is an emphasis on change within living memory: the separation of post from telecommunications, computerisation and automation, new management practices and the diversification of new services offered by Post Office. You can hear more extracts from An Oral History of the Post Office on the British Library Sounds website, under the heading ‘Speeding the Mail’.

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

07 July 2020

Linton Kwesi Johnson awarded PEN Pinter Prize 2020

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Linton Kwesi Johnson has been awarded the PEN Pinter Prize 2020. He will receive the award in a digital ceremony co-hosted by the British Library on 12 October, where he will deliver an address. To coincide with the award Sarah O’Reilly looks back at Johnson’s career through his life story interview for the National Life Stories oral history project ‘Authors’ Lives’.

Headshot photograph of Linton Kwesi Johnson

Image credit: Maria Nunes Photography

For Linton Kwesi Johnson, the recipient of the 2020 PEN Pinter Prize, writing has always gone hand in hand with political activism. Widely regarded as the first artist to give a voice to second generation black Britons – the children of the West Indian migrants who travelled to England in the postwar period – his poetry articulates the struggle against racial and social injustice that has energised him for fifty years:

Linton Kwesi Johnson on poetry as the cultural side of politics (C1276/60)

Poetry has always been a way of articulating anger, and ideas about injustice and the struggle against it. It was always the cultural dimension of what I was doing on the streets, the demonstration, the picket line. It was always the cultural side of politics.

Whether protesting police brutality in poems such as ‘Sonny’s Lettah’, reacting to the National Front in ‘Fite Dem Back’ or celebrating the 1981 uprisings in Brixton, Liverpool and Bristol in ‘Di Great Insohreckshan’, Johnson’s work stands as an evolving account of race relations in the UK over the past half century. His subjects have included Blair Peach (a teacher killed by police at an anti-racism rally in 1979), George Lindo (framed for robbery in Bradford), and the New Cross Fire of 1981 in which 13 young party-goers lost their lives. For many, Johnson has been an alternative poet laureate, using his experiences to give voice to the pressures and alienation felt by a generation of young black Britons, expressed in a new form, ‘reggae poetry’.

Johnson was born in Chapeltown, Jamaica, in 1952 to Sylvena, a domestic worker, and Eric, a baker and sometime sugar estate worker. At the age of seven, after his parents’ separation, he moved to live with his grandmother, a subsistence farmer in Sandy River. He described the years spent with her as ‘the happiest time of my life’, recalling days spent tending his grandmother’s crops and nights outside in the yard under a full moon listening to her stories and folktales.

In 1961 Sylvena moved to England and two years later Johnson followed in her footsteps. Arriving in the country on a grey November day in 1963, the ugliness of the buildings and the cold were a shock:

Linton Kwesi Johnson on arriving in England (C1276/60)

From the books that you saw at school, you really didn’t know what England was like, but I’d have read the story of Dick Whittington, and you’d see pictures of horse drawn carriages and all that, and you’d imagine that England was something like that. Great big mansions and literally the streets of London paved with gold. It was a bit of a rude awakening when I arrived and saw these grey ugly looking buildings on the drive from the airport to Victoria station where my mother met me. And it was a grey November day. I came here the 8th November 1963 and it was one of those overcast, cold days. I thought to myself my God, is this England? My mother was there to meet me and when I saw her at first I didn’t recognise her. How long had it been since you’d last seen her? It seemed like a long time, but I don’t think it was more than two years. But it seemed like a very long time. And she looked as if she’d changed a lot over that time. But it was my mother. First thing she did was take me to Littlewoods and bought me a duffle coat. Because of the cold? Yeah.

