THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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228 posts categorized "Oral history"

20 November 2020

Nazis on trial: Nuremberg 75 years ago

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Seventy-five years ago today, on 20 November 1945, the first of the Nuremberg trials began in the German city that had been the setting for the huge Nazi rallies addressed by Adolf Hitler in the 1930s. The military tribunals, presided over by judges from Britain, the US, France and the Soviet Union, aimed to prosecute prominent members of the political, military, judicial, and economic leadership of Nazi Germany who had carried out the Holocaust and other war crimes during the Second World War.

Amongst the twenty-four defendants were Hermann Goering, Hitler’s chosen successor, Rudolf Hess, Joachim von Ribbentrop and Albert Speer. Twelve were eventually sentenced to death, seven received prison sentences, three were acquitted, and in two cases there was no decision.

Hartley Shawcross (1902-2003) was the lead British prosecutor at Nuremberg and was interviewed by Kathy Burk for National Life Stories in 1991. His opening speech in July 1946 lasted two days and in this clip he particularly remembers Hermann Goering, and offers some tips on the art of effective courtroom cross-examination.

Hartley Shawcross describes Hermann Goering (C465/05) 

Download Transcript – Hartley Shawcross describes Hermann Goering

Goering was found guilty but committed suicide the night before his scheduled execution, begging the question whether he had escaped justice.

Image of Nuremberg Trials defendants in the dock 1945Nuremberg defendants in the dock on 22 November 1945. Centre row, left to right: Hermann Goering, Joachim von Ribbentrop, Wilhelm Keitel, and Alfred Rosenberg. Back row, left to right: Karl Doenitz, Erich Raeder, Baldur von Schirach, Fritz Sauckel, and Alfred Jodl. Image courtesy of the Harvard Law School Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. United States Army Signal Corps photographer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Nuremberg trials were a milestone in international criminal law, whereby individuals and organisations were held accountable for terrible crimes against humanity. They paved the way to the establishment of a permanent international court, which has dealt with later instances of genocide and war crimes.

Shawcross was later Attorney General in the 1945 Attlee's Labour government and successfully prosecuted British fascist and Nazi propagandist William Joyce ('Lord Haw-Haw'), the last person to be hanged for treason in the UK.

Hartley Shawcross's oral history recording was digitised from cassette as part of the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project.

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

08 November 2020

An interview with Major James Howe

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

In 1996, Les Back (Professor of Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London), interviewed Major James Howe, MBE (1917- 2005), a musician and bandleader who led a dance band in a German POW (prisoner of war) camp during the Second World War.

Major Howe with his band in Berlin  1943

Above: Major Howe (centre, kneeling) with his band in Berlin, 1943. Used with permission from Alan Howe (photographer unknown).

The audio recording of this interview is  now part of the British Library collection, Oral history of Jazz in Britain. It has recently been cleared for online release as part of the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project.

The interview brings to life a fascinating tale of creativity and survival against the odds. This blog post features selected excerpts.

James Howe in London  November 1943

Above: James Howe in London, November 1943. Used with permission from Alan Howe (photographer unknown).

James Howe was born in County Durham, UK on November 11, 1917 - exactly one year before Armistice Day. The son of a brass band conductor and miner, Howe grew up in a musical family. He and his brothers played in his father’s band, and his mother taught him the piano at the age of nine.

He left school at fifteen to become band boy in the Royal Scots Regiment. He was among the first UK soldiers to be sent abroad in 1939 when the Second World War broke out, and he served as a stretcher bearer in Belgium and then France. His duties were cut short in Le Paradis, Northern France when his regiment came under fire from German soldiers in May 1940. He was lucky to escape alive – many soldiers were killed or wounded here during the Battle of Le Paradis and the subsequent massacre.

Howe and his fellow captives were marched through France, Belgium and Holland to reach a prison camp in Lamsdorf (then in Germany but now in Poland), which is now known as Łambinowice. In the following excerpt from the interview he describes this harrowing journey.

James Howe describes his journey to Lamsdorf

Download A transcript of excerpt one

Camp life in Lamsdorf was initially very difficult for Howe and his fellow POWs. In the interview he talks about sleeping on straw, problems with lice and an insubstantial diet (a bowl of soup and five black potatoes per day). Salvation eventually came when the Red Cross started sending parcels to the camp. First food, and then materials for recreation, including books, sports equipment, and, miraculously, instruments. In this next interview excerpt Howe describes what a difference these deliveries made to camp life.

