Skip to main content

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.


Popular posts from this blog


I was lucky enough to join the exodus north to the glorious city of Stirling last weekend for the Bloody Scotland crime writing festival for the panel, The Legacy of Brit Noir. Joining novelists Cathi Unsworth and Harry Brett and ably directed and moderated by crime writer, Douglas Skelton, the conversation was free-flowing and the audience ready to engage with the discussion at Q&A time. All in all a fantastic weekend with some interesting and thought provoking debate, great scenery, a healthy dose of end of the pier entertainment, and a few beers with old and new friends.
For the most part, the Brit Noir panel covered ground we knew well: in brief, an attempt to define noir in the US and European tradition, how the genre in Britain emerges from an influx of European artists, writers and film makers in the 1930s and 40s and, similarly, blacklisted writers and film makers forced to leave the US in the 1950s. The noir sensibility, particularly of the film-makers, permeates Britis…
Life writing, memoir, autobiography. However you describe it, sometimes you just want to tell your story. Or to know how to make the most of the life story of someone you know. Writing nonfiction, particularly when you're so close to the subject, can be a daunting task. The idea behind these workshops, delivered in partnership with the Lil Drama Company at PAD Studios, is to demystify the writing process, to give participants the techniques and tools to enable them to approach their writing with confidence. In many ways, traditional history tends to focus on the momentous; but now, arguably more than ever, everyday life experiences of people are the places we go to hear the truth. I'd hope that over the three weeks of workshops participants can work towards finding their voice, bringing together memory and history to make sense of their own experiences, framing them on the page in a way that communicates and gives us all a greater understanding. For more info on this, Dave Wind…

Paris in the Dark - Robert Olen Butler

Paris 1915, the United States’ entry to the First World War is eighteen months away. President Woodrow Wilson is committed to keeping America out of the war. Christopher Marlowe ‘Kit’ Cobb, American correspondent for the Chicago Post-Express and undercover agent for the US government, is resident in the city, ostensibly to tell the story of the volunteer American ambulance drivers helping the war effort, their nightly convoys ferrying French wounded to the city’s hospitals. With war raging, the city’s morale on the verge of collapse and French authorities desperate to maintain control, Cobb the spy is assigned to investigate a wave of bombings of civilian targets. In the wake of one blast, he returns to pay his Café bill. His waiter catches the prevailing mood: ‘“The Barbarians,” he said. Meaning the Germans. “They are among us.”’ Suspicion falls on infiltrators among the refugees streaming into Paris from Alsace, northern France and Belgium. Cobb picks up the bombers' trail, nav…