Sunday, 18 November 2012

Taking a Fresh Look at Oral History

Summit Fishcakes, Hull, 1959

Last week saw the first of three new Life-Writing workshops at Caistor's 28 Plough Hill Gallery. It's a course I enjoy putting together and teaching, especially as it encourages people to think about their own experiences. Earlier this year, those journo-types at the Hull Daily Mail asked me to write a piece about oral history, specificially why I think it's important to give prominence to those corners of our past that mainstream media and academic study tends to shy away from. In the end, it's all about telling stories.
A shortcoming of traditional history is that it tends to focus attention on the recording of momentous historical events. As a writer and researcher, this means you risk overlooking the most important aspect of history: the everyday life experiences of ordinary people, those who rarely have the opportunity for their voices to be heard.
With the new project Pattie Slappers – Stories from the golden age of Hull’s food processing industry we’ll look to use traditional historical research and bring it together with oral history – the words, memories and distinctive language of those who lived through the best times and the years of decline of an important part of local industry. We’ll look to shed light on the unique lifestyle, work and culture of generations of the city’s workers.
I’m indebted to those who come forward and freely re-visit memories and tell their stories. The interviews we’ve undertaken so far have already helped to promote a realistic appreciation of a way of life and a level of hardship it is difficult to imagine. At the same time we also hope to address some of the myths and stereotypes which have informed our understanding of this period in Hull’s history.
The main inspiration for this work, or at least that which inspires me most, is that which was pioneered by the British documentary movement of the 1930s and 40s. Particularly the way that John Grierson and the ground-breaking Post Office Film Unit brought the lives of working class people to a mass audience for the first time. Most people have seen the film Night Mail featuring Grierson's reading of the WH Auden poem written to accompany the film.
Oral history recognises that all memories are a mixture of fact and opinion. We know that memories are by their nature selective or can become hazy over time, and of course people may be influenced by stories heard or read later, perhaps remembering only the most extreme aspects or emphasising the importance of their role in a particular event. Where possible, we cross-reference and verify events – not always easy when the industry is all but gone and there’s a paucity of formal research from which to draw.
But most importantly, the interviews we undertake for the Pattie Slappers Project will provide people with the opportunity to make sense of their own experiences as individuals. In bringing them together under one cover in a book and an exhibition at the city's Streetlife Museum, we'll show how we value their contribution to the city’s social and economic history.
The Pattie Slappers project interviews are completed and we have some great material. Time now to edit the interviews for the book and exhibition in spring 2013.

Thursday, 8 November 2012


This really is too good not to share. Anyone who has a fondness for the sound of Two-Tone, of old school ska, and who has ever thought, music ain't what it used to be. This is what it used to be and more. And it's new, released earlier this summer.

The Skints are from north east London, young and clued in. They look great and they sound great. Their album Part & Parcel was released in April. It's totally on the money, without doubt the best new music I heard in 2012. Produced by Mike 'Prince Fatty' Pelanconi, a veteran of sessions with, among others Gregory Isaacs, Dub Syndicate and Graham Coxon.
See what you think.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

EVENT: Hull Noir at the History Centre

Hull's History Centre has opened its doors to Caffeine Nights authors for an afternoon in December. Saturday 1st December to be precise. I'll be lining up with Nick Quantrill and Alfie Robins, reading, showing films and pictures and giving it some yuletide crime storytelling.
With the Frank's Wild Years season approaching, here's an opportunity to take time out from shopping and spend a couple of hours experiencing what a friend recently described as 'Jackanory for grown-ups'.
It's a new initiative for the History Centre, looking to support local writing and encourage people into an amazing architectural space. And if shopping is your thing, what better than a signed copy of one of 2012's top indie titles?
For full info, contact Hull History Centre on 01482 317500.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

The Humber Beat: Fiction and Films of the Festival Season

With the publication of Frank's Wild Years in March this year, I've had a dozen or so opportunities to take the book on the road, for readings, book groups, libraries and in the last couple of months literary festivals. Usually on the fringes, but pretty much without exception a welcoming and enthusiastic audience, eager to hear new writing and interested in the how? and why? of what it takes to make half a living from writing.
Hull author, Nick Quantrill and myself have developed a series of self-contained presentations - of our own work, of short films by the brilliant Hull film maker, Dave Lee and of talks that, for example, make the links between the Dickens' social realist stories and modern crime writing. Look at the themes, the characters and the underlying story of Oliver Twist. Would it be marketed as a crime novel if it were published today?
Recently, as part of North East Lincolnshire's Filter Festival we teamed up with another Hull author, Russ Litten for an event at Cleethorpes Library. We were hoping to repeat the event at Caistor's 28 Plough Hill last Friday. It didn't come off, but for the good people of Caistor and anyone unable to get to the events, Dave Lee's films are available to view on Youtube.
The first is a short film based on the opening of Nick Quantrill's first Joe Geraghty novel, Broken Dreams. The film, made for this year's Humber Mouth festival, takes the theme of Hard Times and Great Expecations; Hull is on the cusp of change and the film superbly evokes the city and its docks, the would-be, might-be and never-could-be of life by the Humber.
The second film, The Last Job of the Night, is an extract from Russ Litten's 2011 novel Scream If You Want To Go Faster.  Set in 2007 in the aftermath of the floods that made great swathes of the city's population homeless (including Nick Quantrill), the novel creates a finely judged narrative from a tapestry of interconnected characters. It has an Altmanesque sense of the passing relationships of people sharing the same space at the same time: the last weekend of Hull Fair. The language is direct; these are people you recognise, people you know. Last Job of the Night is based on a true story - Litten's words and the reading of Jon Strickland tell it far better than I can.
Nick Quantrill's Joe Geraghty novels Broken Dreams and The Late Greats are published by Caffeine Nights, available on Amazon. Scream If You Want To Go Faster is available online and from most decent bookshops. Litten's second novel, Swear Down is published by Tindall Street early in 2013. (Judging by the extract he read in Cleethorpes, it'll be high on the post-Xmas wanted list.) Finally, Frank's Wild Years is still available from the usual places or by contacting me directly.