In England, Johnson attended Tulse Hill Comprehensive where he was relegated to the bottom stream in spite of his academic achievements in Jamaica. He had ambitions to become an accountant, though in a sign of the school’s low aspirations for boys from the Caribbean, the idea was greeted with incredulity by his careers adviser. Johnson would later compare the elation of finishing a poem with the pleasure of balancing the books:

Linton Kwesi Johnson on "aspirations above my station" (C1276/60)

We all wanted to make something of our lives, cos we didn’t come to this country to... in Jamaica we say Me no come here for cow, me for come here to drink milk. So we didn’t come here to loaf, we all wanted to make something of our lives and try and get a good education, and me, well I always loved learning, you know, I had a very inquisitive mind, I wanted to know, I had this thirst for knowledge. So I can’t speak for anybody else, but for myself I wanted to become an accountant because I loved the figures. I was good at it, at school, and I was good at economics and commerce. I liked the feeling that you got when your books balanced. And later on, when I started to write verse, I realised that once you struggle with a poem and then the poem is finished it’s the same kind of feeling of elation, the same feeling that you get when you’re doing your accounts and your books balance [laughs]. Strange comparison but there you go. Anyway, within the schooling system, with maybe one or two exceptions, it was understood, it was the general understanding, I think, that boys from the Caribbean, from working class backgrounds, would do a similar job to their parents. Work in the factories, on the buses, in the hospitals and so on. So me wanting to become an accountant, I was having aspirations above my station, or at least that’s the impression I got from the careers teacher. I guess I am a second generation immigrant child, what am I talking about, accountant? The idea must have sounded absurd to him.

It was whilst he was a pupil at Tulse Hill that Johnson first encountered Altheia Jones-LeCointe, the Trinidadian research scientist who played a leading role in the British Black Panther Movement of the 1960s and 1970s. The Panthers championed racial equality in housing, the justice system, immigrant rights and employment practices, and focused on educating their members in Saturday schools. It was here, in the movement’s Youth League, that Johnson discovered the work of Eric Williams, CLR James and Franz Fanon - ‘an astonishing discovery for me because I didn’t realise that black people even wrote books’. It was in the Panthers’ library that he found ‘the beautiful poetic prose’ of WEB du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk. It ‘stirred something within me, and made me want to use language myself’.

If Black Panthers gifted Johnson an intellectual and political education, it was his experiences on the streets of Brixton that gave him something to write about. He recalled a ‘war against the Black youth’ up in the 60s and 70s, facilitated by legislation such as the ‘sus’ laws, which allowed for the arrest and punishment of anyone on the streets suspected of criminal intent. In 1972, he was wrongfully arrested himself, ‘thrown in the Black Maria, kicked all over’ by three police officers and taken to Brixton police station where he was charged with assaulting a police officer and Actual Bodily Harm. His crime had been to note down the details of two officers who were harassing acquaintances from his local club in Brixton Market. The experience ‘certainly didn’t endear the police to me.’ Though the charges against him were later dropped, the experience has a long-lasting impact: ‘Perhaps that’s why I’ve spent a substantial part of my life campaigning against injustice.’ He would later become involved in organising watershed events such as The Black People’s Day of Action in 1981, and working as a campaigning journalist with The Race Today Collective and Channel 4’s Bandung File. Alongside this activism, poetry became his ‘cultural weapon’.

Inspired by the Caribbean poets he discovered in the magazine Savacou 3/4, whose writing was powered by the use of non-standardised English, as well as the music of The Last Poets, Count Ossie and the Mystic Revelation of Rastafari and the reggae DJs in Jamaica who declaimed their spontaneously improvised lyrics over dub music mixed down with sound effects, Johnson began writing ‘Jamaican English’ verse. Replacing iambic pentameter with the beat and bassline of reggae music, he created a new poetic form in which to describe the Black experience as he perceived it: ‘I’m writing about the Caribbean experience in Britain, black people’s experience in Britain. Why should I try and do so in the rarified language of English poetry?’:

Linton Kwesi Johnson on finding a language for poetry (C1276/60)

What I took from music was beat and rhythm, I guess the closest thing one gets to beat and metre. And by the time I began to write Jamaican verse, it was the bassline in the reggae that did it for me. I tried to write words that worked against the bassline or words that sounded like a bassline in reggae music, you know? I mean there was this whole idea of ‘blues poetry’ and ‘jazz poetry’, I wanted to write ‘reggae poetry’, so the one drop beat of reggae came into my verse and the bassline, how the bass sounded. And I guess those things, those two things, beat, bassline, determined the structure of the verse I wrote, and that came out of the language itself. I guess what I was trying to do is find the reggae in the Jamaican speech when I was writing the verse.

