Sound and vision blog

270 posts categorized "Oral history"

11 April 2022

Recording of the week: Parsnip wine and an electric organ

This week's selection comes from Tom Bench, Data Protection Rights Clearance Officer for Unlocking our Sound Heritage.

This recording features Don Prior, who was interviewed for Down To Earth, an oral history project about British horticulture. Like most of the interviews in this collection, the interviewer talks Don through his childhood, his working life (as a gardener for a commercial seed producer), his family life and so on, over the course of several hours.

Unlike most interviewees however, Don also seems to have spent some time alone with the tape recorder, filling an extra cassette with memories of Impington, the Cambridgeshire village where he lived and worked all his life. With no interviewer present to guide him, he ends up telling us about every single shop on Impington high street in the 1930s, the potency of homemade parsnip wine, and the planes he saw at Oakington Aerodrome, among other things. Unusual for this collection, but still firmly in the realm of oral history.

After finishing his last story however, we get something unexpected. Don announces that, as there’s a bit of tape left over, he’s going to fill it by playing us 'some of the old tunes that we used to whistle and sing when we were boys' on his electric organ.

A close up photo of the keys of a Yamaha Electone electric organ, taken at St. Anne MonasteryPhoto by Thomas van de Vosse (appeltaart) via Flickr.

He’s previously told us that he taught himself to play this organ as a way to wind down after long days in the fields, and that he liked playing for his granddaughter. And for the rest of the tape, that is what we hear: the soft, warm tone of Don’s Yamaha Electone rising out of the tape hiss like a memory.

Don Prior plays the organ [BL REF C1029/21]

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It can be a very intimate experience listening to these interviews and hearing people tell the tape about all the things that make up a life, but this unexpected appearance of music at the end of our fifth hour with Don stands out as a particularly personal glimpse into a private world.

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

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28 March 2022

Recording of the week: Virginia Woolf's voice

This week’s selection comes from Sarah O’Reilly, oral historian and interviewer for National Life Stories on the Authors’ Lives project.

Enter the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery on the upper ground floor of the British Library in London and on your left you’ll find a pair of headphones. Through it you can listen to the only extant recording of Virginia Woolf’s voice, the writer who died on this day 81 years ago.

Woolf made the recording in 1937 for The Third Programme (now Radio 3) as part of a series of talks produced for the BBC by George Barnes. The broadcast – called ‘Craftsmanship’ - went out on the evening of the 29th April at 8.40pm and lasted around 20 minutes. Sadly only eight minutes of Woolf’s talk survive, due either to a conscious decision on the part of the BBC to record only a small part of the whole, or the accidental loss of the rest of the recording.

Download Virginia Woolf transcript

Oral historians deal in the oral and the aural, and Woolf’s broadcast is fascinating on both counts. To modern-day listeners the voice is extraordinary - her accent upper-class, her tone formal. A short transcription made by American scholar Emily Kopley and published in the Times Literary Supplement as part of a longer article captures its bygone cadences perfectly: 'Wehrrds, English wehrrds, are full of echoes, memories, associations.'

Woolf’s nephew, Quentin Bell, felt the broadcast misrepresented his aunt’s voice: ‘the record is a very poor one,’ he wrote later: ‘her voice is deprived of depth and resonance; it seems altogether too fast and too flat; it is barely recognisable. Her speaking voice was in fact beautiful…and it is sad that it should not have been immortalised in a more satisfactory manner.’ If Bell is right, this may have been the result of Woolf’s discomfort with the medium of radio itself: ‘it could have been a good article,’ she later wrote about ‘Craftsmanship’, ‘[but] it’s the talk element that upsets it’. She promised herself in her diary that she would ‘refrain from the folly’ of broadcasting ever again.

Barnes had suggested the title of the talk and Woolf immediately responded by taking issue with the very idea of the writer as a craftsman. In Woolf’s view, words did not yield to the efforts of the author as easily as materials might yield to the craftsman’s tools: ‘Words,’ she said, ‘resist efforts to constrain their meaning or define them exhaustively’. They had a life and a history - ‘They have been out and about, on people’s lips, in their houses, in the streets, in the fields, for so many centuries’ and as such could not be pinned down: ‘They are the wildest, freest, most irresponsible, most unteachable of all things’. As the Radio Times’ previewer put it on the 23rd April: ‘In Virginia Woolf’s opinion, craftsmanship is a word that can be applied to the making of pots and pans, but not to words in the way in which writers use them’. What, you might wonder, would Woolf have made of the proliferation of creative writing courses from the 1970s onwards? On this the previewer was equally clear: ‘Mrs. Woolf is a believer in the importance of a large choice of words, but she deplores all attempts to teach people how to write.’

