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A Foreign Country

Thinking of collecting railway oral histories?. . . . . . .

Regular readers of this section will know that some of my stories are based on oral history recordings of people associated with the East Midlands railways, typically in the 1950’s and 60’s. Over the months I have had some comments back asking about oral history so I thought now might be a good time to answer some questions, particularly as transcripts of other recordings are starting to appear from colleagues.

Collecting oral histories can be a complicated business with plenty of rules to follow about preserving people’s privacy, copyright – that sort of thing. At one end of the recording spectrum, interviews might be heavily scripted with pre-determined questions, and with the recording taking place in a quiet room. At the other end of the scale, recordings might take place in people’s living rooms or public spaces and take the form more like a conversation, with the interviewer ‘following the trail’ as the interviewee talks about his or her memories. This approach is my preferred choice – informal and encouraging but demanding concentration on the interviewer’s part to follow – and sometimes steer – the conversation. I can remember plenty of panicky moments, particularly with loquacious interviewees where it was hard to get a word in edgeways. Interviewees tend to lose their worry about the small electronic gadget on the coffee table with its winking red light and memories soon flood back. Fingers on the pause button are needed to allow for sometimes frequent interruptions for ‘comfort breaks’, medication taking and so on. Perhaps there are other sounds – a dog barking, a door opening. Then there is the hard of hearing (watch out for recordings ‘dropping out’ because of the interviewee’s hearing aid). I also amassed quite a collection of books and papers passed on to me ‘for safe keeping’.

Although the experiences of women travellers and employees on the railways does feature, the subject matter usually involved the very male world of engine sheds and footplate experiences. Most wives declined the invitation to sit with their husband while the recording was made. Many felt they belonged more to another age, the world of the kitchen, supplying tea and biscuits and then withdrawing. Some accepted the challenge and joined in. Mary recalled looking after Bob after his shift, with food and washing. ‘I thought ‘he’s the only one I’ve got‘ so I had better look after him,’ she said. 50 years later she is still doing so.

Some interviews were quite emotional. I paused several times when interviewees needed time to gather themselves. Most interviews were in family homes but some were in more difficult circumstances. One man asked me to arrange for Social Services to come and see him – he needed help.

Some of my correspondents asked ‘why collect oral histories?’ and I think the answer is two-fold.

First, it’s about making a contribution to ‘history’. Memory is a fickle thing and it’s hard to be sure how much of what I was told actually happened, or happened in the way the interviewee quite genuinely thought it did. It would be foolish to rely on oral history alone to recount the past but by synthesising what is recorded from several sources it’s possible to get a good sense of what it was really like to do the jobs described, live the railway life as many did. The key is in the human experience, while people are still alive to recall it. Oral history is in a hurry – to collect memories before people pass, before history moves from the experiential to the book. Sad, funny, frightening, barely believable at times, it’s the human experience that makes history come alive. It seems to me that’s a very good reason to get the recorder out and start interviewing.

The second reason is personal to many. The process of recalling memory and experiencing the nostalgia of it all is, itself, therapeutic. I noticed this many times in one to one interviews but there are many groups across the country who meet to share memories, to the great benefit of the participants. Whole networks exist. Groups use ‘object boxes’ containing objects which provoke memory – in railways, perhaps a guard’s whistle, a trainspotting book, an old ticket. There is a skill in facilitating these discussions since they can easily turn into an endless loop of the same stories. Talking about annual reunions from his depot, Chris explained that he knew where everyone would sit (‘they always do’) and what stories they would tell. Everyone laughed because everyone knew the story before it was even told (again).

Today oral histories are being collected at a furious pace. The oral histories I use are in the NRM archive along with two other large archives formed with the help of the Friends – NAROH (National Archive of Railway Oral History) covering interviews with many railway employees, and BRAC (British Railways All Change) interviews of more recent times. The archives invite us back into another time. The academic historian, the late David Lowenthal noted ‘the past is a foreign country’. Full of the detail of human experience with all its ups and downs, they are priceless records of that ‘foreign country’ which we can all experience as oral historians.


John Swanwick

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