To critics who accused him of inciting violence in the streets, Johnson’s response was that he was ‘describing reality as I see it’: ‘I was an activist, I saw myself as being part of a radical and revolutionary struggle of resistance. It was part and parcel of that.’ In the words of Fred D’Aguiar, his poems were ‘a call for fair play on the political level with an accurate rendition of the mood among young people on the psychological level’.

The front cover of the book Dread Beat and Blood

Dread, Beat and Blood, published by Bogle L’Ouverture

Johnson’s first collection of poems, Voices of the Living and the Dead, came out in 1974 and was followed a year later by Dread, Beat and Blood. The latter became a bestseller for its publishers, the radical publishing house Bogle L’Ouverture, and was assisted by Johnson’s growing fame as a recording artist and performer. In 1977 he released The Poet and the Roots through Virgin Records, followed by Dread, Beat an’ Blood, Forces of Victory, Bass Culture, LKJ in Dub and Mekkin Histri with Island Records, before establishing his own record label in 1981. The performance of the work in front of an audience – delivered in a gravelly voice, almost monotone – became an important part of the creative act:

Linton Kwesi Johnson on the importance of reciting poems aloud (C1276/60)

When you write a new poem, you know, it’s the saying of it. Although it’s a finished poem it’s not really finished until you hear it properly. When you can hear it properly, all the nuances of inflection, of breathing, of pauses - cos that’s all a part of it you know, it’s not just simple words strung together - it’s the saying of the poem. And for me, poetry doesn’t come alive anyway unless it’s read aloud. It’s just dead words on the page... the hearing of the poem is important.

In subsequent years, Johnson would address increasingly personal subjects in his poetry, from the end of a relationship in ‘Hurricane Blues’ to elegies for his nephew and father, and friends May Ayim and Bernie Grant, a change in direction that reflected both an evolution in race relations in the UK, and his own shifting relationship with his writing:

Linton Kwesi Johnson on moving to the centre ground of poetry (C1276/60)

It’s just what comes along with getting old, it’s the age thing.... I mean in the political poems you want to convey anger, you want to capture the vibes, the mood, the sense of the period and the rage people feel. With the later poems now it’s about remembering, it’s about reverence, it’s about love. Perhaps it’s a way of dealing with your own sadness, a way of coping with one’s own sense of loss and feelings of sadness, or even guilt. It’s a long time now since I’ve understood that that’s the centre ground of poetry, really – it’s the personal.

In 2002 Johnson became only the second living poet to have work published in the Penguin Modern Classics series. With his unique form of language and body of work he has provided a commentary covering over three decades of contemporary history, and used, in the words of Harold Pinter’s Nobel speech, his ‘unflinching, unswerving’ gaze upon the world to ‘define the real truth of our lives and our societies’ - a force to be reckoned with.

Sarah O’Reilly interviewed Linton Kwesi Johnson in 2014-15 for National Life Stories’ ‘Authors’ Lives’ oral history project at the British Library. The interview can be found by searching the catalogue reference number C1276/60 at sami.bl.uk 

24 June 2020

Working from home

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For those of us who usually travel to work every day, working from home takes some getting used to. Fortunately we’ve been able to consult our collections for some advice. The British Library’s Sound and Moving Image catalogue lists 56 oral history recordings, across 19 different collections, that mention ‘working from home’. In interviews recorded for the National Life Stories project An Oral History of British Science, three interviewees describe their approach to being productive, creative, and professional in a domestic environment.

Stephanie 'Steve' Shirley

Portrait of Stephanie 'Steve' Shirley
Stephanie ‘Steve’ Shirley as the first ever national Ambassador for Philanthropy, 2009. Photo credit: Unlimited Photography

Dame Stephanie Steve Shirley set up a tech company in the 1960s to enable women with children to work as programmers from home. She had a novel approach to creating a professional atmosphere, which included playing pre-recorded office sounds while making phone calls. In her recording she describes how she got her business off the ground at a time when women with families were expected to forego their careers.