Woolf’s characterisation of words as slippery and alive is an idea that comes up often in the National Life Stories Authors' Lives collection of oral history interviews. Here Peter Porter characterises writing as a kind of ‘fighting’ with words, whilst Maureen Duffy compares it to a high-rise tight-rope walk:

Peter Porter 'writing is fighting' [BL REF C1276/09)

Download Peter Porter transcript

Maureen Duffy 'tightrope' [BL REF C1276/03]

Download Maureen Duffy transcript

The aerial tightrope-walker is a good metaphor - one wrong step and you lose your footing and fall. The craftsman becomes a circus performer, carrying out a daring and dangerous highwire act.

If, as Woolf believed, writing could not be taught, how are writers made? Writer Penelope Lively suggests an alternative route:

Penelope Lively 'writing out of reading' [BL REF C1276/07]

Download Penelope Lively transcript

For Woolf, words are wary of the glare of attention: ‘All we can say about them, as we peer at them over the edge of that deep, dark and only fitfully illuminated cavern in which they live — the mind — all we can say about them is that they seem to like people to think and to feel before they use them, but to think and to feel not about them, but about something different. They are highly sensitive, easily made self-conscious.’ So too are writers, when questioned too closely about their work, as the poet Anthony Thwaite argued when reflecting on the writing process:

Anthony Thwaite 'the arrival of a poem' [BL REF C1276/15]

Download Anthony Thwaite transcript

‘Words Fail Me’ was the title of the series in which Woolf’s broadcast was placed and the suggestion of the battle between words and their speakers is a theme which echoes throughout the Authors’ Lives recordings. Prompted to reflect on her life and her work in her Authors’ Lives recording, the novelist Hilary Mantel described the experience of being lost for words, in a manner that resonates perfectly with Woolf’s sentiments:

Hilary Mantel 'the problem with language'

Download Hilary Mantel transcript

For writers then and now, the struggle continues.

You can listen to a selection of extracts from Authors' Lives on British Library Sounds.   

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

08 March 2022

Recording of the Week: Filling in the gaps of the feminist movement in the 1980s – Southall Black Sisters

This week’s selection comes from Amal Malik, Community Research Intern for Unlocking our Sound Heritage.

Content warning: this blog contains references to domestic violence.

This Recording of the Week for International Women’s Day looks at the work of Southall Black Sisters activist and case worker Pragna Patel.

A pink, purple and orange banner featuring outlines of five women and the words 'Hate is your weapon, courage is ours - Southall Black Sisters fighting inequality and injustice since 1979'‘Let’s put race back into equality’, designed by Shakila Taranum Maan, 2008. Banner © Southall Black Sisters.

Southall Black Sisters (SBS) formed in 1979 and is a campaigning group that was established by women from African, Caribbean, South Asian and other minority backgrounds in West London. Faced with the onslaught of violence and marches by members of The National Front in Southall, the organisation formed as an anti-racist campaign group, influenced by the Black Power groups in the US and UK. As a result, they used ‘Black’ as an umbrella political term for all minorities, ‘born out of common experiences of colonialism and imperialism’.1 SBS addressed both the gap within the wider feminist movement concerning race and the neglect of gender in anti-racist movements. A Black feminist space gave women an environment to articulate their concerns with gender-based violence in the context of their racial identities. It emerged at a pivotal moment, with the important rise of feminist consciousness from 1979. Through active organisation, including conferences and the establishment of activist groups, British society was made to hear women’s demands.