James Howe describes Red Cross deliveries to the camp

Download A transcript of excerpt two

Thanks to the arrival of instruments, and records to transcribe music from, Howe ended up conducting his very own dance band in the camp. This, and the evolution of camp entertainment, was a testament to the ingenuity of all concerned. In the camp were individuals with backgrounds in stage work, carpentry and music. They built their own camp theatre, created a ticketing system and had concert parties. Prisoners danced foxtrots and waltzes with one another, and found solace in music that reminded them of home.

In the next excerpt from the interview, Howe provides some insights into the mechanics of the camp entertainment system.

James Howe describes camp entertainment

Download A transcript of excerpt three

He also describes some touching moments of shared interests with the German guards at the camp, including one who invited him to his hut to listen to records. Another guard heard Howe playing the accordion, so brought his own violin so that the two could play together in his hut. According to Howe, the guard said:
'If Churchill and Hitler could see you and I now, there wouldn’t be any wars'.

Unusually, Howe’s POW band were even escorted to Berlin, Germany to play for fellow POWs at another camp, and in 1943, Howe, as a stretcher bearer and early arrival at the camp, was fortunate enough to be included in a repatriation agreement, which took him home to the UK via Sweden, with other similarly fortunate POWs. News of the POW band had travelled, and well-known UK band leader Billy Cotton helped to get them featured on BBC Radio.

In his interview, Howe remembers frantically telegraphing all his POW bandmates to reunite them in London for the performance. In 1944 he was sent back to France with his regiment, before finishing the war in Hamburg, Germany in 1945.

After returning home, Howe studied at the Royal Military School of Music in Twickenham, UK, and was appointed Bandmaster of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders in 1949. His military band career took him all over the world, and as a band leader (later Director of Music of the Scots Guards) he travelled as far afield as the US, New Zealand, Australia and Hong Kong.

After his military career, Howe conducted the BBC Concert Orchestra, featuring on radio programmes such as Friday Night Is Music Night and Melodies For You.

Colour photo of James Howe

Above: James Howe, pictured towards the end of his life. Used with permission from Alan Howe.

Howe retired to Eastbourne, UK and channelled his musical talents into organ and conducting duties, as well as starting the massed band concerts at Croydon, UK in 1974, and organising POW reunion concerts. He continued to be actively involved with music until very late in his life (in the interview he demonstrates his skills on the cornet) and a plaque dedicated to his memory is installed at Eastbourne bandstand. After Howe passed away in 2005, his ashes were buried in the cemetery in Le Paradis, in accordance with his wishes.

19 October 2020

Recording of the week: Electricity in the kitchen

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This week's selection comes from Harriet Roden, Digital Learning Content Developer for Unlocking our Sound Heritage.

Almost every time someone enters a new room in the UK, there’ll be a flick of a switch. To turn on a light, a plug or household appliance. From cups of tea to loads of washing, many of us rely on electricity to make our home lives comfortable.

However, the immediate nature of electricity was not always the norm in our homes. Until the mid-20th century, many homes – especially in rural areas – remained ‘off the grid’. Coal was the main source of fuel, with the coals needing to be lit in stove before any food could be cooked or water heated.

From the late 1940s a programme of rural electrification took place. This was a result of a series of acts that bought together, or nationalised the electrical supply industry in Britain.

Alan Plumpton, a commercial engineer, was employed in the 1950s to advocate for people to use electricity in their homes. In this clip he relays how he would often attend community groups in the evening to give lectures on what electricity meant, and how much it would cost homeowners.

C1495/10 Alan Plumpton on installing electricity

Download Transcript – Alan Plumpton on installing electricity in Britain's homes

This activity was often geared towards a certain audience: women. More specifically, housewives. A huge amount of work was taken to persuade them that electricity was the future. Plumpton continues to say that after he spoke about the practicalities of electricity, ‘housecraft advisors’ would then demonstrate how to bake cakes using electrical ovens, or use washing-machines.

The Electrical Association for Women (EAW) was established in 1924 who, over the following 60 years, promoted the benefits of electricity in the home. As well as publishing educational material on using certain appliances including cookers and washing machines, the EAW established a school to run courses on electrical housecraft.