'…I recorded sort of, office type noises… so whenever the phone went I would put this on in the background so that I’d got this busy office buzz behind me. Now, I really sort of think how very naïve, but it wasn’t naïve, it actually got us going…' (C1379/28)

Audio clip: Stephanie Shirley on programming from home (C1379/28)

At the end of January in ’64, or something like that, we had a tiny mention in the Guardian newspaper, Manchester Guardian it probably still was then, that mentioned this extraordinary woman, Steve Shirley, writing computer programs in Chesham in between feeding her baby and washing the nappies. And that was really the sort of phraseology that was used. And that brought in a flood of women who liked the idea of working from home, and had computer skills, and had, as I always projected I suppose, the need or the – or might be financial need of course, to go on working without being a conventional employee. I had a secretary who came in one afternoon a week and, erm, engaged her through an agency that specialised in part-time work which largely meant women. And, so I got hold of this secretary, who’s still a friend today, called Barbara Edwards, and she arrived, was at home, in my home. She brought her own little portable typewriter. Later on she brought her own baby in a carrycot. And she was instructed really to make sure that I looked – that the correspondence and stuff went out looking as if it came out of a chairman’s office. And I know if I had difficult phone calls to make, or senior phone calls to make, I would wait until Barbara was in, so that she could connect me and give the impression of some sort of infrastructure behind me. The phone was pretty well how business was done, and sometimes of course there would be very domestic noises going on in the background. And so I took a tape recording, which we had a large tape recording then, tape recorder then, which I was using for dictation and other things like that. But I recorded sort of, office type noises, I recorded Barbara at her typewriter, so whenever the phone went I would put this on in the background so that I’d got this busy office buzz behind me. Now, I really sort of think how very naïve, but it wasn’t naïve, it actually got us going, because although there was a market there, although I did have skills, it wasn’t developed, and I did not have the commercial skills, but I sort of had some marketing skills. I changed my name from Stephanie to Steve, because I felt that I wasn’t really getting any responses from the letters that I was sending out to people offering services. My husband actually suggested that perhaps it was the good old-fashioned sexism, they saw a letter from Stephanie Shirley and it just went in the bin. So I started writing as Steve Shirley. And it seemed to me that I was getting some better response, well I was getting some responses and the work did start slowly to flow in as distinct from just all those private introductions.

Stephanie Shirley was recorded in 2010 by interviewer Thomas Lean. Listen to the recording in full on BL Sounds.

Richard West

Richard West, Quaternary botanist and geologist, continued his research into environmental change after his retirement by working from home. No longer able to access university equipment, and steering clear of distractions on the internet ('I gave it up as a bad job because it interrupted my train of thought'), he continued his work using ‘kitchen science’:

'…if you’re in post you’re – so much of your university time is taken up with committee work, going to meetings, teaching, trying to get money for research, but I can do all the things I need to do with the aid of a low power microscope and these measuring cylinders, sorting out sediment.' (C1379/34)

We moved into this house in 1958. And this part of the building was derelict. Erm, where I am sitting now were two loose boxes, and where you are now is the tack room and it was full of horse medicines and all that sort of thing. And a next door neighbour used to keep a pony in one of the loose boxes at that time. And – but in 1965 we decided to make it into living space. So this room came into operation in about 1967 I think and I used it for my writing and reprint collection and so on and books. There’s not much apparatus here. This microscope is the kind of cheapest version of a low power microscope you can get and I’ve only had it since I started working in Beachamwell. I’ve got several old microscopes going back to the 1930s which used to be used, but they’re all packed away. Those are in boxes in the room somewhere. This is the only one I use. I used to spend a lot of time looking at pollen grains underneath a high power binocular microscope but I haven’t done that for twenty years or so. The drawing board I got very early on in the early 1960s, ‘cause I was engaged in drawing a lot of drawing of sections at that time, and so that’s lasted me very well. I don’t think there’s anything else here, except this computer and so on on. I used to be on the internet and on email but I gave it up as a bad job because it interrupted my train of thought, so I’m not on the internet now, which annoys everybody ‘cause they have to write to me or ring me up. But at least I’m not constantly being bothered by things. I can also go across the road to the public library where I can use a computer and Google and so on as much as I want to. Apart from that, I don’t think [laughs] I don’t think there’s any apparatus here at all. It’s all books and reprints.