Pragna Patel was interviewed by Rachel Cohen for Sisterhood and After: the Women's Liberation Oral History Project. The interview Patel gave encouraged internal discussions about the place of SBS within the wider feminist and anti-racist movements. Patel raised important questions of how the SBS dealt with the difficulties of confronting issues of domestic violence within minority communities, whilst avoiding wider racial stereotyping. Women of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic backgrounds are, statistically, disproportionately affected by domestic abuse, and Patel’s work sought to address why there was a gap in support for Black and Asian women in cases of gender-based violence.

Patel joined SBS in 1982, at a point where the group had lost steam, but also at a time when concerns of addressing domestic violence had increased due to cuts in support and welfare services.2 In an interview with Granada TV in January 1978, soon after she became Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher asserted that the population were fearful of being ‘swamped by people of a different culture’.3 Thatcher presented foreign cultures as an ‘alien’ threat to the British way of life, in rhetoric that one can argue further fuelled racial stereotyping of minority communities.4

In this clip, Patel explains how SBS emerged at a time when Black feminists were seeking to assert their identity in the activist space by discussing issues such as Black female sexuality and domestic violence. At the time, despite a growing anti-racist movement and the rise of feminist consciousness, few organisations focused on the specific challenges faced by Black and Minority Ethnic women at the intersection of those two identities.

Pragna Patel on Black feminism [BL REF C1420/18] 

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Patel discusses the first meetings of the Organisation for Women of Asian and African Descent (OWAAD) and the Brixton Black Women’s Group. Most of the literature focusing on South Asian feminist activism has looked at 'two streams of South Asian political organising in Britain'. One, class solidarities in trade union mobilisation in the face of increasing privatisation; and the other, the anti-racist mobilisation of the Asian Youth Movements (AYM). These relationships have been mainly focused on male-dominated organisations, where the cultures were 'distinctly patriarchal'.5 SBS created a safe space for women to address the issues within their community and criticised the wider state’s handling of gender-based violence. In Britain in this period ‘it was the black women that helped keep the names’ of women suffering deportation threats within the public consciousness. Patel’s interview brings in the legacy and continuing ‘living history’ of British imperialism, cemented further by hostile anti-immigration policies. SBS and OWAAD looked to battle hostile immigration policies, challenged the targeted use of the dangerous contraceptive Depo-Provera for minority communities and established trade union solidarity in a period of rising women’s employment. SBS, alongside the organisation AWAZ (‘Voice’ in Urdu), also played a major role in protesting against the virginity testing at Heathrow airport and the ‘X-raying of immigrants’.6 SBS enacted effective campaigns to challenge government policies; in 1992 they gave evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee’s inquiry into the one-year rule in immigration, showing how it could trap newly married women in violent relationships.7

Confronting the visceral effects of racist polices on Black and Asian women immigrants, these organisations implemented important grassroots campaigns to support their communities. In breaking the silence on domestic violence in Asian Communities, the public campaigns of SBS showed the faults in the systems that let vulnerable women slip through the cracks.

References

  1. https://www.ucl.ac.uk/racism-racialisation/transcript-conversation-pragna-patel
  2. https://www.ucl.ac.uk/racism-racialisation/transcript-conversation-pragna-patel 
  3. Sivanandan, A., and Jenny Bourne, ‘The Case for Self-Defence,’ Race & Class 58, no. 1 (2016): p. 65.
  4. Avtah Brah, ‘Women of South Asian origin in Britain: issues and concerns,’ South Asia Research 7, no.1 (1987), p. 45.
  5. Anitha Sundari, and Sukhwant Dhaliwal, ‘South Asian feminisms in Britain: Traversing gender, race, class and religion,’ Economic and Political Weekly 54, no. 17 (2019), p. 2-4.
  6. Ambalavaner Sivanandan, ‘From resistance to rebellion: Asian and Afro-Caribbean struggles in Britain,’ Race & Class 23, no. 2 (1981), p.147-8.
  7. https://southallblacksisters.org.uk/about/southall-black-sisters-timeline/

You can listen to more clips from Pragna Patel's interview and oral history interviews with other feminist activists in our two digital resources, Sisterhood and After and Women's Rights.

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

31 January 2022

Recording of the week: On the meditative practice of drawing

This week’s selection comes from Giulia Baldorilli, Sound and Vision Reference Specialist. 

Having been to live drawing classes myself over the last few months, I started to appreciate and master this art I have for long time forgotten (perhaps, neglected).