 

Image of a diploma from the Electrical Association for Women
‘How it works’ leaflet for an electric cooker, and a diploma in Electrical Housecraft. © Institution of Engineering and Technology Archives

Yet this expanse of activity promoting the benefits of electricity in the home sometimes does not outweigh its cost. Fuel prices, household incomes and energy efficiency are all factors that cause households to not afford enough energy to power their homes; and according to the most recent government survey in 2017, there are 2.53 million fuel-poor households in England.

To discover more about how our homes have changed over the past 100 years, draw back the curtains and go to If Homes Had Ears.

UOSH_Footer_2019_Magenta (004)

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

13 October 2020

Making of: The Unearthed Odyssey

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Written by AWATE, Artist-in-Residence for Unlocking Our Sound Heritage. 

In 2019-20, I was the Artist-in-Residence at the British Library Sound Archive for Unlocking Our Sound Heritage. I was tasked with creatively using the sounds (up to 7 million!) in order to showcase the recordings in the collections. I decided to focus on the topic of migration and over the course of several months, created a conceptual Afrofuturist album spanning three centuries called The Unearthed Odyssey.

Watch the full performance of The Unearthed Odyssey here

It’s the story of children on a spaceship being taught the history of Earth. Needing to find another planet, they have been sent out into the unknown for safety like so many people in the story of humanity. It takes place on the one day a year they are awoken for an audio lesson in human migration. The teacher takes the form of an artificial intelligence interface which uses hip-hop production techniques to explain migration using samples from the British Library sound archive.

I used recordings from the World and Traditional Music, Pop Music, Drama and Literature, Oral History, and Wildlife and Environmental departments. The scale and depth of the sound archive made me want to use parts from it all, rather than focusing on one collection, period or location. With more time, I would have used even more!

The narrative structure is laid out with the first song as an introduction. From there, there are three movements or acts. Act I: Original Home. Act II: The Journey. Act III: New Home. Within these acts, the musical style would change significantly, with the first compositions consisting entirely or mostly of layers utilising samples from one recording. As the piece progresses, more additional production and virtual instruments are introduced for a fuller and more modern sound.

Much of this is a step-by-step guide to how the piece was created. Many of the thought processes I had when producing this piece haven’t been included. I am probably still processing them now. For greater detail into the themes and ideas I worked with and was attempting to communicate, please watch the Q&A with Kieran Yates from the premiere.

AWATE 1Above: A screenshot of a Logic Pro X arrangement and sample editor windows showing parts of composition and waveform of sampled recording.

Part I: Listening

After researching the collections I wanted to use and downloading 66 recordings from the sound libraries and servers, the most important task at hand was listening to all of these potential samples! I had run through them all quickly in order to determine whether the audio quality was usable and how interesting they sounded but now had to go through them all - some being 20 seconds and others more than 3 hours.

For every audio file, there was a story and I used the British Library itself as well as online searches for greater context on the subjects in the recordings, the time, geography, politics and the archivists themselves. This was to have an understanding of what I was listening to. To centre my listening and to inform the direction of the new work that I would be turning these recordings into.

With that said, the most important part of the criteria in shortlisting and using these sounds in the first place was how dope they sounded. How cool or interesting they were. Whether they could be manipulated into another sound to evoke emotion with the use of effects. My purpose as the Artist-in-Residence was to entice people into the archive. Stories and context are important but first and foremost, I wanted to make amazing music.

AWATE 2Above: A screenshot of a list of the downloaded recordings labelled by catalogue number.

Part II: Chopping Samples and Beatmaking

The next step after deciding which sounds I would definitely be using would be the part I have always relished - chopping samples and placing them/triggering them. For the uninitiated, this is the audio equivalent of a collage - going through a magazine with a pair of scissors, cutting out bits you find interesting or that would work well together aesthetically or thematically and finding ways they can interact with each other on the page before sticking them down. Making art out of art. Using found material to express how you are feeling. The tools of necessity after public funding for arts has been cut and you cannot afford to play or learn an instrument.

For Unearthed, I used two broad techniques for this. One of them involved using the slice tool in my DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) of choice, Logic Pro X, to cut the pieces of the recording I wanted to use and place them on the linear editing window to create loops or patterns based on the BPM (Beats Per Minute) that I had set the project to. This is a fairly straightforward way of placing samples and works well for using slightly longer chops or when you don’t want to go through the next process which is…

Using a sampler. On Logic, my favourite stock sampler is the ESX24. I would chop the parts of the recording I wanted to use, then drag the files into the editor window on the ESX, create a new group, drag them into there and in the groups tab, set the polyphony to one. This meant that the samples could now be triggered using my ‘qwerty’ keyboard or music keyboard via MIDI or drawn on the MIDI file. Setting the polyphony to one meant that each chop would interrupt the other so that no two could be played at the same time. Poly = many. Phono = sound. For this technique, I used my keyboard to create interesting new patterns using the chops and recorded them.