Richard West was recorded in 2010 by interviewer Paul Merchant. Listen to the recording in full on BL Sounds.

Sir John Charnley

Photograph of John Charnley in Farnborough wind tunnel
John Charnley in Farnborough wind tunnel, 2012. Photo credit: Matt Casswell, British Library

Sir John Charnley, aeronautical engineer, would continue working at home in the evening, after dinner, and after a full day in the office. 'If there was a problem that was bothering me, it would go home with me and I would wrestle with it.' In the clip below Charnley describes waiting until he was at home, late at night, to do his most creative thinking as a senior scientific civil servant:

John Charnley on problem solving at home (C1379/30)

I wasn’t of the mind that said that you didn’t take your work home with you, that you left it all behind in the office. If there was a problem that was bothering me, it would go home with me and I would wrestle with it. When I was in London, I’d catch a train home about half past six, I’d be home half past seven till eight, we’d have supper, which would've been beautiful, prepared, beautiful, drink. And if there was a problem going, there was something on my mind, Mary would go to bed and she’d leave me with a cup of coffee and I would work on. I can easily, and it isn’t a problem, to work in the night. I don’t like working first thing in the morning. There are those people who are that way inclined, but I’m a late night person - in my youth, I don’t know if I can do it now. But then I’d certainly work until one, two – and the fact that I’d been at meetings with, and particularly when I was in London, and meetings of all sorts, technical, financial, with the Treasury, you name it, lots – with the Services, I had the feeling I didn’t have time to think of where I was going, and I would do that at home. So as far as I was concerned, when I was in the office I was at the beck and call of other people, but when I wanted to be creative myself, in satisfying myself I was on the right path and I was going in the right direction, in whatever element of my job, that sort of thinking I did at home, late at night or early morning if you wish. So a) my job came home with me, I could stay late in the office if that made sense, but I’d certainly bring it home with me and work on it at home. And I had a very long suffering and forbearing wife. Bless her. Yep, oh yeah, sure, sure, sure, did a lot at home.

John Charnley was recorded in 2010 by interviewer Thomas Lean. Listen to the recording in full on BL Sounds.

Dame Stephanie Steve Shirley, Richard West, and Sir John Charnley all feature on the British Library website Voices of Science.

20 May 2020

Exploring the sounds and stories of Britain's shores

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Last week the British Library launched Coast, a new web space dedicated to sounds and stories from Britain's incredible coastline.

Covering everything from superstitions and working conditions to wildlife and entertainment, this collection brings together field recordings, interview excerpts and music from across the sound archive. Many of these recordings have been digitised as part of Unlocking our Sound Heritage, a UK-wide project that will preserve and provide access to thousands of rare and unique sound recordings.

Without wanting to spoil the adventure, here are a few choice recordings to whet your appetite.

In May 2012 field recordist Peter Toll made this underwater recording of a rock pool. It includes the sounds of limpets, periwinkles and anenomes and lets us listen in to an otherwise silent world.

Rock pool ambience recorded on Bantham Beach, Devon, England (BL ref 212536)

Colour photograph of a rock pool(c) Avalon/ Contributor via Getty Images

All Aboard For Margate perfectly captures the excitement and popularity of visiting the British seaside in the first years of the 20th century. This version was performed by music hall star Florrie Forde,

All Aboard For Margate sung by Florrie Forde (BL ref 1CYL0001004)

Colour photograph of holidaymakers at the seaside(c) PhotoQuest / Contributor via Getty Images

The bright sounds of the amusement arcade is often one of the first things you'll hear when approaching the seafront. For me it's like a siren and very rarely am I able to resist its enticing call.

Better luck next time (uncatalogued)

Colour photograph of the inside of a seaside amusement arcade© Prisma by Dukas / Contributor via Getty Images

Fishermen are a superstitious bunch and are always on the look out for potential harbingers of misfortune. In this interview extract from The Listening Project, Wilfred Keys asks his friend Thomas Kyle about some of these superstitions.

Fishermens superstitions (BL ref C1500/416)

Black and white photograph of fisherman in a fishing boat(c) Image: Hulton Archive / Stringer via Getty Images

Seabird colonies are a seasonal highlight of the coastal calendar. This recording was made in 1986 by Chris Watson and is dominated by the raucous calls of nesting kittiwakes. 