In this compilation of short extracts from life story oral history interviews recorded by National Life Stories for the Artists' Lives project, various artists talk about different aspects of the art of drawing, from the very idea behind the process to the materials used in the creative process, to the basic question: what is drawing?

Drawing requires a structure, it is a conversational relationship with the paper; but drawing is also energy. Similar to sculpture, it is an intellectual as well as physical process: the whole of the body is involved in the making.

Black brush strokes on a white backgroundPhoto by Sheldon Liu on Unsplash

Among the compilation, the most fascinating part for me is the third excerpt where Deanna Petherbridge talks of drawing as ‘an artistic equivalent of this absolute economy of means’. She recalls her experience of drawing lemon trees on a Greek island, and the materials she used. In her words, pen and ink, black and white were used to make ‘thin and controlled lines’; ultimately, they served the purpose of economy, the ‘imaginative use of the minimal’.

Deanna Petherbridge describes her drawing style [BL REF C466/152]

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Thus the material is an integral part of the practice, it shapes and defines what we create; the meaning of the artistic work is also hidden in the tools we use. Also to me this is true: charcoal is for bold quick statements, pencil to polish and adorn smaller details.

In my experience, drawing is an art that doesn’t require much thinking: the pencil explores the paper, almost resembling a meditative practice where the eyes get better at seeing, not simply looking. The challenge for me comes when trying to draw human presence – not drawing the person, but a human body in its pure form.

I ask myself, what is the minimum (perhaps the kind of minimum that Deanna talks about?) required to give my drawings a meaning, a poetic side, a touch of reality? Drawing could be an idea we have in mind: in the process of learning, the most difficult thing is to slow down.

Deanna Petherbridge was interviewed by Linda Sandino in 2002 for Artists’ Lives, an ongoing National Life Stories project which has been interviewing British artists since 1990. A selection of full interviews from the collection is available to listen to on British Library Sounds, and audio extracts are presented alongside contextualising essays on the Voices of art website.

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

24 January 2022

Recording of the week: The memory of liberation in Holocaust survivor testimonies

This week's selection comes from Dr Madeline White, Curator of Oral History.

In the week of Holocaust Memorial Day, our recording of the week reflects on the theme for Holocaust Memorial Day 2022: 'One Day'.

Holocaust Memorial Day is marked on the 27th January, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. The idea of liberation as ‘one day’ in a survivor’s story is a powerful one: when listening to survivors recall their wartime experiences, we often hear them discuss how they thought about ‘one day’ being liberated. Some survivors describe it as a moment they held on for, the hope of which sustained them; others describe it as a moment they felt would never come.

The testimony of Edith Birkin – given in an interview for National Life Stories in 1989 – contains a range of responses to both the idea of liberation and the liberation itself.

A painting by artist and Holocaust survivor Edith Birkin, depicting a group of prisoners at a concentration camp. A child embraces an adult through a barbed wire fence whilst another child looks on.

Edith Birkin 'The Last Goodbye', image courtesy of Denis Maryk.

Edith Birkin (née Hoffmann) was born in Prague in November 1927. She was 12 when the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia and 14 when she and her family were sent to the Łódź ghetto. She remained there until the ghetto was liquidated in 1944 and she was deported to Auschwitz. In the early part of 1945 she was sent on a death march to Flossenburg, then transported via coal truck to Bergen-Belsen, where she was liberated.

In this edited extract, Edith describes the conditions in which she waited for her liberators to arrive, what she imagined the moment would be like, and how the reality was quite different from what she had pictured.

Edith Birkin describes the liberation [BL REF C410/030]

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There are moments of joy in Edith’s recollection. She describes the moment as ‘marvellous’, remembering the first food she ate – tinned macaroni – as ‘heaven’, and explaining how she shares that same food with her family every year to personally commemorate the moment. Yet what she and her fellow inmates had imagined would be a euphoric moment filled with dancing, singing and kissing was dampened by their severe ill health. The inmates were too weak to celebrate. The food the liberators brought them saved some and killed others. They were free but not safe.