AWATE 3Above: A screenshot of the programme ESX24 and its editor window with imported samples. It features the list of samples and an image of piano keys. Doing this allows the samples to be triggered like keys on a piano.

With my samples placed on the arrangement window, I then build the rest of the tracks using drums, bass, piano, synth and experimental sounds. The extremely talented Gabrial Ryder came in to lend his talents on the keyboard and piano to add additional production on many of the tracks. Many of his parts were integral to the intro and second half of the piece. I used various plugins to create effects and unique sounds such as EQ, reverb, delay, chorus, flanger, bitcrusher, distortion, step editor and compressors. All of the instruments and plugins were stock Logic sounds that I manipulated into one of a kind textures.

Part III: Oral History

Having created eight distinct instrumental songs, the next step was to listen to the various recordings I had collected from the Oral History and Drama and Literature collections. I searched for stories from immigrants and children of immigrants to the UK and elsewhere. Specifically, I wanted anecdotes of people in their countries of origin before migrating, descriptions of the journeys they undertook as well as what it was like for them adapting or growing up in a new place and how they were treated or made to feel.

Listening to these stories was quite emotionally taxing. Some included people describing surviving severe abuse or fleeing the Holocaust and horrific wars, others describing feeling completely alienated in their new countries and some included all of these things. This listening process took longer than I had anticipated, simply because I needed to take the time to properly recover from hearing people talk about such things, even when they had an indefatigable spirit or sense of humour about it. Much of the subject matter, I could relate to or had a connection to through members of my family.

In Logic, I listened and extracted excerpts as loops to my hard drive as separate files labelled by keywords based on who was interviewed and what was mentioned. From there, I could attach colour labels to each recording based on whether I would use it or not. Within the Logic sessions for the beats, I placed the oral history samples and fine-tuned them using EQ, reverb and other tools as well as turning the beat down during some of the stories and cutting the beat out at certain points. I was effectively using the stories as the lyrics on the instrumentals.

AWATE 4Above: A screenshot of bounced audio samples from oral history interviews featuring the interviewee, keywords and colour label.

Part IV: Arrangement

At this point, I had eight songs done with the sample based instrumentals and interwoven spoken parts from the archive and it sounded great! I arranged the tracks based on their subject matter to fit the narrative of the first section after the intro being about the original home, second section being about the journey and third section about the new home. They were also arranged according to the richness and complexity of the music, especially in terms of additional sounds and virtual instruments in Logic. For the most part, after the introduction song, the first section features production taken solely from the archive with the piece progressing into more and more additional instrumentation, while keeping the sound archive samples as the main ingredient.

From here I had to construct the wider narrative with the spaceship premise that had been decided on but did not yet feature. For the voices of the children on the spaceship, I spoke to a group of children from immigrant families in south London a few weeks after taking them on a day trip to the British Library with some wonderful staff. I had a stereo dictaphone which I walked around with while asking them questions after setting the scene for them. Having training in Philosophy for Children with the Society for the Advancement of Philosophical Enquiry and Reflection in Education (SAPERE), I allowed them to interrogate their own thoughts and search for connections in what we were speaking about, listening to their own experiences.

In Logic, I chopped this conversation into the parts I wanted to use and arranged them in a window with the 8 finished tracks. Like the oral history samples, I applied processing tools to these samples to make them clearer and added a gated reverb to my voice. For me, the idea of the children today putting themselves into the shoes of futuristic travellers and having a conversation with the oral history parts was important as it reflected the same relationships the instruments and music samples were having.

The final addition were sound effects from the archive which I used to accentuate certain songs and transitions. These included wildlife recordings of birds and lions, the launching of a ship into the harbour, a boat in the ocean and real sounds of tanks and bombs from World War II. I feel these grounded the piece, bringing it back to Earth due to the inclusion of natural sounds that would stand out in such a futuristic narrative.

AWATE 5Above: A screenshot of the final arrangement window featuring the 8 tracks, voice over, children audio and sound effects.

