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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.


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