Decades after the event, we often assume that liberation was ultimately a joyous event for survivors. The war was over, they were alive, they were no longer incarcerated and were able to return home. The word ‘liberation’ itself elicits ideas of liberty and salvation, which is consistent with the popular notion of liberation marking the break between incarceration and independence, between suffering and relief, between certain death and the opportunity to live. Edith’s testimony complicates this narrative, showing us that the moment of liberation was emotionally complex and that it did not necessarily mark the end of suffering.

In this edited extract she describes returning to Prague after the war, just 17 years old at the time.

Edith Birkin describes her return to Prague [BL REF C410/030] 

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The most striking part of Edith’s description of this time in her life is her declaration that this, for her, was ‘the worst time of the war’. Contrary to what one might expect – contrary even to her initial response to being liberated – the reality of liberation was often far from ‘marvellous’. Edith recalls the loneliness of being the sole survivor of her family; the discovery that friends and neighbours who had promised to protect property had in fact stolen it for themselves; and the helplessness of not knowing where to turn. Perhaps her most crushing realisation was that the hope that had sustained her in the concentration camps – that she would find surviving family members and be reunited with her friends one day – was gone. For survivors, the dawning realisation that life would truly never be the same again was a trauma all of its own.

Oral history provides a unique opportunity for us to understand and engage with the ways in which people remember the past. Liberation was one day in Edith Birkin’s life, but its significance shifted as her situation changed, taking on a whole range of meanings as her story develops: it is simultaneously a dream, a joy, a disappointment, a moment of justice and the precursor to the darkest period of her life. As this example shows, it is through survivor testimony that we can gain a fuller appreciation of the nuances of historical events that can often seem unambiguous.

We should note, however, that exploring the past through testimony – particularly remembering genocide through testimony – can only tell us part of the story. In reflecting on liberation and in listening to survivors describe their memories of liberation, we must remember that for millions of people that one day never came.

On this Holocaust Memorial Day, we remember all those who never saw liberation, as well as those who did.

A banner graphic for Holocaust Memorial Day, featuring a candle alight against a black background, the Holocaust Memorial Dya logo, the words 'We're marking Holocaust Memorial Day' and the hashtag #HolocaustMemorialDay / 27 January

Edith Birkin was interviewed in 1989 by Katherine Thompson for The Living Memory of the Jewish Community. Her full interview is available to listen to online on British Library Sounds.

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

20 January 2022

Rosemary Goad

At National Life Stories we are sorry to hear of the death of Rosemary Goad, a former director of Faber & Faber, who was recorded by Sue Bradley in 2002 for the National Life Stories project Book Trade Lives. Book Trade Lives collected oral histories to capture the experiences of people who worked in publishing and bookselling in Britain from the 1920s onwards. Here, Sue remembers Rosemary and the agreement that allows us to hear her voice today.

Portrait photo of Rosemary Goad in an officeRosemary in her former office at 24 Russell Square, 2015. Photo © Robert Brown.

‘Their interview is closed for how many years?’ People could be incredulous that National Life Stories gave interviewees the option to embargo their recordings. ‘For the rest of their life? But it’s a public collection. Shouldn’t the records be open to everyone?’ In fact, when I started work in 1998 as the interviewer for Book Trade Lives, it felt like an act of faith to archive any oral histories at all. ‘Who will be listening anyway?’ was the question I heard from interviewees. ‘It’s like stocking a library with books,’ I’d say, repeating the answer I’d recently been given, ‘but now we’re collecting oral histories. And you can’t always tell in advance who readers or listeners will be.’

Rosemary had helped me prepare for my Book Trade Lives job interview, although she barely knew me at the time. She supplied pages from The Bookseller with family trees of publishing mergers and shared just enough low-down on one of the interview panel to make me feel that if I wasn’t an insider myself, at least there was someone kind enough to give me clues. When I was offered the job, I rang to thank her in Dorset, interrupting what sounded like an animated conversation. ‘I must go,’ I heard her say to whoever was there. ‘A friend’s on the phone with some rather good news.’ That was followed by a series of equally generous, and hugely enjoyable, social occasions. But it would be nearly four years before we sat down together in her London flat to begin her Book Trade Lives recording.