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

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06 October 2020

What if your home had ears?

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We have all spent much more time at home since coronavirus abruptly changed our daily lives this spring. Perhaps, like me, you’ve paid more attention to the sounds within your house - the whistle of the kettle, the clack of the keyboard, the grumble of bored children, the chirp of birds outside. I’ve also been contemplating how we occupy our domestic space: who cooks and washes up, where do children play, which creatures live in and near our home and how has this changed within our own lifetimes? For the new British Library web resource, If Homes Had Ears we have delved into the vast treasures of the Library’s Sound Archive to explore the sonic landscape of the home. Key to this resource are the voices and memories of people speaking about home life over the last 140 years. We invite you to open your ears, draw back the curtains, and listen, discuss and reflect upon what makes a home.

If Homes Had Ears is grouped into five areas found in most homes: the bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, living room and the garden. There are three discursive and thought-provoking articles for each space, and the web resource features over 70 fascinating audio clips to intrigue the listener. We hope the sound clips we will be a springboard for reflection and discussion and will provoke the listener to think of their own experiences.

Homepage for If Homes Had Ears showing articles list
Homepage for If Homes Had Ears showing articles list

No web resource on the home can ever cover all types of experience, but we have worked hard to try and ensure a variety of voices and sounds from different UK regions and nations, and stories from people who have migrated to the UK. We have included examples of different social-economic situations, ethnic backgrounds, cultures, genders and time periods. The oldest recording is a 1911 edition of the popular song ‘When Father Papered the Parlour’, but we also explore the memories of a Welsh seamstress recalling her childhood in the 1880s. The most recent material was recorded in spring 2020 on memories of gardening.

I love this clip of Marjorie Atkinson describing the scullery in her family’s home in the North East of England in the 1920s:

Marjorie Atkinson describes the scullery

Download Transcript – Marjorie Atkinson on the scullery in her childhood home

What would children today make of the scullery in Marjorie’s home? In contrast, what might be the reaction of listeners from older generations to sisters Yasmin and Lana speaking in 2015 about sharing a bedroom?

Yasmin and Lana on sharing a bedroom

Download Transcript – Yasmin and Lana Coe describe sharing a bedroom

In this extract Immunologist Dr Donald Palmer recalls the front room of his family’s home in London, a space of great importance to his parents who had migrated from Jamaica in the 1960s:

Donald Palmer describes the front room

Download Transcript – Donald Palmer describes the front room

For each room we have created a short montage of audio clips, brilliantly animated by students from the London College of Communication, who have responded to these audio soundscapes creatively and with sensitivity. Here is Jachym’s animation of the sounds of the kitchen:

Download Transcript – The Kitchen

There is plenty of family friendly material (my children have been singing ‘Beans, beans good for the heart’ for weeks!), but we have not shied away from difficult topics too – as the home is not always a place of happy memories. In this extract Tricia Thorpe describes an incident when she was resident in a psychiatric unit as a teenager in the 1980s:

Tricia Thorpe describes an incident in the psychiatric unit

Download Transcript – Tricia Thorpe's experience of living in High Royds Psychiatric Hospital

There are also clips discussing menstruation, abortion, aging, family structures in the LGTBQ communities and funeral rites. Where we feature this more challenging content, this is flagged in both the introduction to the clips and the audio item descriptions, so that listeners (and their teachers or caregivers) can decide whether listening is appropriate.

This resource has been over two years in the making and is part of the 5 year Unlocking Our Sound Heritage Project funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. It has been a true collaboration led by Mary Stewart (Oral History), Holly Gilbert (Digital and Multimedia Collections), Harriet Roden and Charmaine Wong (both from the Learning Team) with invaluable input from Megan Steinberg (former Learning Assistant), Chandan Mahal (Learning Projects Manager) and latterly Yrja Thorsdottir (Learning Team). Enormous thanks to colleagues from all across the Sound Archive for content suggestions and the support of the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage Intellectual Property Team, Web and Learning Teams. The greatest thanks, as always, must go to the speakers, sound recordists, performers and musicians – as without them there would no sounds in our archive to unlock.

Blogpost by Mary Stewart, Curator of Oral History.

22 September 2020

Nuclear history: Triangulating sources and government secrecy.

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Joshua McMullan examines the ongoing security review of the ES and AB series at the National Archives in the context of oral history interviews recorded for 'An Oral History of the Electricity Supply Industry'.  