Seabird colony at Dunstanburgh Castle, Northumberland, England (BL ref 24697)

Guillemots at nesting colony© Education Images / Contributor via Getty Images

Sound is such an evocative medium. It has the power to transport us to a completely different time and place. And, at a time when so many of us are confined to our houses and local areas, being able to escape, even for just a few minutes, has never been more important. 

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

All Aboard For Margate: Public Domain; Sounds from a seaside amusement arcade: CC-By-NC; Fishermen’s superstitions: © BBC; Rock Pool: © Peter Toll; Seabird Colony: © Chris Watson.

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27 April 2020

Recording of the week: Women in the wine trade

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

At the start of her career Helen Thomson (b. 1933) received some sound advice from a fellow ‘woman in the wine trade’. The wine world was dominated by men, and Thomson could name only two women among her peers: Pat Green, Director and co-founder of French Wine Farmers, and Mrs Roberts, widow of a Director of Williams, Standring.

In this clip Thomson describes her lasting impression of Mrs Roberts ‘…my impression, she was nearly six feet tall, but perhaps I exaggerate…’ and the guidance she passed on. Mrs Roberts plainly instructed Thomson on the hypocrisy of men in wine. How they would come to the tasting room in suits smelling like cigarettes and dry-cleaning fluid, and then complain that a woman’s face powder and perfume were interfering with the tasting. Mrs Roberts’s solution was a compromise of sorts. She would order custom-made, fragrance free powder at Selfridges – with green undertones to counteract flushed cheeks – to wear in the tasting room. This would stop the men from complaining. She wouldn’t, however, give up her Chanel No. 5.

Wine corks
Wine corks, clubvino / CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/)

Advice for women entering the wine trade C1088/25

When I started I think there were really two other women who were around in the wine trade. Now I wouldn’t really quite have counted myself in their league, because I was the shorthand typist/secretary, but there was a woman called Pat Green who worked for a firm called French Wine Farmers. She’d been a British- a BEA air hostess and used to sometimes fly to Bordeaux and got to know people there and then helped set up French Wine Farmers in London. And there was a woman called Mrs Roberts who was the widow of a director of a distinguished old firm – old and old-fashioned – wine firm called Williams, Standring, who were in Duke Street, Grosvenor Square. She was a great example, I met her through Tommy Layton at tastings that we had at Williams, Standring. And the second or third time I met her she was, my impression, she was nearly six feet tall, but perhaps I exaggerate. She always dressed in red, she had wonderful white hair and always wore bright red lipstick, and she was quite roundish in shape. She did in fact look like a pillar box. And she took me on one side after we’d met two or three times and she said, ‘My dear, I hear that you have serious intentions of going into, of actually remaining in the wine trade’. And I said, ‘Yes, Mrs Roberts, I do hope to’. And she said, ‘Well, let me give you a few pieces of advice. Now, you know how awful the men are, they’re always complaining that when we come into a tasting room we bring in perfume and scent and face powder and that sort of thing. Completely ignoring the fact that of course they have only just stubbed out their cigarettes or knocked out their pipes only a moment earlier and indeed they’ve probably shoved their pipes into the pockets of their jackets, jackets of suits which have been ill-cleaned by the dry-cleaners, smell of dry-cleaning fluid. You can smell their boot polish, you can smell their brilliantine. And they complain about us. Still, we have to play along with it, so you’d better get perfume-free face powder. So go to Selfridges, to the Charles of the Ritz counter and ask them to make up some face powder for you, put a lot of green in it so that you don’t, when you’ve been drinking you don’t flush rather pink. If you have green in your face powder it calms it down and people don’t notice it. And make sure that they make it perfume-free, say that Mrs Roberts sent you. And then the men won’t be able to complain about you at all. Of course, I always wear Chanel No. 5, but the men know this and they aim orf.’

Helen Thomson was recorded by National Life Stories for An Oral History of the Wine Society in 2004. The interviewer was Mark Bilbe. For more information about this recording search the Sound and Moving Image Catalogue for the collection reference: C1088/25.

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