Remembering her maternal grandmother (Edith Milburn) [Tape 1 ide 1]

Remembering her maternal grandmother (Edith Milburn) [Tape 1 Side 1]

Rosemary Goad joined Fabers as a secretary in 1953, initially sharing a room with Valerie Fletcher, soon to become Valerie Eliot. ‘As I saw it,’ Rosemary said, ‘the firm was ruled by men but the women had quite an interesting time.’ She began to do publicity work – ‘the way I perceived my way out of being a secretary’ – while working as assistant to the editor Charles Monteith, and eventually acquired authors of her own, many of whom became life-long friends. Along with Joan Smith and Rachel Ingalls, they included PD James, whose books she continued to edit after retiring. Not that she claimed any credit. ‘You’re really more the continuity girl on crime editing, I think’.

Fabers in the early-mid 1950s ‘The women had quite an interesting time’. [Tape 5 Side 1]

Fabers in the early-mid 1950s ‘The women had quite an interesting time’. [Tape 5 Side 1]

Rosemary was made a director in 1970, the first woman employee appointed to the board. When she had arrived, secretaries in publishing were expected to have private means – ‘You could not have lived on the salary’ – and she later introduced schemes to improve terms and conditions for staff. ‘Once we had a union, [salaries] became much fairer.’ By the time she retired in 1988, the firm had been invigorated by a new regime, headed by Matthew Evans and Robert McCrum, to which Rosemary brought her warmth and discernment. In his own Book Trade Lives recording, the publisher Andrew Franklin, who worked at Fabers in the early 1980s, remembers Rosemary’s ‘extraordinary grace’ and her distinguished taste as an editor. Defender of the slush pile to the end – ‘I know there’s a lot of rubbish, but I always thought it was good, particularly for young editors, to look at what was coming in’ – she retained her trademark decency in an increasingly competitive publishing world. But Rosemary was not naive. In a poem written for her leaving party, her friend Seamus Heaney identifies her ‘unfooled smile’.

After those four years of waiting – she had seemed reticent about it and, rightly or wrongly, I didn’t want to push – Rosemary agreed to the interview on condition that it would be closed to public access for her lifetime. We started in July 2002 and finished the following March. The recording runs to around seventeen hours. A summary will soon be available, so I won’t pre-empt it here except to say that the interview – which takes the form pioneered by National Life Stories – follows Rosemary’s own life, from childhood and education to work before and after Faber, and that her recall of others goes beyond the well-known figures. Typically, her recording offers some discreet but revealing – and often very funny – glimpses of publishing life at the time, but the central and most vital presence is Rosemary herself.

On being recorded [Tape 20 Side 2]

On being recorded [Tape 20 Side 2] Transcript

Now, twenty years later, that recording can be shared. Which is, in the end, the point of the closure option. Without it, Rosemary may never have agreed and we wouldn’t be able to hear her voice at all. The same applies to many other National Life Story interviewees, a significant number of women among them. There is no need to spell out today what a loss their absence would be. Those anticipated listeners quickly arrived, and their numbers continue to grow exponentially.

‘I’ve always thought it was important to enjoy work, but I never thought one was making a great mark or footprint of any kind,’ said Rosemary. What could be a better basis for an oral history interview? I don’t suppose she would mind people cherry-picking memories about Faber celebrities – on the contrary – but those who take time to listen to the rest won’t be disappointed. Rosemary led a remarkable life of her own and she looks back on it here with insight and relish.

Rosemary Goad, 4 November 1928 – 11 September 2021.

Rosemary Goad's interview can be found by searching C872/78 in the Sound and Moving Image Catalogue. For more information about Book Trade Lives see the collection guide Oral histories of writing and publishing. Book Trade Lives was recently digitised by Unlocking Our Sound Heritage.

Sue Bradley edited 'The British Book Trade: An Oral History', British Library, 2008 and 2010. These days she listens out for animals in oral histories. Sue is a member of the Newcastle University Oral History Unit and Collective and a Research Associate on FIELD (Farm-level Interdisciplinary Approaches to Endemic Livestock Disease) in Newcastle University’s Centre for Rural Economy. Her article, ‘Hobday’s hands: recollections of touch in veterinary practice’, appeared in Oral History vol 49, no 1, 2021.

17 January 2022

Recording of the week: Norman Ackroyd on Henry Moore

This week’s selection comes from Karen Atkinson, Assistant Librarian at the Henry Moore Institute.