Photograph of Peter Vey at the Chernobyl nuclear power station complex in 1988Peter Vey at the Chernobyl nuclear power station complex in 1988, as part of an international delegation led by Lord Marshall. Courtesy of Peter Vey

On the 13th July 2018, senior civil servants from the Ministry of Defence requested that files pertaining to the UK nuclear programme, located within the ES and AB series at the National Archives, be ‘temporarily withdrawn’ from public viewing. The MOD stated this was necessary in order to conduct a security review of said files and, while reviews of this nature are common, the scale is not. As someone researching the UK’s civil nuclear programme’s public relations strategy, the review put a significant hurdle in the way of my work. However, by listening to oral history interviews held at the British Library and conducted with people who worked for the nuclear industry I have been able to continue my research. I have also been able to connect these interviews to other archival sources, including files at the National Archives I was able to access before they were closed off for review. From this work I suggest the government will find it difficult to make secret aspects of nuclear history that were, and are, public. 

In particular the interviews with former managing director of the Central Electricity Generating Board, Sir John Baker, and former head of public relations at the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority and then CEGB, Peter Vey, have added a lot to my research and my understanding of how the industry worked, both from an organisational and technical point of view. This includes John Baker’s remarks on storing nuclear waste; including the industry’s policy on storing low level nuclear waste, as well as discussions over where future waste disposal sites might be located. In Peter Vey’s interview we learn of how he arranged lunches between Chairman of the UKAEA Sir John Hill and journalists, as well as how the UKAEA believed the BBC held a bias against them. Due to his past work for the UKAEA, Vey’s insights show us what kind of information might be held within the AB files. 

John Baker on storing nuclear waste (C1495/14/07)

Download John Baker on storing nuclear waste transcript

Peter Vey on the BBC (C1495/51/07)

Download Peter Vey on the BBC transcript

We can further summarise this is the kind of information held in the AB files by looking at other archival records held at the National Archives, including PREM 19/3656 that details the UK response to the Chernobyl disaster. This file includes comments from former Deputy Chairman of the UKAEA, and at the time Chairman of the CEGB, Lord Walter Marshall, who wrote to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher advising her what to say and, crucially, what not to say regarding the design of UK nuclear plants. Lord Marshall’s advice was intended to avoid potentially awkward comparisons between the UK’s nuclear programme and that of the Soviet Union. We can also look at reviewed AB files such as AB 38/2164, which details the UKAEA’s public relations response to Chernobyl. In this file we can see the institutional mindset of the UKAEA, which had created a video claiming that an accident like Chernobyl, ‘could not happen here in the UK.’ Internal memos state that the video was not for the general public as it was ‘too technical’, and that an alternative video produced by the CEGB was more appropriate. Vey’s interview brings these documents together when he speaks of how the organisations that made up the industry collaborated to mitigate public concern over the dangers of nuclear power. We learn of how members of the industry viewed the public as well as which technical aspects of UK reactors they believed the public might be concerned with if the information became common knowledge. All of this is information I expected to find in the AB files.

Peter Vey on UK response to Chernobyl (C1495/51/11)

Download Peter Vey on UK response to Chernobyl transcript

By triangulating a variety of sources, including the oral histories held the British Library I have been able to continue with my research despite the ongoing security review of the AB files. However, the availability of so many other sources of evidence does raise an important conundrum for researchers and the government. Even with the MODs decision to retract what was once public information it will prove very difficult to remake the information into a secret when there are thousands of other sources available. Academics such as myself have been able to read and listen to a multitude of different people who know a multitude of different things and to distil it into our work. I am not the first to research the UK nuclear industry, and there are other researchers who are faced with this same hurdle. However, the real challenge is not for us who must navigate around this hurdle, but for the government. If they do decide to re-make swathes of information secret, they will face an impossible challenge of tracking down every source of recorded information in an attempt to close them off. This would include oral history interviews such as those with Sir John Baker and Peter Vey.

Joshua McMullan is an AHRC CDP PhD candidate at the University of Leicester and the National Archives looking at civil nuclear public relations in the 1970s and 1980s

Sir John Baker and Peter Vey were interviewed for the National Life Stories project 'An Oral History of the Electricity Supply Industry'. Their interviews can be listened to at BL Sounds. For more information on the UK response to the Chernobyl disaster see the blog 'Chernobyl: Perspectives from the British Nuclear Industry

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).

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