The Henry Moore Institute in Leeds has collaborated with National Life Stories on its Artists’ Lives project since the inception of the project in 1990. Past and present colleagues have interviewed artists, whilst visitors can listen to a small selection of extracts on the NLS sound point in our welcome area. Selected full interviews are available in our Sculpture Research Library.

Part of my role at the Henry Moore Institute is to curate the sound point. This allows me to delve into Artists’ Lives to listen to artists talking about subjects relating to the exhibition, research and library programmes at the Institute. I find these personal accounts provide wonderful insights into topics ranging from their art school experience, views on past exhibitions, to their artistic thought processes.

Currently on display at the Institute is a small exhibition of Henry Moore sculptures, drawings and collages which focus on Moore’s use of natural forms. Whilst thinking about the exhibition I discovered Norman Ackroyd’s interview with Cathy Courtney where the artist shares an encounter he had with Henry Moore’s ‘Reclining Figure: Festival’ outside Temple Newsam House in the 1950s.

Norman Ackroyd on drawing a Henry Moore sculpture [BL REF C466/293]

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The announcement of the sculpture coming to Leeds had drawn negative comments from readers in the local press but the young Ackroyd decided to see the work for himself, taking drawing paper to sketch the work in situ. Ackroyd gained a greater understanding of the sculpture, relating the natural forms Moore was using to similar shapes he saw in bones when boiling meat. Some smaller reclining figures can be seen in the current exhibition at the Institute.

Three Henry Moore sculptures on display in cabinets in an exhibition roomImage courtesy of the Henry Moore Foundation. Photo by John McKenzie.

Henry Moore explained the importance of these natural forms in his work and how he gained inspiration from collecting objects such as stones, bones and shells, which he then drew, modelled or photographed.

For me, everything in the world of form is understood through our own bodies. From our mother’s breast, from our bones, from bumping into things, we learn what is rough and what is smooth. To observe, to understand, to experience the vast variety of space, shape and form in the world, twenty lifetimes would not be enough.

Henry Moore, 1978

Norman Ackroyd was interviewed by Cathy Courtney for the National Life Stories project Artists’ Lives, 2009-2011. British Library Sound & Moving Image reference C466/293.  

This extract is currently playing on the National Life Stories sound point at the Henry Moore Institute. The exhibition Henry Moore: Configuration runs until 23 January 2022.   

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

12 January 2022

Voices of British theatre design: Explore the world of theatre behind the scenes

Listen to theatre practitioners speak about their lives and work, their favourite productions, professional networks and the design process from scale model to stage set.

Voices of British theatre design is a new British Library website featuring over 50 audio clips from National Life Stories recordings. Interviewees include set and costume designers, scenic artists, directors and actors. The audio clips are presented within a series of 12 articles written by theatre practitioners. In every article, authors and interviewees draw on their technical knowledge and creative practices to reveal what happens behind the scenes, while weaving in personal reflections on the profession itself.

The website is divided into five themes: costume design, the design process, directors and designers, scale models, and set design. There are vivid descriptions of stage scenery, techniques for model making, the use of 3D design technology, and how to manage what the audience sees (and doesn’t see) from their seat. Contributors to the website also address wider questions on roles and relationships in theatre, and how to get started. What is theatre design education like? How reliable is the job market, and how has this changed over the years? What is it like to interpret a script, collaborate with directors, and engage with actors during costume fittings?

To celebrate the launch we’ve picked three clips highlighting different design elements that are explored on the website: model making, stage scenery, and costume design. Interestingly, in each case the interviewee mentions how their work impacted others involved in the production process. Scroll down to hear extracts from life story recordings with Lis Evans, Jocelyn Herbert, and Billy Meall.

Lis Evans talks about making, painting, and clothing miniature figures for her models

Assorted figures in a box, used for theatre design models
Assorted figures. Courtesy Lis Evans. Image not licensed for reuse.

Lis Evans (born 1965) is Head of Design at the New Vic Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent. In this clip she describes how she creates model figures from scratch using a variety of materials. The use of figures is an essential element of both her design process and how she presents the design to others.

This audio clip features in Peter Farley’s article, Communicating design: Creating a world.

Lis Evans on making figures for models (C1173/15)

Download Lis Evans transcript

The New Vic Theatre is ‘a theatre in the round’, where the stage is completely surrounded by the audience. Evans became Head of Design in 1991 and has designed over 120 productions during her time in this role.

Lis Evans was recorded by National Life Stories for An Oral History of British Theatre Design in sessions between 2006–2007. The interviewer was Elizabeth Wright. A written summary of the full interview can be word searched on the Sound and Moving Image Catalogue. Listen to the full interview on BL Sounds.

Jocelyn Herbert shares a surprising fact about Bertolt Brecht’s play Baal

Painted drawing by Jocelyn Herbert for Baal, showing an interior scene
Set drawing by Jocelyn Herbert for Baal by Bertolt Brecht (world premiere, Phoenix Theatre, 1963). Drawing © Estate of Jocelyn Herbert, from the Jocelyn Herbert Archive, housed in the National Theatre Archive. Image not licensed for reuse.

In this clip from her 1992 recording with Cathy Courtney, theatre designer Jocelyn Herbert (1917–2003) sets the scene for the world premiere of Bertolt Brecht’s play Baal. Brecht (1898–1956) was a German playwright and poet. He established the Berliner Ensemble theatre company with actor and director Helene Weigel, his wife, in 1949 in East Berlin.

This audio clip features in Roma Patel’s article, Stage design: 2D to 3D.

Jocelyn Herbert on projections for Baal (C465/13)

Download Jocelyn Herbert transcript

The play, Baal, was not performed until after Brecht’s death, and the first performance was not even produced by the Berliner Ensemble. It was in fact first staged at the Phoenix Theatre in London, in 1963. Jocelyn Herbert designed the play, and it was directed by Bill Gaskill (William Gaskill, 1930–2016) with actor Peter O’Toole in the title role.

Herbert talks about her preparatory drawings and models – Brecht’s script ‘lit up your imagination’ – and the technical process of designing projections for the stage using 1960s technology. She mentions working with Richard Pilbrow, who was the lighting designer for Baal, and his team to produce and install the projections. Herbert’s drawings for Baal can be seen in her archive at the National Theatre Archive.

Between 1985 and 1993 Jocelyn Herbert was interviewed by Cathy Courtney. The recordings are archived at the British Library and can be accessed on BL Sounds. Written summaries of the recordings can be word searched on the Sound and Moving Image Catalogue.

Billy Meall’s costume design for Shakespeare’s Richard III

Paul Jesson as Richard III, wearing a costume made by Billy Meall
Paul Jesson playing Richard III, wearing a costume made by Billy Meall. The costume featured a pebble in the boot to create a limp, and a glove with sewed up fingers. Projections in the background. Everyman Theatre. Photographer unknown. Courtesy Billy Meall. Image not licensed for reuse.

Theatre designer Billy Meall (born 1947) describes the terrifying costume he created for Shakespeare’s Richard III. The costume featured a shrunken hand, armour with a spiked hump, and a painful boot that caused the actor Paul Jesson to drag his leg around the stage. Paul Jesson (born 1946) is an Associate Artist of the Royal Shakespeare Company.

This audio clip features in the article On actors and costume design, by actor Eric Potts.

Billy-meall-designing-the-costume-for-richard-iii

Download Billy Meall transcript

In another clip, Meall talks about learning the craft from a costume supervisor called Cathy Alger, who he worked with at the Liverpool Playhouse at the start of his career. He was resident designer at the Liverpool Playhouse until 1998, after which the management of the Playhouse was merged with the Everyman Theatre.

Billy Meall was recorded by National Life Stories for An Oral History of British Theatre Design in 2006. The interviewer was Elizabeth Wright. A written summary of the full interview can be word searched on the Sound and Moving Image Catalogue. Listen to the full interview on BL Sounds.

Voices of British theatre design was produced by Cathy Courtney, Camille Johnston, Mary Stewart, and Elizabeth Wright. We would like to thank article authors, interviewees, and image donors, who are fully credited on the 'About the project' page. National Life Stories is very grateful to The Linbury Trust for making this website possible.

Blog by Camille Johnston, Voices of British theatre design Web Co-ordinator & Oral History Assistant Archivist, National Life Stories at the British Library.

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